Jessabelle starts off in similar fashion to another new horror movie, The Babadook: with a car crash that spins the life of the heroine in a completely different and tragic direction. But whereas The Babadook turned the aftermath of its accident into a frightening and moving meditation on grief and parenthood, Jessabelle dumps its star (Sarah Snook) into a derivative and soulless product that is pretty much what passes for major studio horror fare these days.
That’s not to say that Jessabelle isn’t without some merit. It does feature a couple of goosebump inducing moments, while Snook and Mark Webber – playing an old flame with whom she reconnects after her accident – give decent and empathetic performances. They’re just in service of a movie that is otherwise draped in the trappings of a dozen other horror films that came before this one, directed in unremarkable fashion by Kevin Gruetert, who was helming Saw sequels long after that franchise lost whatever flair it had.
Snook plays Jessie, who is left temporarily wheelchair-bound by the same crash that takes the life of her boyfriend and unborn baby. With no one else to care for her, she heads to the bayou-perched, gloomy Louisiana home of her long-estranged father Leon (David Andrews), who is not all that happy to see her, especially when she digs out a stash of VHS tapes left behind by her long-deceased mother Kate (Joelle Carter) that were meant as messages from the past for Jessie (perhaps the tapes are a nod to the usual found footage fare served up by Blumhouse Productions, which is behind this film).
The problem with those messages, however, is that they’re not exactly bringing glad tidings for Jessie; Kate does increasingly ominous Tarot readings for her daughter on the recordings but ends up getting spooked and flustered every time and turning off the tape. The initial idea of mother and daughter communicating by an archaic technology is at first kind of poignant, but after a while you just wish Kate would leave the camera running and finish the damn reading. Meanwhile, Leon’s plan to do away with the tapes entirely goes disastrously wrong, leaving Jessie alone with what appears to be a malevolent female spirit who wants her dead.
It’s at her dad’s funeral that Jessie is reunited with Preston (Webber), the beau she left behind who is still in love with her despite being married himself. There are a few moments between them that hint at real emotion, and Preston is refreshingly supportive even after Jessie explains that she thinks she is being haunted. But the implied tension between Jessie, Preston and Preston’s barely glimpsed wife is given only a passing glance. The second half of Jessabelle gets lost in a tangle of conventional movie scares and contrived plot developments, including a twist that somehow turns what at first seems to be a Southern Gothic into a voodoo thriller.
The problem is that the latter plot developments really seem to come out of nowhere, giving the movie the feel of something that was patched together from rewrites and reshoots while checking off a list of horror movie tropes that should be included just as insurance. Despite Snook and Webber’s work, some compelling imagery and a generally rich production design, Jessabelle never rises above its workmanlike, assembly line approach. The script by Robert Ben Garant never coheres either, culminating in an ending that is perhaps supposed to be haunting but ends up as almost perfunctory.
In the end, Jessabelle feels and plays more like a direct-to-video castoff than a film aimed for theatrical viewing, even now in an era when launching on VOD at the same time as opening on multiplex screens is not automatically a disreputable thing to do. Snook and Webber are good actors and will move on; if you’re thinking of watching this, you should too – and maybe track down The Babadook instead.
Jessabelle opens Friday (November 7) in theaters and on VOD.