Hello, everyone! October is around the corner, which means it’s time for the start of spooky season. To be fair when you watch as many horror movies as I do, every season is spooky season, but I have to give the month itself its due. A few days ago I watched Jessabelle, a southern horror starring Sarah Snook, a.k.a the best part of Succession. While the movie itself is uneven, Snook’s performance, and some of the early scares, were enough to make me look twice at the dark room at the end of my hallway. It’s definitely a good enough pre-game for the Halloween binge to come.
Quick synopsis: After a car accident leaves Jessabelle with severe injuries, she moves back home to Louisiana to live with her estranged father. Almost immediately, Jessabelle is haunted by visions and a ghostly presence. Is it her mother, dead for two decades, come to visit? Or is it something much worse? When Jessabelle stumbles upon a trove of her mother’s hidden VCR tapes warning her of her impending death, she’s presented with a new mystery to uncover, and must try to solve it before these ghostly visions turn deadly.
My take: The movie starts off with a bang and doesn’t slow down from there. The first frame lingers on the reflection of an old-fashioned TV, foreshadowing the horror to come from such an innocuous looking medium, and only a few minutes later, the viewer is jolted by the violence of a sudden car crash. Such violence is typical of many a horror movie’s first few scenes, but the lack of exposition makes the shock even more palpable, if a little cheap feeling.
Once in Louisiana, the viewer can almost feel the humidity of the Bayou, and the gothic horror of the film takes root. The film’s atmosphere is its greatest strength. The lush cinematography of the sunlit swamp, combined with eerie shots of the family’s dark bungalow, amps up the frightening aspect of Jessabelle’s isolation. Wheelchair bound, and with only her erratic father for support, Jessabelle’s precarious situation provides the perfect opportunity to create a true fright fest.
In some ways, the film delivers. The central scares lie in a unique conceit: VCR tapes that appear to predict the future. At first, Jessabelle only wants to watch the tapes to connect with her dead mother. But after the first cheery tape full of marital bliss and pregnancy joys, the tapes take a dark turn. Now her mother is using tarot cards to predict her unborn baby’s future, and that future holds death. It takes skill to draw scares from a tarot card reading and a staticky VCR tape, but director Kevin Greutert does this ably, relying on Snook’s terrified reactions, and the gloom of an empty house, to support him.
The scares that follow err on the side of cliche, but are just as effective. A wheelchair is used to chilling effect, and a mirror becomes a canvas for spectral apparitions. As the scares intensify, so does the violence. It’s nice to watch a horror movie where the stakes rise in proportion to the scares, instead of amping up to 100 all at once.
While most horror movies have little to no characterization, Jessabelle surprises with its thin, but well-drawn relationship arcs. Jessabelle’s relationship with her father is complex and suspenseful, and her subtle romance with her old flame Preston gives the audience something more to root for than just the hope that the main character won’t die.
Where the movie starts to unravel, however, is in the final act. After almost 90 minutes of suspense and build-up, the plot reveals itself all at once with an enormous info-dump and a too-hasty conclusion. The reveal of the mystery is satisfying, but the film isn’t sophisticated enough to shoulder the heavy weight of such an emotionally fraught ending. We’re left with entirely new perspectives on the events of the film, the main characters, and their relationships, but no time to reflect on any of it. The movie starts with a bang, and ends with one too, but it would have been better served by leaving some time for the viewer to absorb the complexities that the filmmakers so gleefully toss their way.
Final consensus: Jessabelle starts out strong with a vibrant atmosphere and chilling scares, as well as a compelling relationship between the principal characters. An overly complicated final act, however, dampens the mood, and leaves the ending feel rushed. It’s a fine movie to kick off the Halloween season, but definitely not worthy of being the main event.