Director: Kevin Greutert
Writer: Robert Ben Garant
Producer: Jason Blum, Paul Young, Peter Principato
Stars: Sarah Snook, Mark Webber, David Andrews, Joelle Carter, Ana de la Reguera, Larisa Oleynik, Chris Ellis, Fran Bennett, Amber Stevens
Forced to return to her childhood home following a devastating accident, a young woman unravels a mystery that has haunted her family since birth.
After losing her unborn baby, her boyfriend, and her ability to walk, Jessie’s post-accident road to recovery takes another dark turn when she is forced to return to her childhood home for recuperation. Jessie’s estranged father unseals the bedroom belonging to the mother she never knew, and Jessie begins unraveling a family mystery haunting her mind as well as the house.
Jessie spies a box of videocassettes with her name on the lid tucked away under the bed. Terminally ill at the time of her pregnancy, Jessie’s mother Kate recorded the tapes for an adult daughter she would never be able to meet. Separated by a screen and 26 years, Kate speaks to Jessie almost as if they are of the same time and in the same room. Jessie could not be happier at the unexpected pleasure of seeing her mother for the very first time. That joy turns to horror when mom uses their unlikely bonding time for a tarot card reading.
Jessie already has a recurring nightmare of a burned man and a woman intent on killing her. Days are spent dodging ghostly visions of a woman stalking the shadows. Then there is the matter of ritual fires burning in the trees across the Louisiana lake outside. Now her deceased mother is predicting through the television that a vengeful presence wants Jessie out of the house, and it may be because she is already supposed to be dead.
As I type this review, “Jessabelle” currently scrapes the bottom of Metacritic with an aggregate score of 36 while tumbling lower still on Rotten Tomatoes with a lowly 24% fresh rating. Since dissenters are fond of saying the same to me when an opinion disagrees, I’m here to contend that critics panning this film are dead wrong in their reasoning. “Jessabelle” is a terrific terror tale and an intriguingly satisfying thriller.
One prominent publication asserts that the film is “rote.” That might be true of the scares, which are predominantly of the cheap jump variety, but no adjective could be further from fact in describing the story. Anyone leveling accusations of predictability or laying claim to having everything figured out before all is revealed is flat out full of it.
While “Jessabelle” plays fair with its clues, its multilayered plot mix of voodoo hoodoo, paranormal activity, and traditional gothic house haunting makes for a spiraling mystery where playing super sleuth is not its own reward. A hefty amount of content must be swallowed whole, but this isn’t the type of twisting, twisted tale challenging viewers to break the finish line tape before Jessie does. “Jessabelle” is genuinely about its journey, not a waiting game for a payoff.
Which is for the best since admittedly, the actual “this is how it all adds up” reveal shaves its edge of satisfaction by partaking in some Scooby-Doo silliness. Partly because multiple threads require convergence, but mostly because it isn’t sure if everyone at home followed along, “Jessabelle” bumbles its climax a bit with a blabbermouthed recap from the protagonist that would befit Fred reminding Shaggy and the gang about everything they encountered thus far.
“Jessabelle” relies heavily on fairly routine jolts and tropes like sudden mirror reflections, dream sequences, and any variety of things that bellow, “boo!” Yet each moment retains its effectiveness in spite of familiarity because they are punctuations to perfectly pitched atmosphere. “Jessabelle” makes the most of its bayou backwoods and cobwebbed plantation locations with creative camera, sound, and production design crafted for superlative creepiness.
Sarah Snook’s unique presence resembles few other actresses. Her combination of tomboy toughness and accessible allure creates a character of engaging depth with little to do by way of dialogue, but so much to say in every other manner. Look for a similarly impressive performance from Snook in the equally brainteasing sci-fi thriller “Predestination” co-starring Ethan Hawke (review here).
After the disappointing VOD dump of “Mockingbird” (review here), “Jessabelle” restores confidence that even when releasing without theatrical fanfare, Blumhouse Productions remembers how to capitalize on its reliable recipe for packaging classic horror concepts in a sleek coat of cinematic appeal with sharply hooking entertainment value. Undemanding at only 83 minutes, “Jessabelle” is a good old-fashioned alone-in-the-dark ghost story highlighted by talented performers, rich cinematography, and a screenplay built on clever surprises and tautly delivered chills.
Review Score: 85