Jessabelle is a bit of an odd experience, blending a fangless voodoo fantasy with some seriously unnerving scares about inner-demons going bump in the night. While such an imbalance might not sound completely unheard of, the seamless way Reno 911! prankster Robert Ben Garant scripts this Southern spooker manages to polish rougher edges with invasive psychological horror that’s surprisingly nightmare-worthy. Even with director Kevin Greutert’s horror experience coming from the overly-gory Saw franchise – specifically the final two splatterfests – Jessabelle remains solely story-driven thanks to atmospheric haunted house tropes, not distracting, stomach-churning gore. Isn’t it nice when horror movies respect their audience and take time to craft white-knuckle scares worthy of a few less hours of sleep, instead of Ouija-like backhanded scare tactics?
Sarah Snook stars as the titular Jessabelle, a daughter returning to her sleepy Louisiana home while recuperating from a tragic car accident. Her father (David Andrews), now a callous drunk, lives alone after the passing of his wife, but Jessabelle has nowhere else to go after being restricted to a wheelchair. Left by herself for countless hours during the day, Jessabelle eventually discovers a box of old video tapes her mother recorded that depict ritualistic card readings being performed. Her father discovers the tapes and takes them away from his daughter in a burst of anger, removing the only connection Jessabelle had to her mother. But as more and more tapes start to appear, the house reveals a dark past that threatens to drive Jessabelle completely insane – or worse.
Jessabelle is a country-fried haunter with all the usual redneck fixings, from a secluded house to zero technological appreciation, but such a glance back in time only adds to the fear of Greutert’s vision. There’s no need to cut away cell service or rocket through cliches, because you’ve got a main character who can’t walk, an upstairs house phone, and absolutely no neighborly saviors. Snook’s performance is fueled by a foreboding isolation, making it incredibly easy to convey heart-stopping terror as she’s tormented by a malevolent spirit. Garant’s script cheekily asserts claustrophobic fear into a wide-open, gutted abode, letting Greutert’s shadowplay become menacingly dangerous with zero chance of escaping.
Relative newcommer Sarah Snook is asked to shoulder the burden of Jessabelle, as she’s called upon to play a sleuthy horror character who’s just as intrigued as she is petrified. Connected by the voodoo readings her mother performs on camera, an emotional weight sits heavily upon Jessabelle’s reluctant soul. Believing there’s a deeper meaning to her ghostly stalker, Jessabelle struggles with Hellish visions that recall certain moments of Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, and Snook does a fantastic job conveying her character’s desperation. She’s a strong lead who understands the utter helplessness of being constricted to a wheelchair, much like Fiona Dourif in Curse Of Chucky, but Snook refuses to watch Jessabelle become an unfortunate victim because of her situation. Snook finds strength and independence in Jessabelle, striking a balance between charming Southern belle and admirable horror survivor girl.
Jessabelle doesn’t always deliver hair-raising horror though, as some opportunities fall through the cracks. When diving into murky, vile horror, Garant’s screenplay is captured with a feverish vigor that enjoys spooking the hell out of audiences, but while Snook and company swim about in search of voodoo clues, we’re left begging for more scares. Genuine chills are felt whenever Jessabelle puts herself to sleep, watching undead hands reach through a thin curtain barrier, but establishing shots of kooky locals and bone-filled coffins can’t muster the same gripping presence. While the story finds intrigue through the medium of video cassettes, as Jessabelle’s mother unravels a cajun-spiced mystery via television appearances, Greutert ignores some facts and loses some ground during a climactic final showdown. It’s better if you don’t ask questions about Jessabelle’s isolated nature or how the split between nightmares and reality are carried out – ignorance can be bliss, you know.
Jessabelle ends up being an engaging paranormal thriller with a few spells of petrifying horror, which results in a better watch than some of the malarkey pegged as mainstream genre hits these days. It’s a shame Blumhouse is going the VOD dump/Limited Release route with Greutert’s latest film, because there’s an ample amount of intrigue and a unique charm present in both Snook’s performance and Garant’s screenplay. Mark Webber also deserves way more credit than he’s getting of late, as he’s got the chops to be a Hollywood mainstay instead of an independent player. This flick may not be the prized pig that’ll be remembered for decades, but there’s plenty of horrifying fun to be had with voodoo curses and nightly terrors if you’re into slow-burning haunted house rides that are enhanced by a chilling sense of claustrophobia.
Jessabelle delivers a handful of genuinely unsettling scares, which is more than a lot of horror films are bothering with these days.