A chance encounter with the vampiric Master leads to browbeaten minister’s wife Anne discovering a new sense of power and an appetite to live bigger and bolder than before.
“Are blonde ladies normally considered vampires?” asked my 9 year old, eyeing Barbara Crampton and then me after wandering in while I watched Jakob’s Wife.
After shooing him out, I continued viewing it as it should be watched, through a menopausal fug.
Since I hit the upper end of my 40s it’s not often movies seem to be speaking directly to me. So while the very funny, very bloody and very touching Jakob’s Wife will strike a chord with anyone trapped and stifled, groping blindly for their identity, I’m claiming it — and trust me, you don’t want to piss me off.
Anne Fedder (Crampton, fabulous) has been married to Jakob (Larry Fessenden) for 30 years, sitting in the church pew while he intones to his flock about what to do with wives. She’s frumpy and grumpy, lying in bed at night furiously listening to his snoring. In their world women are subtly and not so subtly blamed, and the strange disappearance of Amelia (Nyisha Bell), a young member of the congregation, lays bare for Anne how they are seen by Jakob and his brother Bob (Mark Kelly).
Then she gets back in touch with old flame Tom Low (Robert Rusler), who has been brought in to do up an old mill at the edge of the town. They visit it together, reminding each other of their past escapades there, though it turns out the building now also houses more than just mice and memories.
As midlife crises go, turning into a vampire certainly beats my own “build a movie website, have some Botox” version. And to Anne, when the Master who is trying to turn her seductively explains her new opportunities, it sounds not like manipulation but a beautiful truth.
The Master reminded me of a vamped-up, undead mixture of Gok Wan and Trinny & Susannah, which explains why Anne’s new wardrobe is to (un)die for. Vampirism brings with it a love for bright colours and striking shapes, and necessitates sunglasses indoors (that’s a thought — has anyone checked on Anna Wintour?)
Stalking the supermarket in a white boxy suit trimmed with black, shades on, she’s like me in Waitrose (Anne, not the Vogue editor-in-chief), only I don’t stick my finger in the steaks to check the blood quality. Her first post-bite date night with Jakob shocks him when she appears in a red dress, red lipstick and iron-straight blonde hair. My favourite was a vibrant orange patchwork dress she wears to the dentist, which perfectly tones with the orange goggles she’s given to wear for her treatment.
The early special effects aren’t great, and after so many cheap vampire parodies it’s hard not to laugh when a grown man is attacked by small rats. Luckily they improve (the teeth alone are terrifying), and this, combined with the revealed roundedness of Jakob and Anne’s relationship, and the tonal change when Jakob finally realises what’s been going on with his wife, ramps things up several gears. The fluids – blood and other indeterminate liquids — also reach Titanic-like levels of gushiness.
Jakob’s response to his vampire wife is hilarious because he believes entirely in what is happening to her, and plans how he might be able to end it. But it’s also realistic — why wouldn’t he believe? As an evangelical churchman he puts his faith in a literal battle on Earth for our souls, so banging a stake through a reanimating neighbour’s heart is simply all in a day’s work. At least now he’s a proper soldier for the Lord.
It’s an undeniable shock for him though, finding his wife is hovering between alive and undead. “Given the circumstances I think I’m being quite reasonable”, he tells her and however much I rooted for Anne as she demanded to be heard, it was hard not to agree.
They make a good team though, after decades where he squashed down the real Anne, and despite her initial loneliness and his misogyny this is a story about two people working out how love can last a lifetime and beyond.
While the seesaw of agency in their marriage has to be recalibrated, what he loses in control he gains from the inherent sexiness of equality. Still, old habits die hard: “So you’re blaming me for being bitten by a vampire!” she yells at one point.
Naturally, because this is vampires, there is plenty of sex (“I am going to tongue-fuck a hole in your neck until I puke blood!” says one vampire, enticingly). Anne herself has never felt more alive and wants no limits put on her own behaviour. It’s a chance to be sexy on her terms, when older women are usually recast as figures of fun or prowling cougars when they are upfront about their emotional and physical desires.
The genderless Master (Bonnie Aarons) is both captivating and repellant. It’s a fluid, intriguingly ambiguous world that is extraordinarily tempting to Anne after so long as simply “Jakob’s wife”. Anne, though, doesn’t want to be in anybody’s power; the Master too may have met their match.
Crampton and Fessenden make a terrific pairing, their ingrained chemistry driving this exploration of the enduring ties of a long marriage. Like many older couples they finally realise so much is at stake even when it seemed so little was left of their original selves. Jakob’s journey is as believable as Anne’s. As he sees her change, his sermons become less those of a confident man preaching to his flock and more of someone shocked by his own new insecurities. But he’s also finally got a proper job to do and some souls to save, especially his hot wife’s, and his mojo roars back with a vengeance.
Bear with me here, but there are similarities with delightfully daft comedy Barb And Star Go To Vista Del Mar, which also unapologetically centres older women who finally decide to please only themselves.
Admittedly Barb and Star did it all without a glow-up. But while Anne Fedder changes her style, she doesn’t turn back into a 20 year old. Crampton is drop-dead gorgeous and always charismatic, but her Anne is also demanding acknowledgment of both the battle wounds and latent power of middle age. In a close-up scene in the car between Anne and Mark before they go into the mill their faces display their histories.
These are older people who want, and deserve, a bit more sizzle in their lives, albeit probably not the kind that occurs when a vampire opens the curtains in the morning.
RLJE Films and Shudder release the horror film JAKOB’S WIFE in the US in cinemas, on demand and on digital on 16 April 2021.
Watch the trailer now: