Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Movie Review: Jessabelle (2014)



Since I’m at that stage where I am sick of just waiting for Sarah Snook to prove herself to me once again, I figure I might as well start digging into her backlogs to see if there’s anything worth salvaging. This is seriously something that I hope works out and I find some other hidden gem because, after the phenomenal performance she gave in Predestination, I refuse to believe that she is just a flash in the pan. As such, we’re delving into the horror annals this time around, and hopefully that’s in terms of the genre and not the overall product. This is Jessabelle.


The plot: After suffering a serious car crash that costs her the lives of her husband and her unborn child, Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) returns to her parent’s house with her estranged father (David Andrews). While there, she discovers videotapes left to her by her dead mother (Joelle Carter) which inform her that she may not be alone in that house with her father, and that it doesn’t want her in the house.

I wanted to see Snook prove her worth on screen once again, and it seems that someone has smiled on us because she doesn’t waste her time here in the main role. Her circumstances are a tad clichéd as a character, but she gives some serious pathos to her attempts to rediscover her family and childhood. This especially rings true in the first few scenes where she watches videotapes that Kate left for her; you can feel the flooding of emotions she’s going through upon finally communicating with the mother that she never knew. Carter likewise does a good job as Kate, bringing this very compassionate but also mildly unsettling presence to the production. Mark Webber as the love interest(?) Preston makes for a nice mediator for what Jessabelle is going through, not to mention working some good nostalgic conversations with her that give this film some much-needed warmth. Andrews as the stereotypical Southern father pretty much ticks all the boxes the audience would draw up in their head at the mere sight of that character description. Can’t really fault him for fulfilling the cardboard parameters he was given. By contrast, Chris Ellis as the Sheriff makes for a decent change from the usual behaviour of policemen in stories like this, showing legitimate concern and not bringing unnecessary conflict into the mix with his inclusion.

The film starts on a moment of tonal whiplash that I would normally lambast because I’m a bit of a stickler for consistency in that regard. That is, unless the film legitimately warrants such a shift, which is very rarely the case. This is one such occasion, as the sudden impact of the events that befall Jessabelle create an appropriate foundation for her attempts to piece her life back together in the wake of it. Seeing her spool through the VHS tapes her mother left her, fighting with her father and basically reconnecting with her roots is all very enthralling, especially with how well Snook plays the role. What helps further when it comes to conveying her isolation and need for answers is how the film pays lip service to the more realistic side of things. You know, like the possibility that her accident left her a bit cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. Or is that Coco Pops, given how she is Australian? Regardless, the way the film plays with that possibility works in keeping the audience guessing; after all, when someone loses that much (in a moment that may or may not be directly involved with the main plot) in such a way, trauma can do horrifying things to people. Of course, this then leads into a typical pothole whenever a horror film tries to play things straight: It makes the inevitable supernatural turn feel less effective than the red herring reality. Not that I’m putting blame for this on those opening scenes; more that the follow-up doesn’t match up to it. Like, not even a little bit.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of Reno 911!, chances are you’re at least somewhat familiar with the work of Robert Ben Garant, best known for playing the relentlessly redneck Deputy Junior on that show. Well, outside of his TV work, the man also has a surprising number of credits as both writer and director. The problem is that most of those prior works were either angled towards family-friendly or the kind of gleeful insanity that Reno 911! populates: Herbie: Fully Loaded, the Night At The Museum trilogy, Balls Of Fury. This is why I make it a point of trying to get a general overview for the work of a cinematic creator: Often, you’ll run into one or two entries in their filmography that stick out like a sore thumb. That said, I can kind of understand how this fits in with Garant’s other work, as this film is especially Southern at its core. The main conflict ends up bringing in a lot of Louisiana Voodoo into the mix, something reflected in composer Anton Sanko’s legitimately fantastic score with his use of tribal chants and extremely eerie percussive work. Unfortunately, this thematic inclusion ends up doing the film a major disservice, and it is here where the tonal issues start to get to me.

Director Kevin Greutert is best known for his work as an editor, particularly on the Saw movies, and credit where it’s due in that he actually pulls through with this one. Sure, his only other works in the director’s chair were the last two installments of the Saw series, which were pretty good and pretty indefensible respectively, but the man definitely has a flair for being able to build reasonable tension. The film as a whole carries a lot of the sickly green tinge of his earlier work, and considering the somewhat medical nature of Jessabelle’s confinement, it actually ends up making sense. However, while the film gets in some good surface chills at points, mainly down to how the jump scares are handled (thankfully, not so dependent on the soundtrack this time around), this honestly doesn’t work overall as a horror film. Hell, when the film is at its best, it’s just Jessabelle dealing with rediscovering her mother and father after all this time; weirdly enough, the people lost in the opening scene I don’t think ever get mentioned after a while into the film. This isn’t helped by the third act, where the Haitian influences become full-blown and it all leads to an ending that does little more than strain the audience’s patience. Without getting into spoiler territory, I’ll admit that it is set up fairly well, but it just ends up falling short of what the film could have been about and what indeed the film kept presenting itself as being about. It doesn’t help that it ends up completely stabbing one of the focal characters in the back in terms of importance, making a large amount of their earlier scenes kind of pointless in retrospect.

All in all, what could have been a solid bit of supernatural family drama winds up being drowned by a load of genre clichés and just plain ill-conceived writing. The acting overall holds up, with Sarah Snook giving a performance I so desperately hoped she was capable of outside of that other film she did in 2014, the music is fantastic and there are some definite creeping moments here and there, but overall it just fails to deliver as a fulfilling film, let alone a fulfilling horror film. It’s worse than Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, as while that film also had issues when it came to actually being a horror film, it still had entertaining characters that made sitting through it in its entirety a reasonable prospect. However, for as jumbled as this turned out, it doesn’t feel like it actively let me down quite as much as Dracula Untold did.

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