A woman torments her wheelchair-bound daughter from beyond the grave with VHS tapes in this voodoo-themed supernatural thriller. Written by Robert Ben Garant and directed by Kevin Greutert, Jessabelle (2014) keeps you guessing until the end, but an engaging mystery and attractive lead isn’t enough to save this mediocre horror film from Blumhouse Productions.
Tragedy strikes pregnant Jessabelle “Jessie” Laurent (Sarah Snook) when her fiancé Mark is killed in a car accident, which also causes her to miscarry and become paralyzed from the waist down. Now wheelchair-bound, she returns home to Louisiana to live with her father, Leon (David Andrews). For some reason Leon has kept her mother, Kate’s (Joelle Carter) old bedroom sealed and reopens it for Jessie. Neither Jessie nor their housekeeper seem to think this is odd.
Jessie, who believes her mother died of a brain tumor, discovers tapes her mother recorded as a message for her eighteenth birthday. This instigates several disturbing encounters with a dark-haired phantom (Amber Stevens West). Leon tries to destroy the tapes but ends up burning to death. At his funeral, Jessie reunites with her childhood sweetheart, Preston Sanders (Mark Webber).
Together, Jessie and Preston investigate the strange events and their connection to a local voodoo church. They discover a baby’s skeleton buried in the bayou with the same name and birth date as Jessie. The local sheriff (Chris Ellis) discovers the child’s origin too late to save Jessie, who is attacked by the ghost of Kate and a voodoo priest named Moses (Vaughn Wilson). I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a crazy plot twist that might have been interesting if it was developed a bit more.
Sarah Snook is an Australian actress mostly known for appearing nude in the infamous film Sleeping Beauty (2011). She graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts and performs admirably in Jessabelle, albeit with a sloppy Southern drawl. She spends most of the movie wearing low-cut dresses aimed at cornering the teenage boys who have never used the Internet to watch porn demographic. I’ll give her character credit for not taking whatever inheritance her dad left and getting on the first bus out of town after watching him inexplicably burn to death in a shed.
There aren’t many films set in the Louisiana bayou and even less featuring voodoo. That’s what originally drew me to this film, and I wish it would have more fully explored the subject. Jessie never attempts to understand her mother’s dalliance with the dark arts until the last moment. It would have been more interesting if she tried to learn something about voodoo and combat whatever dark spirit was tormenting her. But Jessabelle’s fast pace doesn’t give the characters, or the audience, much time for reflection.
The film grabs you and races toward its conclusion, not giving you time to stop and ask questions like: why wouldn’t Jessie’s dad get rid of his wife’s clothes and personal belongings after 18 years? Why would Jessie’s dad make her stay in Kate’s old bedroom, where she could discover the video tapes, instead of her childhood room? Why does the ghost of an infant look like a grown woman? Why did Kate have a wheelchair, when she committed suicide and wasn’t actually sick? Why does Jessie take a bath fully clothed?
Okay, the PG-13 rating answers that question.
Critics and audiences panned Jessabelle (25% and 31% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I didn’t think it was nearly as bad as more recent horror films like The Hatred (2017) and Annabelle: Creation (2017). It has creepy atmosphere, a mystery that keeps you guessing, and a strong lead, but it just doesn’t take any risks. Jessabelle would have been much better off with an R-rating and a director who wasn’t afraid to get creative or push the envelope.