Inept and repugnant 'Jessabelle' wears its fears plainly on its sleeve
Director: Kevin Greutert
Screenplay: Robert Ben Garant
Starring: Sarah Snook, Mark Webber, Joelle Carter, David Andrews, Chris Ellis, Vaughn Wilson, Ana de la Reguera and Amber Stevens
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 30 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
You know sometimes when you're watching a really bad movie, and you're just coming to terms with the fact that it's not going to get any better, and then suddenly you realize, Hang on a second, this movie is also totally racist!, and that gives you an entirely new reason to hate it? Yeah, Jessabelle is one of those times.
That its filmmaking is inept would be offensive enough. But the racist overtones that reveal themselves as the story takes shape are what really put it over the top.
At first you think it's just the latent, garden-variety stuff - the group of nameless black men who pop up for the sole purpose of scaring our innocent and helpless white heroes; the old, clairvoyant black woman who shows up for plot purposes (but who, again, serves primarily to frighten our titular heroine). But at a certain point, the movie goes beyond the commonplace marginalization of black characters to peripheral stereotypes, and into something far uglier. We realize that the entire framework of the narrative is rooted in tangible xenophobia (which is putting it mildly) that carefully places one specific group of people in the role of a savage, terrifying Other.
Make no mistake - that is exactly how this movie sees and treats its black characters, every one of whom is presented as some kind of scary threat or another. This movie is so scared of black people, it may as well have been made by a legion of Darren Wilson supporters. Even the title is steeped in racial stereotyping. We could conceivably interpret its similarity to "Jezebel" as incidental; that is, until a few troubling and tone-deaf moments late in the film directly play into the racial stereotypes associated with the name.
Like so many other unimaginative horror movies (including some, like this one, set in the bayou region), Jessabelle's supernatural element comes in the form of voodoo - specifically Haitian voodoo, in this case. And if you want to know precisely the filmmakers' attitude about that, look no further than the tribal ceremony scene, in which the participants shake, chant and convulse around a campfire while covered in chicken blood as the camera looks on in abject horror. Yes, really.
One might be tempted to defend the film's perspective on the grounds of historical precedents of pop culture, but I'm sorry, that's no excuse. The lack of self-awareness here is astonishing.
In the middle of it all is the charming, redheaded southern belle Jessie (short for Jessabelle) - played by Sarah Snook - who returns to her Louisiana hometown after being left wheelchair-bound by a recent car accident that claimed the life of her husband and unborn child. Her only family left in the world is her drunk of a father (David Andrews), with whom she has not had much contact in several years.
Growing up, Jessie had little connection to her mother, who died not long after her daughter was born. But upon going back to her childhood home, Jessie finally gets a bit of quality time with Mom via a series of old videotapes she finds hidden underneath her bed. On those tapes is a series of recorded messages her mom (Joelle Carter) made for her while pregnant, ostensibly in the hope of leaving something for her daughter to remember her by once she was gone.
But the recordings shift from hopeful to fearful as her mother attempts to discern her daughter's fate through a tarot-card reading; a well-intentioned maternal message transforms into a warning from beyond the grave that there's a presence lurking in the house that wants Jessie dead. Indeed, it's not long before Jessie has visions of just such a presence - in the form of a young woman (played by Amber Stevens, who memorably played Jonah Hill's love interest, and Ice Cube's daughter, in 22 Jump Street), who starts to appear everywhere from Jessie's bedside to her bathtub.
Jessie's primary ally is Preston (Mark Webber), an old friend from high school who, while being unhappily married, still clearly harbors affection for his long-departed high-school crush. The two become so closely intertwined in the terror and unexplained occurrences that begin to follow Jessie that the local sheriff (Chris Ellis) continually refers to Preston as her boyfriend. (Her assertions to the contrary are unconvincing.)
Whatever effect could be achieved by the bayou atmosphere or the haunted-house setting is left completely untapped, as director Kevin Greutert proves largely incapable of staging a scene, let alone creating a mood. In many scenes, the shots don't even seem like they've been composed; it's more like someone turned the camera on wherever it happened to be sitting at the time. (In fairness, his outdoor scenes look better than his interiors, which are often made up of clumsy, too-tight compositions.) And forget about cutting those shots together with any sense of rhythm. The more action-heavy sequences in particular are incompetently and nonsensically edited. (The tightness of the framing is especially egregious in those scenes.)
Despite the respectable work of Snook and Webber, Jessabelle would be more than objectionable based on the filmmaking alone. But its implicitly racist overtones truly set it apart. I repeatedly tried to talk myself out of this interpretation, but it's unavoidable. Amid all the unintelligible nonsense in the film, that's the one thing that comes across crystal clear.