Shudder Secrets: Jakob’s Wife Explained: Vampires with a Feminist Bite
One of the most hyped horror movies of the year, Jakob’s Wife, comes to Shudder tomorrow Aug. 19. Considering it stars horror royalty Barbara Crampton and indie darling Larry Fessenden, that alone warrants a watch. Besides the strong cast, it’s a smart take on vampire lore, a story about a bored housewife who finds her voice and sexual power when she’s bitten by a female “Master.” Becoming a monster becomes empowering in this modern take on an otherwise tired subgenre.
Meet Jakob’s Wife
Crampton plays Anne Fedder, a middle-aged housewife incredibly loyal to her husband, Jakob (Fessenden), a pastor in a sleepy country town. He believes in a traditional marriage, that women stick by their husbands and obey, no matter the circumstances. Through Christ, they can become better women. This idea is reinforced in the opening when the camera zooms in on a quote from Proverbs 31:10. It reads, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
The first time Jakob is introduced, he gives a sermon that defends this outdated idea. More specifically, he tells the small congregation that husbands should love their wives and help to clear them of blemishes by washing them in the house of the Lord. He adds, “He who loves his wife loves himself,” playing up the notion that the wife is part of the male, including his body. This references the idea that Eve was created from Adam’s rib.
After the sermon concludes, Jakob shakes hands and talks to the attendees as they leave the church. Anne is shown a foot or so behind him, mostly quiet. Again, this simple sequence highlights the unequal power dynamics in their marriage.
Before Anne turns and finally asserts herself, there are several instances that show her unhappiness. She’s annoyed by how loudly Jakob brushes his teeth. She despises his snoring. When Amelia (Nyisha Bell), a young churchgoer, is turned by the Master and goes missing, Anne speaks up and defends her during a dinner scene. She points out that Amelia was a good daughter to her alcoholic mother and it’s unlikely she would just leave home in the middle of the night. In looking at Jakob, she says, “I don’t understand why when a young girl goes missing, you’re quick to blame her.” It’s one of the first times in the movie that she really voices her opinion. Otherwise, Jakob constantly cuts her off.
There are glimpses of who Anne used to be prior to marriage. When an old love, Tom Low (Robert Rusler), returns to town to work on a design project, Anne has dinner with him. He’s still dismayed that she ever married Jakob. He reminds her of when she had plans to travel the world and quips, “You a church mouse?” Yet, she makes clear that when her mother died, Jakob and the church supported her. Still, it’s evident that she craves something more.
Cue The Master
Jakob’s Wife certainly has tropes familiar to vampire lore. The movie opens with squealing rats. That association with the undead dates to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But in a unique twist, the Master is female, played by Bonnie Aarons. She’s a shadowy figure with menacing pink eyes. Anne is bitten when she and Tom make out at the mill (every small town needs an old mill, right?). This scene is important because when, for a moment, Anne gives in to her base desires, it summons the Master. After Tom is killed, Anne is bitten and slowly turns.
Even if Anne ultimately refuses to proceed further with Tom, telling him that she can’t cheat on Jakob, something stirs in her. He made her remember her past, and for a moment, she surrenders to her passions. She does what she wants by allowing Tom to kiss her. This, in turn, summons something deeper. The Master is a metaphor for her yearning for a bigger life.
Watching Crampton in this role is a thrill especially as her character morphs into a bloodsucker. The changes are slow at first. When she comes home after the attack, it’s late. Jakob talks to her, but her answers are short and curt. She’s distant from him. In another scene, she wears a red dress and red lipstick. She insists that they go out to dinner. It’s obvious date nights have been missing from their marriage for a while. During the dinner scene, there’s a key reversal of the gaze. The camera zooms in on Jakob’s throat from Anne’s POV, as her hunger grows. He becomes a pulsating piece of meat to her, tempting, something to devour, should she so choose.
Her growing power continues. She refuses to make him breakfast and instead works out. More importantly, she explores her sexuality. This is part of the Master’s control over her. It allows her to find herself, despite Jakob’s protests. Anne is liberated and tells him more than once that she’s never felt more alive. In fact, when Jakob hatches a plan to kill the Master and turn Anne back to the way she was, she’s hesitant.
The Master as a Metaphor for Female Power
Near the end of the film, when the Master appears before Anne with the choice to return to her old life or have immortality, the choice rests with Anne. The Master says she’s not doing it for control but for Anne. She asks if Anne was anyone over the last 30 years other than Jakob’s wife. When the creature inspires Anne to consider what she wants, she simply says a bigger life. Further, the Master links Anne’s unhappiness to her own backstory and the fall of Eden. The Master questions why Eve should bear the blame for the downfall of Eden and then explains how she was once a mouse scurrying at the feet of powerful men until another Master gifted her with immortality.
Unfortunately, Anne never gets to make the choice on her own because Jakob stakes the Master without letting his wife decide. In her dying words, the Master tells Anne that’s how men will always be. There’s no changing them.
Does Jakob Change?
There are moments when it appears Jakob has learned and that he’ll respect his wife more. After they have sex, he thanks her. He also apologizes for often talking over her. Further, he lets her drink the blood of Amelia’s deceased mother, Matti (Kathe Newcombe). That said, and more importantly, Anne is denied that choice in the end. Because Jakob killed the Master before Anne responded, she was never given the opportunity to remain married or relish in immortality and the freedom it gives her.
In the closing shot, Anne and Jakob sit on the couch, discussing their future. She says that there must be some new ground rules, while he questions whether a life of bloodsucking is sustainable. As they’re about to kiss, she hisses and bares her fangs, while he clenches a stake. Cue the end credits.
Whatever their outcome, Anne makes it clear that she’s not giving up immortality. She tells Jakob time and time again that it makes her feel alive. It gives her a voice that she never had in the marriage. For it to work, he’s going to have to accept her. Though the Master was killed, Anne decides to keep living as a monster because she loves the way it feels. She won’t forgo her newfound power. Who can blame her?
Jakob’s Wife is an entertaining watch about the transformation of a quiet housewife into a bloodsucking, empowered woman. Crampton is delightful in the role especially, and the film offers a refreshing spin on the all-too-dead vampire subgenre.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.