This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
After nearly losing her life in a horrific car accident, Jessabelle returns to her childhood home where she has to confront not only her estranged father and bitter sweet memories of a mother who died before she ever got to knew her but also a malicious spirit that has long been awaiting her return.
What we thought
Jessabelle has fallen prey to some criticism that it is yet another horror movie about decent white folks being terrorised by evil black people and their mysterious ways but it's actually this dynamic that holds the entire film aloft. The film is less about race relations – though it certainly touches on it – than about modern, rational Westerners being haunted by ancient forces that they can't understand: Voodoo in this particular case.
Voodoo has been of major interest to Western storytellers for years and for good reason. Whether it forms the exotic background of a particularly mad James Bond film (Live and Let Die) or acts as the “monster of the week” on an episode of the X-Files, there's unquestionably something about this highly mystical, ancient religion that strikes a chord in modern audiences.
Jessabelle is only the latest in this long tradition, but it's far from the best. It's not a bad little horror flick by any means as it features decent performances from a mostly b-grade cast, plenty of atmosphere and a solid mystery at its centre but, fatally for a horror movie, it is entirely lacking in scares. Never mind the fact that it somehow fails to convert its gloomy, unearthly atmosphere into something truly creepy, even its jump-scares seem half-hearted.
There's a definite sense that the film would have been much better served had it shifted genres and presented itself as a moody psychological thriller with a more insidious, rather than explicit threat. Instead, it always feels just a bit unsure of itself – never more so than in during its revelatory “climax” that may make its own kind of sense but utterly fails to deliver any sort of visceral impact whatsoever.
Quite unfairly, the worst thing about Jessabelle is that it is not Alan Parker's criminally overlooked Angel Heart. It's unfair not just because all films really should be judged on their own terms but because most viewers probably haven't even heard of Angel Heart – and yet, so long is Parker's shadow over Jessabelle that it's all but impossible for me not to compare the two.
For those who don't know, Angel Heart is a deranged, Louisiana-set, psychological-horror noir from the 1980s, starring Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet and Robert Deniro at the peak of their powers. It has similar themes to Jessabelle and a similar setting but its full on, 18-rated thrills, spills and scares makes the latter look positively anemic by comparison.
For a film that clearly wants to delve deep into that old Louisiana otherwordliness, Jessabelle is just too blandly ordinary to ever be worthy of its richly intriguing subject. It's just another sub-sub-par modern horror movie for horror fans with the lowest of expectations. But then, what else can you expect from the director of Saw 3D?