The premise is familiar: a tragic accident leaves its lone survivor physically and emotionally vulnerable. In this case, Jessabelle is sent to recover with her estranged, erratic father back home in the bayous of Louisiana, but something about the old house is amiss. Strange sounds, surprise reflections, and odd videotapes her mother made for her fill up her healing time. There’s a spirit trying to make contact, but is it her mother’s or something worse?
What might otherwise be a pedestrian jump-scare horror routine, Jessabelle surprises with both its story and its execution. The bland namesake heroine is made passable by Sarah Snook’s near-constant forlorn stare, and the supportive men in her life, including her fiancée, father, and friend, are no match for her true soulmate: tragedy. Several times, I bristled and braced for where I thought director Kevin Greutert would go, but with enough pleasant surprises, Jessabelle is more likely to entertain you than bore you to death.
Perhaps the best character in Jessabelle are the bayous themselves. Both picturesque and menacing, the house is set where the evergreen thick Southern grass meets the muddy deep blue waters. Tree branches intertwine into canopies leading to the house, providing shade but also casting a shadow over its inhabitants. Like in many recent horror films, the purity of crystal clear water gives way to sludgy, dark, viscous liquid to signify the presence of a sinister element. In contrast to the serene pictures of nature beforehand, this dark, oily substance takes on a deeper sense of death and suffocation when you recall the ecosystems of the Louisiana bayous were the hardest hit by the BP oil debacle.
At first, I was hesitant about the “white people scared of voodoo magic and mystical black people” angle of the movie. Haven’t we seen enough of this racist gimmick in horror already? But in an interesting twist (hello, spoilers), the voodoo curse in question facilitates the reincarnation of a black girl (an innocent young victim) into a white body. The gift of life in Jessabelle is the gift of whiteness, which, with Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Renesha McBride’s murders in mind, is rather jaw-dropping conclusion for the film to reach.
It’s the recent historical context that add more dimensions to Jessabelle, setting it apart from most atonally disjointed cheap horror releases. Factoring in the the complicated relationship between Jessabelle and her “is she or isn’t she unstable” mom, and there’s a lot more to watch than soaked girls in ghoulish makeup. Venture, if you dare, into the swamps for a decent spook.