Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jessabelle (2014) : Back To The Bayou For Some Voodoo

Films with voodoo intertwined in the plot are far and few between, yet I always yearn for more.  My absolute favorite within the sub-genre, Angel Heart,  just simply can't be beat for plot, acting, atmosphere, score, and let's face it -the movie just looks fantastic!  So the bar has been set pretty high for me since oh, let's say...1987.   There have really only been a handful of semi-decent voodoo flicks since then, such as The Believers (also 1987, and really about Brujería [hoodoo] but close enough for me), The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988, one of my guilty pleasures!), and The Skeleton Key (2005, which I always thought was a little underrated). Child's Play (1988) does have an element of voodoo since Charles Lee Ray practiced the religion and used a voodoo ritual to transfer his soul into a Good Guy doll, but they really didn't delve into the darker elements like these other films.

So when Jessabelle was making the trailer rounds, I was intrigued and perhaps even excited to check it out.  I never get my hopes up in watching a new horror film - though I still can't get enough of them - that way if it turns out to be good I am pleasantly surprised.  There haven't been a lot of surprises lately.  Hmpf!  Jessabelle doesn't do a whole lot to make the movie feel fresh at all, and in using the same old rhetoric and plot devices it fails to evoke any serious scares and falls well short of the aforementioned films. That said, there was enough going on within the hour and a half running time to keep my interest and semi-enjoy it.

The titular character Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) and her fiance are moving in together as the film opens.  They are obviously in love and excited to begin their new life together.  After loading the last of Jessie's belongings into their pick-up truck, they take off down the road of life....only to be involved in a devastating car crash that kills the fiance and (temporarily) paralyzes Jessie from the waist down. To add insult to injury, Jessie doesn't just lose the love of her life and her ability to walk - she loses the unborn child they were preparing for.

Her mother died of a long illness when Jessie was a baby and even though she hasn't set eyes on her father Leon (David Andrews) in years it is him that she is forced to call to pick her up at the hospital upon discharge.  Leon takes her back to his house deep in the Bayou and sets her up in her mother's old room - which has been strangely blocked off with a large cabinet for a seemingly long time.

In her new room she finds several of her mother's things, including a deck of tarot cards and a box with videocassettes in it.  More than curious, she watches the first tape to find her mother (Joelle Carter, Justified) doing a reading and speaking to her unborn child (Jessabelle).  The first card she turns is Death, but her mother explains that just means transformation.  The unsettling reading ends with Jessie's mother telling her that there is a presence in the house that doesn't want Jessie there.  When Jessie's father finds out what she's watching he seizes the tape and throws them in the trash then proceeds to take her wheelchair outside, wheel it down to the dock and throw it into the bayou.

Apologetic in the morning, her father presents her with her mom's old wheelchair and warns her that the tapes are not good for her to watch and that her mother had crazy ideas.  After he leaves for work Jessie is alone in the house and starts to experience some strange, even paranormal events.  When a therapist comes and helps her into the tub for a bath, Jessie falls asleep but is awakened and pulled under water by a malicious female spirit, who then seems to be screaming at her in every reel from then on.

She finds another hidden videotape and scares herself silly when she realizes her mother was either correct about someone being in the house - or she actually was crazy.  Maybe a little of both.  Her father is furious to find her watching another tape and he takes them outside to burn them.  Things go awry and somehow he ends up in his work-shed with a raging fire all around him. At his funeral (its' really not giving anything away to mention his death), Jessie reconnects with an old high school boyfriend, Preston (Mark Webber).  She starts to tell him about the strange events and they begin doing some research into the past. It's obvious Preston still has a thing for Jessie, but just when you think they are going to quickly couple up we are introduced to his wife

Preston continues to help her despite the scowls and torments of his wife, and their search leads them to a grave on the other side of the bayou on the property.  When they uncover the name, and it says Jessabelle - with Jessie's exact birth date, it's clear that malevolent forces are at work here.

I wanted to love Jessabelle.  I really did.  But now I know I am destined to only just tolerate this recent venture into voodoo.  All things told, it really incorporated too many different ideas in one film - I had way too many unanswered questions.  Was Jessie's mother a voodoo priestess?  A witch?  Do voodoo practitioners use Tarot cards?  Why were there evil spirits?  Was the house itself haunted?  Or was the apparition supposed to be a demon?  Was someone possessed by the devil or was it a voodoo possession - which is allegedly a good thing in voodoo? Did I not pay close enough attention and miss something profoundly important?

Regardless, I didn't hate it. The atmosphere of a steamy, shadowy bayou was ever-present.  Is anything creepier than all that Spanish moss hanging from the trees over the brackish water of the dark bayou? No matter how you spin it, that area of Louisiana just screams spooky.
Sarah Snook, for being an Aussie, does a pretty good job of spinning that cajun accent, and does emulate well a frightened young woman with all kinds of questions and nothing to lose.  But there just wasn't enough actual voodoo.  I was looking for loads more secret rituals, inexplicable transformations - maybe even a few zombies for pete's sake!
But instead all I was left with was hopes and dreams for the next voodoo film that comes along.


Undead Nicole said...

Awww damn, I had high hopes for this one too. Glad they at least got the atmosphere right but it's a shame they didn't do more with such a great premise.

I feel your pain btw, my favorite subgenre is Haunted House but for every awesome creepfest like 'The Conjuring', there are at least three dozen crapfests like the 1999 version of The Haunting. So I try to keep my expectations low but I'm always secretly hoping the movie will surprise me.

Do you think Jessabelle is still good enough for a watch? Maybe as a background flick while I'm writing?

Love your reviews, as always. Thanks for all the entertainment and looking forward to more. :)

Christine Hadden said...

Hi Nicole!

Thanks for the kind words!

Sure, I think Jessabelle is decent enough for a watch. I didn't hate it, I guess I just was hoping for a bit more OOMPH! But it is a fairly decent though terribly cliched movie. Do check it out and let me know what you think!

I also love haunted house/ghost movies, and you're so right: they don't make those like they used to. Ahh! The Haunting '99! Was trying to keep that blocked from my memory!

Thanks for stopping by! Come back :)

eddie lydecker said...

I actually thought the 1999 version of "The Haunting" was pretty good, it had 'special effects' ! ! !, something the ludicrously over-rated 1963 version was always desperately in need of.