Friday, November 7, 2014

Southern Discomfort: "Jessabelle" by-the-bayou horror that settles for atmosphere

Jessabelle (2014)
90 min., rated PG-13.

Commercially, Jason Blum's booming Blumhouse Productions has been good to low-budget horror movies (all five "Paranormal Activity" movies, "Insidious" and its sequel, "The Purge" and its sequel, "Sinister," "Oculus," the list goes on). After the lame "Ouija" comes "Jessabelle," a by-the-bayou Southern Gothic horror tale that has no relation to last month's possessed-doll spooker "Annabelle." It's nothing to scream about, but whereas both "Ouija" and "Annabelle" were too overzealous in relying on The Jump Scare to the twentieth power, "Jessabelle" opts for old-fashioned atmosphere and voodoo eeriness. Director Kevin Greutert (editor of the first five "Saw" movies and director of the last two) keeps a suggestive mood going for a good hour, while oddly paired screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (co-star/writer on "Reno 911!") can't quite sustain the fundamental mystery in his script for the full 90 minutes. Before going to the proverbial swamp for abrupt, jittery attacks by a screaming dead girl and shots of drippy faucets, "Jessabelle" is a tepid gumbo gaining some mileage out of its lived-in location.

Equipped with an adorable Southern accent, Sarah Snook (an Australian actress who, if you squint, looks like Lauren Ambrose) makes for an appealing center. She plays Jessabelle, a pregnant young woman happy and excited to move in with her boyfriend. Not even a minute after leaving her apartment with her beau in his truck, the couple is sideswiped by an oncoming semi. He dies, she loses the baby, and she has lost all use of her legs. After two months of therapy, Jessabelle is confined to a wheelchair but able to leave the hospital. She has no choice but to call up her morose/drunken estranged father (David Andrews) and stay in her ramshackle childhood home in the Louisiana bayou for a while. Dad sets her up on the ground floor in her late mother's bedroom, which hasn't been touched since she died of cancer. As is bound to happen in this sort of movie, Jessabelle starts having scary nightmares and nightly visions involving a dead girl with stringy black hair (sound familiar?). 

Before the supernatural horror stuff turns literal, "Jessabelle" is mildly compelling. In a box under her mother's bed, our heroine finds her name marked on a box. Within it is a series of 1988-dated VHS tapes of recorded messages made to be shown on her 18th birthday by her pregnant mother (Joelle Carter). With the tapes being the only thing left of her mother, Jessabelle hides them and keeps watching more while Dad is out; when he finds his daughter watching the first one, he erupts into a fit of anger, breaking the tape and rolling her wheelchair into the lake. Increasingly, the viewer realizes Jessabelle's poor mother had an affinity for Tarot card readings. The film also adds Jessabelle's old high school flame, Preston (Mark Webber, always a sweetheart), but a subplot involving his jealous wife (Larisa Oleynik, former child star of Nickelodeon's "The Secret World of Alex Mack" without a hat) might just be a vague red herring.

There are creepy nighttime moments with Jessabelle spotting her home's specter, sitting in her mother's wheelchair and staring at her through the transparent curtain draped around her bed. A scene in a Victorian bathtub is also effective, culminating in a bloody oil slick and a payoff that tries aping the projectile-maggot or projectile-bile gross-out, respectively, in 2009's "Drag Me to Hell" and the 2013 "Evil Dead" reboot. Also, for a PG-13 horror movie, this one flirts with some darkness involving the murder of a baby. Everything else will only induce shuddering from those who spook easily, and though it ends on a humorously wicked punchline, the film still feels rushed to get us out on time. Beyond Sarah Snook's game performance, two notable scares, and a down-home atmosphere already seen in other, better movies, there isn't much more to see in "Jessabelle" that will get you crying for your momma. 

Grade: C +

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