Perhaps the most meaningful thing I can say about Jessabelle is that it’s better than this year’s slightly more high profile Halloween horror flick, Ouija. That’s not difficult, of course, but given an option between the two the choice should be a no brainer.
Yet another young Aussie rising star, Sarah Snook, leads the cast as the eponymous Jessabelle (or “Jessie,” as she prefers), who is forced to go back home to Louisiana following a tragic accident that confines her to a wheelchair for the foreseeable months. (You know, Louisiana, the land of the Haitian voodoo business that freaks everyone out) There, she must live in the home of her mother, who died giving birth to her, and her living father, whom she has barely seen since he gave her up to be raised by her aunt.
Naturally, scary shit start to happen in the house, with the typical shadowy presence, the weird noises, the whispers, and the classic spooky girl with long hair. In accordance with horror conventions, Jessie will continue to be haunted until she unravels the mystery behind it all.
The horror cliché of choice in Jessabelle is the found home-videos her mother (played by Joelle Carter from Justified) made while she was still pregnant with her. Yes, it feels kind of arbitrary and trite, but the film does its best to make the videos seem necessary. The videos act as the catalyst for Jessie to find out about her past, and with the help of an old high school ex-boyfriend (Mark Webber, who was in the very solid 13 Sins), she begins to piece the puzzle together.
I know I’ve made Jessabelle sound like complete garbage, but it does have a few good things going for it. The film does employ some not-so-original “boo!” scare tactics that don’t work on me as well as they used to, though director Kevin Greutert (best known for his work on the Saw franchise) also infuses the story with a surprisingly effective creepy atmosphere. There is a bit of surrealism that also works quite well as Jessie is unsure whether her visions are just the effects of post-traumatic stress.
The story itself is also relatively interesting, at least at the start, when you don’t really know what is haunting Jessie or why. There are a few decent red herrings thrown in to throw us off track, creating a nice sense of anticipation and build up as the film progresses. Unfortunately, as often is the case with horror flicks, the payoff does not live up to the build up, as Jessabelle‘s third act dissolves into a bit of a mess that some might even find quite distasteful. However, I do give the filmmakers some credit because it comes across as a planned mess rather than an accidental one.
A big part of the reason I liked the film more than expected is because of Sarah Snook. She’s not given much to work with, but she demonstrates through her nuanced performance (yes, for a horror film) that there’s a very bright future awaiting her in Hollywood. In lesser hands Jessabelle could have been a disaster. I also quite liked Mark Webber, who’s doing a commendable job of carving out a niche in the horror market despite not being dashing or a pretty boy.
At the end of the day, Jessabelle will be categorized as just another one of those routine, uninspiring horror flicks that get rolled out every year, but thanks to a compelling set-up and the presence of Sarah Snook, I think it manages to stay — albeit barely — above the pack.
2.75 stars out of 5