D: Kevin Greutert / 90m
Cast: Sarah Snook, Joelle Carter, Mark Webber, David Andrews, Ana de la Reguera, Amber Stevens, Chris Ellis
Following a car accident that kills her fiancé and leaves her paralysed from the waist down, Jessie (Snook) goes to recuperate at what was her parents’ house but is now just her dad’s, her mother (Carter) having died from cancer when Jessie was very young. She’s given her mother’s room, and settles in, but her dad (Andrews) is distant and not very supportive. One day, Jessie discovers a number of old video tapes in a box labelled “Jessabelle”. When she plays one she finds herself watching her mother playing with a deck of Tarot cards and talking to “Jessabelle”. Jessie thinks her mother means her, but some of what she says doesn’t relate to Jessie at all. When her dad finds out about the tape he gets angry and destroys it; he also throws her wheelchair into the nearby lake.
The next day he apologises and gives Jessie her mother’s old wheelchair so that she can still get about. When he goes out she watches another tape; on it her mother mentions a man named Moses. On the next day, Jessie is helped into a bath by a physiotherapist. She falls asleep, and the bath begins to fill with blood. When Jessie wakes she finds the ghost of a girl a few years younger than her in the bath with her. The ghost (Stevens) attacks Jessie but when she screams and her dad bursts in, the ghost disappears, as if it was all an hallucination. Her dad finds the other tape and tries to burn both of them but he gets locked in his shed and burns to death.
At her dad’s funeral, Jessie is reunited with an old flame, Preston (Webber). She confides in him about the tapes, and although he’s married he promises to help her as much as he can. Jessie later finds more tapes, one of which contains her mother telling “Jessabelle” that she’s already dead. Things take a strange turn when Jessie and Preston discover an infant’s grave in the bayou, an infant named Jessabelle. They alert the police and the remains are taken away to be examined. Jessie and Preston also discover a shrine to the man known as Moses but are warned away from it. Echoes of the past begin to reveal themselves, and soon Jessie learns the truth about Jessabelle and her parents, and a terrible crime that was committed before she was born.
While Jessabelle attempts to bring something new to the sins of the past sub-genre of horror movies, regular viewers of this sort of thing will find it commendably low-key and sadly unambitious at the same time. The source of most viewers’ consternation will be Robert Ben Garant’s screenplay, his first proper outing in the horror field (he also wrote Hell Baby (2013) but that was more of a horror-comedy hybrid – and didn’t work in either department). Garant is better known as the writer/creator of the Night at the Museum movies, as well as being an actor, but on this occasion his enthusiasm for trying to tell a ghost story that isn’t as derivative as all the rest, is the one thing that actually gets him – and the movie – into trouble.
From the moment Jessie arrives at her childhood home it’s clear that her dad’s behaviour towards her is borne out of guilt over something he’s done in the past, and while this type of relationship isn’t exactly unusual in horror movies, here it’s more awkward than usual thanks to the script’s refusal to portray him as anything other than angry and scornful – which in light of what we discover he’s done, actually makes him appear self-deluded and cruel; it also makes the viewer wonder why Jessabelle’s vengeful spirit hasn’t killed him already. The mother’s appearance is problematic as well, her graduation from early video blogger to phantom presence in the movie’s final quarter being needed not to provide any unexpected scares but to explain the plot amid a welter of artless exposition.
The answer to the mystery of Jessabelle and the tapes Jessie’s mother recorded, when it comes, is as underwhelming as the relationship between Jessie and Preston, an attempt at romance that even stops the plot long enough for them to end up between the sheets. The clues that lead to the discovery of Jessabelle’s identity are so heavily signposted it’s like playing connect-the-dots (and there’s only three dots to be connected). Again, Garant’s script wants to appear more clever than it is, but lets itself down time after time with weak scares and even weaker plot developments (experienced viewers will have worked out what’s going on long before Jessabelle shows up in the bath).
Things aren’t helped by Greutert’s disinterested direction, nor Michael Fimognari’s pedestrian camerawork, reducing the beautiful North Carolina locations to gloomy backdrops. The performances aren’t that convincing either, with only Snook offering anything like a commitment to her character, making Jessie far more sympathetic than she has any right to be (she’s the most likeable character in a movie that makes it extra hard to root for anyone). And with an ending that is as predictable as it is entirely derivative, Jessabelle winds up disappointing far more than it entertains.
Rating: 3/10 – stupid is as stupid does – a phrase that applies to so many horror movies that it’s embarrassing, and Jessabelle does nothing to avoid being added to the list; despite Garant’s efforts this is dispiriting stuff indeed, and with only Snook’s performance to warrant a viewing, can be consigned to the so-bad-it’s-bad list of recent horror movies without a moment’s hesitation.