Jessabelle (2014) makes a good case that horror movies can succeed without – or rather in spite of – the requirement to scare the viewer. Is that a paradox, a disappointment or even a perversion? Ghost train thrills have their place, but the genre will always be at its best when an air of beguiling strangeness and the thematic core trump the demands for what is often a cheap and quick fright. On this occasion plot revelations and twists in carry historical poignancy in a manner that far outweighs the spooky context. The film comes off like a nightmare version of Who Do You Think You Are? Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) is injured in a car crash and returns to her childhood home in South Louisiana. It is far from a happy place.
There is tension in the air and maybe even a ghost or two creeping around. The use of flashbacks, via a series of videotapes shot before Jessabelle was born, and placed throughout the narrative like Hitchcockian MacGuffins, reveal the father – now a drunk prone to displays of anger – as a happy and prosperous guy with a beautiful wife. The mother, who dabbled in reading Tarot cards, died in childbirth. Kevin Greutert is best known for his work as the editor and then director of the ultra-violent Saw series. Here, gore effects and torture porn nastiness are banished and replaced by the slow-burn demands of southern gothic. However, a story exploring the Deep South‘s racially-charged past (and present) is hindered by daft jump scares. In fact, the horror in Jessabelle is not at all supernatural.
It is instead provoked by the evil of racism, fears of miscegenation, sexual rivalry and the infantile assumption that parental figures, once assigned the roles of ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’, shed their old lives and personalities to become one-dimensional beings. The discovery that our parents aren’t all they’re cracked up to be can wreak psychological havoc. Greutert makes the most out of his heroine’s restricted movement in a standard-issue creaky old house that backs on to the bayou, where willow trees are adorned with voodoo sacraments and the murky water may hold a secret or two. Snook is very good as the lass uncovering her family’s troubled past. Lying in bed at night and seeing things moving around in the dark, Jessebelle’s instinct is to revert to the safe harbour of childhood and hide under the covers, hoping the ghost is but a figment of an overactive imagination or trick of the moonlight. A routine sequence often found in plenty of ghost stories, taps directly into the film’s key musing: there might well be no place like home, but is it a given that we belong there?