It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
There are a lot of dark family secrets in "Jessabelle," involving drawers of forgotten objects, Voodoo ceremonies in the woods, and VHS tapes containing ominous messages from beyond the grave. Steeped in Southern Gothic melodrama, "Jessabelle" is interesting in some of the small details, and in its strong sense of the Louisiana bayou atmosphere, and then it completely falls apart when it starts being a horror film. The trauma in the family story is full of potential, having to do with identity and how Jessabelle understands her own life, but all of that is short-changed for cheap scares that just are not scary enough and a preposterous plot that won't withstand the most cursory examination. Director Kevin Greutert, after directing multiple entries in the "Saw" franchise, feels adrift in tamer material. He responds to the Flannery O'Connor-esque qualities of the script (written by Robert Ben Garant), and there are details there that ring really true, but then he falls back on a lot of tired tropes from other horror films, missing the mark almost every step of the way.
In the opening scene, Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) is about to move in with her boyfriend: she's pregnant and they are both excited. On their way to the new place, they get into a car accident. He dies, she loses the baby, and her legs are crushed. Wheelchair-bound now, she moves home to live with her gloomy father (David Andrews). Jessabelle's mother died when Jessabelle was a baby; she and her father barely speak to one another when she returns home. Expressionless, he leads her through the house to the dead mother's old bedroom, untouched since her death. Jessabelle will sleep there since it's on the ground floor.
house is the scariest element of the film; it is a masterpiece of a set
(Jade Healy was production designer). Red brick on the outside, with
tiny squinting windows, it is yawningly empty on the inside, rooms
careening off into the distance, unfurnished except for random gigantic
cupboards and cabinets shoved up against the walls. It feels like a
place where time has stopped. Seen mainly from Jessabelle's point of
view, rolling through it in her wheelchair, the house is disorienting.
You never get the real lay of the land. You never see the upstairs.
Jessabelle keeps seeing and hearing strange things in the house. She glimpses a strange girl with long black hair (reminiscent of the girl from "The Ring") through the sheer curtains hanging around her mother's bed. (Despite how frightening the vision was, Jessabelle keeps closing those curtains every night, making one think she enjoys being terrified). In a box hidden under the bed, Jessabelle finds VHS tapes containing video-taped messages made for her by her mother (Joelle Carter) in the last months before giving birth. The mother, at first, is filled with joy and anticipation, bringing tears of happiness to Jessabelle's eyes as she watches. Soon, though, a dark foreboding mood intrudes (Joelle Carter is rivetingly uneasy in the role, leaning forward to whisper to the camera, "Don't tell Daddy about the Tarot cards.")