From her early star-making work in classics such as Re-Animator and From Beyond to her modern resurgence in indie hits, including You're Next and We Are Still Here, Barbara Crampton has turned in plenty of iconic horror performances. Even with those standouts in mind, though, director Travis Stevens knew he and Crampton had something special on their hands when he first read the script for Jakob's Wife.
"I think even before I finished the script, I knew I wanted to help make this movie because it is so clear why it's the perfect movie for Barbara Crampton at this point in her career," Stevens told SYFY WIRE ahead of Jakob's Wife's theatrical and VOD debut this weekend. "There's such a parallel between the main character, Anne Fedder, and Barbara as a performer and as a professional, because both of them are looking to use their voice more to shape their own destinies. I was reading that in the script and thought, 'I want to do anything I can to help make this as successful a project as possible for Barbara.'"
The catalyst for Jakob's Wife comes when Crampton's Anne — a dutiful preacher's spouse who's used to being talked over by the men in the room — encounters "The Master," a vampiric being who imbues her with a fresh lust for life that also includes a taste for blood.
Shaping the destiny of the film and her part in it has been at the forefront of Crampton's mind for several years now. She first discovered the script after it won the Best Horror/Thriller Feature Screenplay prize for writer Mark Steensland at Shriekfest back in 2015 and saw an opportunity as both an actress and producer.
"I immediately fell in love with it. I loved the story of this woman feeling like her life was a little bit unsatisfying, and something happens to her and she changes and alters and finds renewal and a zest for life that she never knew she had, and sort of an awakening to herself as a person," Crampton told us in a previous interview. "So, I shopped it around to different production companies and finally took it to AMP, Alliance Media Partners, and my producing partner there, Bob Portal, and he loved the story just like I did. So, we just started developing it."
Crampton's closeness to the material — which is tied in her mind to her own reawakening as a filmmaker — kept her involved through every phase of Jakob's Wife's development over the past six years. By the time Stevens came along, much later in the process than his producer and star, his priority as a filmmaker was clear: Create a Barbara Crampton showcase.
"There were different levels of things I wanted to have happen [when I came onboard]," Stevens, whose previous credits include Girl on the Third Floor, explains. "One of which was I wanted this movie to give Barbara a big enough stage as a performer that she could really demonstrate a wider range of acting than sometimes is asked of her. And so, really going into the script and finding quiet moments, introspective moments to put in there, as well as bigger, more physical moments, and comedic moments, and sentimental moments. All of that was goal number one."
Of course, because this is a horror film, all of those moments are also very closely tied to a more monstrous element. Merging the story of a complacent marriage with the arrival of a vampiric force meant the film could tap into a whole range of horror metaphors, and put its own spin on one of horror's most time-honored subgenres.
"For us, we're using the vampire as an allegory for a woman rediscovering her own agency, recognizing that she has been using her voice as much, and relearning how to do that, and sort of carve out the space in her life that she needs to feel fulfilled," Stevens says. "And so, that's a progressive idea for a vampire film."
Crampton echoes this idea and stresses it as a key part of the screenplay's evolution over the five-year development process.
"We wanted to highlight a woman's awakening to herself, to recapturing her youth and gaining a zest for life and having feelings like she never had before in her life," she says. "We wanted it to be a film about hope and renewal. All those things were in there, but we wanted to highlight different aspects that maybe weren't as fully fleshed out as originally in the original draft."
Of course, the film is called Jakob's Wife, which means the marriage at its core is a key part of the narrative. That meant Crampton needed a strong scene partner, and to fill that role she and Stevens turned to genre mainstay Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, Habit), who heightened the sense of tonal versatility that runs through the film. Whether Jakob's Wife is moving into full-on body horror territory or playing with domestic dark comedy, he rises to the occasion with every scene. For Crampton, it's a testament to both Fessenden's talent and their working relationship, which the friends and collaborators fleshed out by renting a house together during the film's shoot in Mississippi.
"I think it's a story that any longtime couple can relate to, whether you're male or female or two males or two females or whoever you are. Any couple that's together for a long time, what happens to you? Where is your individuality, and who are you? Many times, we get stuck in our roles and who we are as people, and we have a hard time breaking out," Crampton says. "There's a comfortability that you get with being with somebody for a long time, but there's also a complacency that happens and a flattening. With this horrible happening, it reinvigorates both of them into being the people that I think they always aspired to be, and they finally get a second chance at that. It's like a second chance for this couple to be something more than who they were originally."
Stevens adds that because Fessenden is also a filmmaker "and such an ambassador to genre filmmakers and other filmmakers, another thing that he brings is... such a good spirit, and he's got such a good heart."
After years of development, Jakob's Wife finally celebrated its world premiere last month during SXSW 2021, where both the film and Crampton in the leading role were greeted with enthusiastic praise. Now, as the film nears its wider release, Stevens is eager for an ever larger audience to see the film, and to appreciate Crampton's work not just as a performer, but as a producing force and an evangelist for horror cinema and all it's capable of.
"In general, she's one of the great ambassadors of the genre," Stevens says. "What I mean by that is, she's constantly reaching out and trying her best to lift people up, and help people get closer to achieving whatever their goals are. She does it tirelessly. She's filled with not just enthusiasm for the genre, but for the people who make it. This is somebody who's been in this business for a very long time. And so, I find that so admirable, to see her every single day, helping other people. As a producer, I think that's one of the beautiful things about working with her, she's there to help. She wants to help people, or certainly in the case of Jakob's Wife, every single time we would run into a challenge, she was there to help figure out how to solve it."
Jakob's Wife is in select theaters and available digitally and on demand Friday.