I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a movie go off the rails as quickly as Jessabelle. It’s a shame, really, because it starts out with so much promise. The film’s first two acts are relatively restrained, emphasizing atmosphere over cheap jumps and special effects. But the filmmakers just couldn’t leave well enough alone, and given their pedigree, or lack thereof, that should come as no surprise. The film’s director, Kevin Greutert, slopped together both Saw VI and Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, and its money man, Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, flew to the top of critics’ shitlists after churning out all five Paranormal Activity films and both chapters of The Purge. It almost seems like Jessabelle was destined to disappoint.
But before it devolves into a load of hooey, Jessabelle tells the tale of Jessie (Sarah Snook), who might just be the unluckiest girl in the bayou. After she’s involved in a car accident that kills her boyfriend and her unborn child, poor Jessie learns that she’s lost the ability to walk. So she asks her abusive, alcoholic father, Leon (David Andrews, looking more like Jeff Fahey than Jeff Fahey at this point), to take her to their decrepit family home in Louisiana to recuperate. When it comes to creating the movie’s unsettling tone, this house does most of the heavy lifting. It’s a sprawling, dusty structure, one surrounded by moss-covered magnolia trees and foggy swamps. There are so many antique furnishings, creaky floorboards, and decorative doilies in this place that a ghost would be crazy not to haunt it.
Once settled in, Jessie—or Jessabelle if you’re nasty—discovers some VHS tapes her mother (Joelle Carter) made before dying from brain cancer. In the recordings, her mom obsessively reads Jessie’s tarot cards, which seem to indicate that her young daughter is 1.) going to die “a very horrible death” one day, and 2.) is being haunted by a mysterious presence. As cheesy as it is, it’s also some efficient-as-hell storytelling. And since the whole thing’s played with so much sincerity, it’s hard to not just go along with it.
Of course, as soon as Jessie watches the tapes, a ghost begins visiting her while she sleeps. The ghost’s early appearances are surprisingly effective, with the director casting the apparition in shadows, or obscuring its features behind gauzy curtains. But Jessabelle quickly supplants these dark, ethereal images with your stereotypical specter. And just like every damn movie ghost that’s come along after The Ring, this chick has scraggly hair, a sunken face, and communicates with ear-piercing shrieks. Come to think of it, it’s a dead ringer for Steven Tyler. The movie, which up until now has been a nice little potboiler, begins unraveling as soon as this warbling corpse is revealed.
Almost immediately afterwards, Jessie’s dad dies in a freak shed fire (yes, shed fire), and she winds up reuniting with her high school boyfriend, Preston (Mark Webber), at his funeral. The two actors are genuinely likeable and have some above-average chemistry, so it’s entertaining to watch them spend the film’s second act trying to figure out why all this supernatural shit started going down. Sadly, with every new piece of the puzzle, the film’s plot becomes more convoluted.
Things really take a nosedive when the duo discovers an unexpected link to some Haitian voodoo practitioners. Apparently screenwriter Robert Ben Garant, whose grab bag of IMDb credits includes both classics (Reno 911!) and outright turds (Herbie Fully Loaded), thought that dead parents, spontaneous paraplegia, a miscarried baby, and a screechy poltergeist didn’t provide enough conflict for one 90-minute movie. Whatever the reason, the voodoo nonsense completely tanks the film, adding just a skosh of unsavory racial politics to the mix for good measure (do the only non-white characters really have to be shown dancing around while ripping animal carcasses up?).
Not only does this subplot irreparably shift the film’s narrative trajectory and tone, but it also culminates in one of the worst twist endings I’ve ever seen. It’s ridiculous, it’s unearned, and it betrays all the intelligence and subtlety the film possesses in its first hour. It’s so bad, in fact, that it completely erased all of the goodwill I had towards Jessabelle leading up to its conclusion. What could have been a surprisingly good thriller became one of the year’s biggest duds in an instant.