Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Women in Horror: Jessabelle

* spoilers *

Jessabelle (Jessie) Laurent is happy and about to move in with her fiance until an accident kills him and causes her to miscarry and become wheelchair bound. She can no longer take care of herself due to her temporary disability, so she is forced to head back home to Louisiana to endure the care of her estranged father. After settling in, she finds a series of video tapes left by her mother while pregnant with her, reading her cards and talking about her life. Her mother mentions a dark spirit which is indeed faced with time and time again. Can Jessabelle find out who this spirit is and save herself?

I was drawn to Jessabelle because it seemed like an entertaining supernatural horror movie about a woman getting over the death of her mother and coming to terms with her past. Part of it is like I expected. Obviously not thrilled to be in her gruff father's house again, Jessies makes the best of it by trying to get to know her mother through the videotapes she left. The ghostly attacks start early in addition to her controlling father's violent actions as he pushes her (empty) wheelchair into the lake and destroys her only connection to her mother. Jessie resolves to complete the angry spirit's unfinished business as is typical and employs the help of her attractive yet unavailable childhood friend, Preston. Up until then it's a very straight forward PG-13 supernatural horror story. The only thing that shines here is Sarah Snook as a recovering, shellshocked Jessie. She infuses the role with sympathy and pathos, making her easy to root for and relate to. I really felt that she lost absolutely everything and was working to resolve her past and prepare for a better future. She had previously simply ignored her past, her abusive father, and her grief over her mother's death, which proved to be toxic and caught up with her in the present in the form of this ghost.

One major thing and one minor thing make this film simply awful. The major thing is how racist the finale makes the entire film. There are small things leading up to the finale that broadcast the full scope of the racism. Interesting African American characters are introduced early in the film involved in tradition Haitian practices. I thought she would enlist their help or directly interact with them in some way, but they are barely named or even speak. A mob of angry black people attacks the poor white Preston when they try to investigate. Then the finale: Jessabelle's mother was talking about a completely different biracial child in the videos that her father murdered. The mother went on to cast a spell to allow the evil dead child to take over Jessie (an adopted replacement child to cover up the murder) years later. Everyone involved in any way with African American people are evil, including the spirit of the baby who was murdered not long after its birth. Even the baby's real name Jessabelle brings the biblical Jezebel to mind, famous for lying and vanity. How does this even make sense to apply to someone who died in infancy? Plus the actual African American people barely speak, being relegated to silent, menacing roles or Haitian voodoo practitioners or evil spirits. It was extremely disappointing. The minor annoyance was the completely flat portrayal of Preston's wife, who was a typical shrew: jealous, rude, and much more covered up than Jessie is the entire film. Because she isn't at her best the few minutes she actually has screen time makes it ok for the romance between Jessie and Preston to develop.

Jessabelle is an incredibly racist film that I had hoped would have never been greenlit to be made in 2014. We have gone beyond this socially and cinematically. The extremely simple theme that white is good and black is evil is extremely outdated and has obviously racist implications when applied to the color of the characters' skin. I was shocked and surprised that very few reviews actually labelled it as clearly racist. I really thought horror journalism and the horror genre in general was better than that. The only good aspect in the whole film was Sarah Snook. Amber Stevens West is usually delightful in her roles, but I could barely tell it was her and she never even had the opportunity to speak. Only watch this if you want to be blindingly angry and insulted.

My rating: 1/5 fishmuffins

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