It’s the misfortune of “Jessabelle” to arrive just a few months after HBO’s “True Detective,” which commanded all the gravitas and exoticism the Southern Gothic genre has to offer.
The gruesome crime that serves as the impetus for the Louisiana-set “Jessabelle” is lurid and thematically rich enough to take place in the same universe as the cable series, but the film fritters away an auspicious premise on a derivative, callous, and unconvincing horror framing. The result feels like finding a choice cut of filet mignon seasoned with Cheeto dust.
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At least director Kevin Greutert gets the swampy, dusty, leafy setting right. The land itself seems to be keeping secrets from Jessie (an excellent Sarah Snook), a young woman recovering from a catastrophic car accident that kills her husband and leaves her convalescing in a wheelchair. Jessie moves in with her estranged father (David Andrews) in his dark, run-down, flower-printed house, but it’s her dead mother (Joelle Carter) with whom she reconnects through a cache of VHS tapes that were meant to be viewed on Jessie’s 18th birthday.
It’s not hard to see why Jessie’s father Leon hid the tapes from his daughter. Kate’s messages to their sole child, delivered via tarot readings, aren’t comforting in the least: card after card foreshadows death. Kate weeps for Jessie on the tapes, and the mother-daughter relationship, reconstructed across time and through outdated technology, is surprisingly moving.
Jessie’s yearning to meet her mother, and her struggles with and physical vulnerability to her father’s mood swings — Leon forcibly pulls his daughter out of her wheelchair by her wrists and dumps it in the lake when he finds her watching the tapes — make for real drama.
Unfortunately, it’s just when “Jessabelle” looks like it might transcend its haunted-house trappings that the Southern Gothic clichés rear their tortured, screaming heads. In lieu of the gory excesses of Greutert’s earlier work (“Saw VI,” “Saw 3D: The Final Chapter”), the scares are subdued: creaky floorboards, ghosts appearing in mirrors, near-drownings in bathtubs.
“Jessabelle” might well be one of the least scary horror movies of the year. Even more disappointing are the squandering of Jessie’s wheelchair-bound circumstance and the fleeting, nearly context-less allusions to voodoo and witchcraft.
With the help of her mother’s VHS tapes and her high-school boyfriend Preston (Mark Webber), Jessie uncovers the long-buried family secrets that left her mother dead and Jessie with nightmares since her return to her hometown. It’s by far the film’s strongest scene: an unexpected acting showcase for Snook, a welcome warping of the mother-daughter relationship, and a vivid portrait of familial violence and the terrible acts undertaken to conceal it.
Too bad Greutert and screenwriter Robert Ben Garant (“Reno 911,” the “Night at the Museum” series) don’t trust their dramatic sensibilities. They build toward a heartrending climax, only to tack on a cheap, cynical, and infuriatingly careless windup that destroys much of what they constructed. It’s enough to want to throw the whole thing into a murky bog, so it can never be seen ever again.