Every marriage has ups and downs, better times and worse. Passions cool, bonds grow brittle, resentments fester. It pays to find ways to reconnect with one’s spouse, whether by saying “no thanks” to the world and taking an impromptu romantic holiday together to rekindle the flame, or by teaming up to track down and kill the vampire that currently serves as master to one half of the couple. In director Travis Stevens’ Jakob’s Wife, demure Anne goes with the latter, though not exactly by choice, when a rat-vampire bites her and turns her into a bloodsucker. Meanwhile, her husband, the pastor Jakob, sits on the sidelines and watches Anne start acting, well, a little less like Anne and a little more like a woman with her own wants, needs and agency.
Anne is played by Barbara Crampton, known best for her work in Re-Animator, Castle Freak, From Beyond and Chopping Mall, and for her resurgence in 2011 with You’re Next. That film served as a springboard for the next chapter in Crampton’s career: In the decade since, she’s found work in films like The Lords of Salem, We Are Still Here, Little Sister, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich and Sacrifice, as well as roles on TV series like Channel Zero and Into the Dark. Jakob’s Wife, out in theaters and VOD on April 16, centers fully on her, and she runs with that spotlight all the way until the film’s final freeze-frame shot.
Paste had a lengthy conversation with Crampton about what Jakob’s Wife means to her in her role as producer as well as star, reinvigorating the vampire niche, her future “hag horror days” and the intersection of horror and long marriages:
Jakob’s Wife is really a personal movie for you, from what I understand.
Barbara Crampton: Yes. I’ve been trying to develop it for almost five years. It won a screenplay competition at Shriekfest in 2015 and I fell in love with the material and—after developing it for a couple of years and trying to get the financing secured and everything—we finally have a movie. These things take time.
It’s personal in the sense that it’s something you’ve put a lot of time and energy into, but if I think about Anne and the crossroads she’s at in her life, and I wonder if that personal component also plays into where you’re at in your life?
Crampton: Definitely. Anne’s life is a little dull and has become drab over the years, and she wants to be seen on her own terms. She just doesn’t know how. The world changes after she’s bitten. She exhibits more confidence, and she acquires the thirst for life, and blood, and it changes her dynamic with her husband. They both become vampire hunters aiming for the master. In a way, it mirrors my own life in that I came back a number of years ago with You’re Next after not working for a very long time, because the calls weren’t coming in. When I hit my middle and late thirties, I wasn’t getting any auditions or any offers, and I backed away from the business a bit. I had good things happen in my life. At the time I got married and I had two children, and that takes your focus away. A part of me felt like it had faded away along with the business and the opportunities.
When I came back a number of years ago because of a chance happening, getting an offer for You’re Next, just like Anne’s chance encounter with the master where she gets bit by a vampire, something awoke in me as Barbara. I had so much fun on that set with all those people. It helped that they were such collectively dynamic filmmakers in their own rights. Adam Wingard is a director, a cinematographer and an editor. Joe Swanberg is a writer, producer, director and actor. Amy Seimetz is a writer and an actress. Ti West is a director and an actor.
All these people are so amazingly creative and their careers are really buoyant. They just really inspired me, and because of that happening, something awakened in me and I decided that I wanted more out of my career than I’ve had. In the past I was part of Stuart Gordon’s troupe of actors who he continually worked with. I had a Re-Animator, I had a From Beyond—I had some good movies under my belt, but I felt like something was unfinished and I wasn’t done. It took working on You’re Next to reawaken a yearning and thirst in me that made me feel like I wanted to live bigger and bolder, just like Anne does in Jakob’s Wife.
So when I first read the script, I thought, “I understand this woman’s journey. I understand what she’s going through. I understand what she wants.” She doesn’t want to sideline her husband or make him a bad person. I never wanted to make my husband that person either. I’m long married, 20 years married. I wanted to keep that going, but I wanted to fundamentally change the way that I was acting in the dynamics of the relationship and what I wanted out of my own life, and I wanted him to come along with me. So I really get Anne. She really is me.
Ever since You’re Next, I feel like I’ve seen you coming up more and more. Maybe it’s because of social media osmosis. I see you in my Twitter feed, whether you’re just writing a message or in a picture looking like you’re having the time of your life, and I keep thinking that we’re entering a new phase of Barbara.
Crampton: I do feel like I’ve been offered some of the best roles of my career since You’re Next. Really, again, I would go back to that film and say that it took an awakening in me working on that film to say to myself, and to say to my agent, who hadn’t miraculously dropped me after not working for six years, “I want to rededicate myself to acting again, and I need your help. I need you to actively go out and try to sell me to people. Perhaps I need somebody else on the team, so please introduce me to some managers that you like, and I’ll meet with them and see if I can get another person on my team.”
I did that, and then I had two people really working hard for me. I also realized all of the people on You’re Next were hyphenates. They weren’t doing just one thing. They were doing everything. I realized after going to a lot of film festivals with You’re Next and subsequent projects, that that’s what people have to do in today’s marketplace. You don’t just stay in your lane. You do everything and you learn a little bit about everything, about all aspects of the business. I decided that if I was going to become a hyphenate, I might be interested in producing movies. I didn’t think at that time that I was going to produce a movie that I wanted to be in. I was just thinking, “I really enjoy the business. These creative people are inspiring to me. So I’m going to try to add something to what I already know.”
I started talking to people in the business and they started giving me scripts. There’s a werewolf movie that I’ve been trying to get off the ground for 10 years that I almost got made a number of years ago, but we’re still working on that one. But I worked on Beyond the Gates with Jackson Stewart. I did have a small part in that, but mostly I was a producer on that film. Then I worked on Castle Freak and then I had this film. I realized that I really liked producing. So I’m going to continue to add that to what I already do.
But in the midst of developing other projects that I have right now with writers and directors, I’m also feeling like I’m falling in love with acting again. I’m getting such great roles offered to me that I want both to continue. So I do want to work as a producer and I want to continue to work as an actress. I’ve been saying this for a couple of months: I would like to be the Betty White of horror and just become a grandmother and work on all the old lady roles, you know? I’m looking forward to my hag horror days.
I can’t wait. It’s just now popping up in my head that you used the word “thirst” earlier when you talked about wanting to come back to film. That feels like the most appropriate word to use, given that we’re talking about a vampire-rat movie. It feels like vampires haven’t been understood by a lot of filmmakers, maybe for the last 10 years. I blame Twilight. Was this always the creature you were going to use? Did that feel like the appropriate vehicle for the experience you wanted to dramatize?
Crampton: Travis [Stevens], Bob Portal and I talked a lot about our favorite vampire films through the ages, and what we felt worked in them and what didn’t, and what we could bring to this evergreen subgenre that hasn’t been done before. We’ve seen a lot of bats and we’ve seen vampire familiars, but we needed a happening in the beginning of the film that would take down this potential tryst that Anne was going to have with Tom Low (Robert Rusler), take him down, but also have the vampire bite me. We were trying to think what could that be.
Rats seemed to us to be the most horrific death that you could possibly have. It’s death by 5,000 bites. So we went with the rat motif because we haven’t seen that as much as some of the other motifs. We were really trying to give the fans something that they hadn’t seen before.
I thought a little bit about Graveyard Shift when watching this, but it also felt really new.
Crampton: I think what’s new about the movie, too, is that many times in these vampire movies, somebody gets bitten and then a lover or husband or somebody has to swoop in and save the poor afflicted. But in this film, I get bitten by a vampire and I become stronger, and as I become stronger, my husband Jakob (Larry Fessenden), becomes more shaken and the dynamics shift in the marriage. To me, this movie is as much about feminist liberation as it is about a loving union.
Larry and I talked for weeks about this very issue. We’re both long-married people who both have children. What does it feel like when you’re in a union where your identification gets absorbed into the other person’s personality, and their wants and needs? How does that affect you? I never wanted to make Jakob wrong and Travis never wanted to make Jakob wrong in the marriage. We didn’t want to bash the patriarchy and say, “That’s it, the husband goes down.” We wanted to illuminate the inner workings of a marriage and how we could possibly keep that going. So that was the fresh approach we brought to the vampire mythos.
The movie hinges so much on you two relating to one another. Jakob has to be horrified that Anne is self-possessed and vampiric. But there’s also almost a sitcom vibe between the two of them: You get the feeling that Jakob could walk in on Anne chewing a guy’s head off, put his hands on his hips, and say, “Honey, what have I told you about eating in the living room?” That seems like a difficult thing to do.
Crampton: We did try to infuse the second half of the movie with a lot of fun and humor and gore, obviously. Really, that’s because their world changes in the beginning of the film. It’s kind of dull and drab. Anne feels dull and drab, and so does Jakob! But after she’s bitten, the whole world opens up for both of them. Jakob has an awakening as well. I found it interesting, I don’t know if anybody’s really talked about this yet—maybe they will, because you know, the movie hasn’t released—but Jakob assumes because of her meeting with Tom that she’s having an affair, never considering the inequality in their marriage, or in Anne feeling restless. That their marriage is to blame or that he’s to blame. It’s a typical thing: “She’s not paying attention to me, so she must be having an affair.”
That’s so typically male in a way, you know? Never really looking at oneself and going, “Huh, what could I be doing that’s adding to the anxiety of my partner?” I think that Jakob becomes very self-reflective throughout the movie, as well as Anne becoming more self-aware and more empowered. She wants to bring him along. There’s one line in the film that I asked to be put in. It’s something that a psychologist said to me many, many, many years ago when I was in my early 20s: “Feelings come and go, but commitment stays the same.” And just as I’m saying that, I’m saying that to Tom when we’re sitting on the box of the rats that we don’t know are under us, and I get cut off. I don’t even finish the statement, until the noise of the rats shakes us, and we get up and we’re like, “What was that?”
To me that was an important line to put into the film because we assume that Jakob and Anne are going to stay together, but their union is forever changed. How often do we actually see that in a relationship movie where two people really learn something and become better partners for one another and become better people for themselves?
Apparently it helps to have a vampiric intervention in one’s marriage. I don’t know if I fully recommend it, but it works for them.
Crampton: Well, it’s a crisis! So a crisis happens, and many times a crisis can test marriage, right? This is a horror movie crisis in a relationship.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.