While preparing myself for this weekend’s Texas Frightmare Weekend up in Dallas, I went over what would be screened and when. For anyone who attends a lot of festivals like me, (music, film, otherwise) you’re familiar with the concept of scheduling conflicts and Texas Frightmare is no exception. On a lark, I found out that one of the films to be screened, Jacob, is actually carried currently by Redbox. This would thankfully eliminate a scheduling conflict and allow me to see both it and the film it was playing against Friday evening without guilt about missing one or the other.
(As an aside, I’m planning to provide write ups and updates to the site during Texas Frightmare Weekend for feature and short film screenings and any other interesting info I can come across)
Jacob is a very independent, Texas produced film that does a lot right with its budget and means. That is not to say it doesn’t suffer at times from those limitations but on the whole, director Larry Wade Carrell delivers an interesting, pulpy story of abuse, loss and revenge that put it steps ahead of other indie films of its type. The bulk of the story (set in 1979) revolves around a mountain of a man (Jacob, played by Dylan Horne) who is the elder of two children of a struggling mom (Edith, played by Krystn Caldwell) suffering under the thumb of her abusive, alcoholic second husband Otis (played by the director, Carrell, who also plays Otis’ brother Billy, town deputy). Jacob exists silently and, unless I’m mistaken, never utters a word the entire film. He is only ever responds or listens to his younger sister Sissy (played beautifully by twelve-year old Grace Powell) and it feels like she is the only calming influence on Jacob.
The film is bookended by three adolescent boys on bikes (in present day) doing what adolescent boys often do in horror movies: challenge each other to approach a scary, abandoned house with ‘true stories’ of monsters that might lurk there. This opens us into the primary story of the house, Jacob’s family and a lot of exposition about how things happened. Within this travel back in time is additional step backs in the timeline to Jacob as a little boy and the genesis of the demons that haunt him as an adult. This is highlighted by Michael Biehn as Jacob’s father and, through the course of the film, alludes to an evil that might have taken Biehn’s character over as a result of taking possession of the house. Thankfully, this isn’t spelled out in black and white and is, instead, danced around in an unsettling type of way. This reminded me somewhat of the Bill Pullman film Frailty or Jeff Nicols’ Take Shelter in the balance between something supernatural and something to do with a possible mental illness.
Back in the 1979 timeline, we’re shown pretty early on that Jacob is a violent force to be reckoned with and, without something to keep him in check, things will likely go very badly. I’ve read others that say that because of his quiet, vulnerable nature, Jacob is sympathetic and is a monster you care for. Honestly, I don’t think that is the case. Maybe for part of it, sure, you do feel that empathy towards him but I don’t think that that is the appropriate feeling once the film ends. As alluded to on the poster, his guiding light in Sissy is lost in a tragic accident and Jacob then turns from seemingly passive giant to monstrous murderer which takes a townsfull of armed men to even try to take down.
While there is very little violence in the first part of the film, once Sissy dies there is a massive turning point and the film becomes a bloody, quasi Hatchet type situation where a bunch of hapless people are targeted by the monster one by one and torn asunder in a variety of ways. I don’t, in my heart of hearts, think I’m giving much away here because all signs (basic context clues very early on, poster, photos etc) point to this happening. Even knowing this is what will happen doesn’t change the visceral feeling of helplessness on the part of the viewer to what all is happening on-screen. I felt this was one of the film’s strongest points actually, taking the viewer completely out of the equation and force them to abandon trying to figure out who lives and who dies. It is a powerful and unpleasant feeling.
Now, I’ve written in the past about not holding a film’s budget against it. If you’re seeing a 40m studio production and you see a boom mic or camera reflection in glass, sure, that is not acceptable and should be pointed out. With micro-budgeted indies on the other hand, I feel like you have to take the limitations of their budget into account and not skewer them for it. On the positive side, the cinematography throughout is really lovely to look at. I didn’t once get annoyed at the sometimes crushing nature of the look of digital and instead marveled at how they worked both interior and exterior locations to create a sweeping, graceful feel. Also, the gore/blood FX used in the last 3rd of the film are simply great and in a couple instances, cringe-inducing. I was really taken aback by how good the effects were.
On the negative side, the acting troupe as a whole is all over the place. For every strong performance (like with Grace Powell or Michael Biehn) there are less than stellar performances that are distracting instead of engaging. In addition, there are a few tonal changes that almost seem like early Raimi that were either unintentional and don’t fit, or, were intentional and fall flat. Either way, I didn’t think the slight slapstick nature of a few of the cuts and fight sequences fit the overall feel of the film and threw me off track for a moment. These aren’t glaring and certainly don’t ruin the film at all, but instead slow the momentum down. Lastly, the aging effects and other closeup makeup effects didn’t look that strong on a high definition display. Makeup stop lines are something that shouldn’t be seen no matter what your budget is or what kind of screen your viewer uses. I feel like it is a bit of a nitpick though because, again, these aren’t terrible and thankfully are brief.
All in all, I really did like Jacob. I think it brought a sense of earnest sadness to what could’ve been a slam-bam type of slasher setup with little resonance. The film often has a grand look to it and sits well above many DTV films likely made with more money. I look forward to more Texas-based indie horror from Larry Wade Carrell and his crew in the future.