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Lionsgate Home Entertainment // PG-13 // January 13, 2015
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted January 21, 2015 | E-mail the Author
Glance at the back of the Blu-ray package for Jessabelle (not to be confused with The Conjuring spin-off Annabelle), and a name might jump out at you: Robert Ben Garant. Comedy fans will recognize the name of comedian Thomas Lennon's long-time writing partner. Along with Kerri Kenney-Silver, Garant and Lennon created Comedy Central's "Reno 911!", and are also the screenwriters behind the hugely successful Night at the Museum series. Jessabelle represents Garant's first straight-faced step into a genre he loves. Oddly enough, he's the weakest link in the chain here, with most of the kudos going to director Kevin Greutert and his talented cast, which manage to elevate an otherwise familiar and slightly flat bayou horror.

Sarah Snook plays Jessie, whose life is thrown into turmoil when an unexpected car accident ends her pregnancy, kills the father, and renders her unable to walk. Therapy will help her legs eventually, but in the meantime, she's stuck without a home or a dollar to her name. Reluctantly, she calls her father, Leon (David Andrews), who brings her back to her childhood home, and puts her up in the room that once belonged to her mother, Kate (Joelle Carter). One day, while examining her new surroundings, she finds a box under her bed containing VHS tapes addressed to "Jessabelle." They're recordings of her mother, performing tarot card readings seven months into her pregnancy, in order to know more about her future baby girl's life, well aware that brain cancer will prevent her from seeing it in person. When Jessie's father finds out, he smashes the tape in a fit of rage, forbidding her from investigating further. Shortly thereafter, Jessie begins to have strange dreams of a dark figure, also confined to a wheelchair, intent on killing her.

In the commentary, Lennon reveals he grew up in Louisiana, and says he felt horror about that region was a bit unique. Horror fans are likely to feel otherwise, with films like The Skeleton Key, The Reaping, and The Last Exorcism having already covered similar ground. Unsurprisingly, Garant brings voodoo into the picture, which is a trope in and of itself (the use of these tropes also raises the question of whether or not the film's use of black culture is a little on the insensitive or dopey side, although thankfully there's not much of it in the movie). The bigger sin, though, is that Jessie is kind of a blank slate. She's just sort of there by circumstance, forced to stay by her condition, with no goals or drive to do anything but slowly recover and then get back to her life elsewhere. In principle, not the most compelling protagonist.

Lucky for Garant that Greutert populated the roles in his script with extremely talented people. Snook may not have much to go off of, but her natural charisma breathes enough likability into the role of Jessie that the audience is interested in her, and Garant himself fares better with Preston (Mark Webber), an old friend (and for at least one night, old flame) from high school, who starts spending time with Jessie as her paranoia deepens. Webber convincingly slides right into a friendly country boy persona, complete with camo baseball cap and heavy accent. The character is so authentically gentle, and the chemistry he develops with Snook is so sweet, that you almost wish the horror movie would abruptly end and we could simply watch the two of them flirt with one another. Carter, a familiar face thanks to her role on "Justified", makes a strong impression through the videotapes, as well, with her panic helping to build tension.

One of my pet peeves regarding horror movies is directors who claim they hate the jump scare stings in films and swear they'd never do them, only to fall back on them anyway. Greutert, wonderfully, actually does manage to slip away from this, relying on the idea that the audience can be afraid by something they're not expecting to see without a huge noise to remind them how surprising it is, or that the surprises can often make those noises. The film flows at a nice clip, which is no surprise coming from an editor-turned-director (Greutert cut his teeth on the Saw series), and he accomplishes lots with very little, using sound effects and suggestion to generate some of the movie's more disturbing moments. And then, just as the film is really starting to ramp up, Garant blows it again with an ending that gives new meaning to the term "exposition dump," in which Jessie explains everything that's happened to a silent character. It's so bad you'll almost wonder if it's a joke. Don't quit your day job, Robert.

The Blu-ray
Jessabelle arrives on home video with its evocative poster art intact, depicting a two-faced version of Jessie with the hair wrapped around her neck. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-ray case, with a Digital UltraViolet code inside the case, and an identical matte slipcover covering the entire package.

The Video and Audio
Lionsgate's 1.78:1 1080p AVC, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation of the movie is top-notch. One other of the film's positive qualities is that it sticks with a natural color palette, which this Blu-ray really drinks in. Vivid green grass, bright summer dresses, and Snook's orange hair are eye-catching and wonderfully saturated. Fine detail is exceptionally strong, with extremely nuanced texture on display in nearly every shot, with incredible clarity and depth. The soundtrack is full of spooky sound effects and atmospherics, which are nicely modulated while also being terrifying. The film doesn't go for the shrieking, obnoxious score, so most of the aura given off by the presentation is unsettling rather than aggressive, but it still stands out. A lossy Spanish 5.1 track, English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and English and Spanish subtitles are also included.

The Extras
The primary extra on the disc is an audio commentary by director Kevin Greutert, screenwriter Robert Ben Garant, and producer Jerry Jacobs. It's a pleasant affair, kicking off with the expected discussion regarding Garant's involvement, and segues into general anecdotes about the shoot, including compressing the set, working with the cast, accidentally giving the lead actress hypothermia, the budget, shooting horror for the edit, holding back in the script stage for the stuntmen's sake, the tiny details that make a character likable, and a little about the movie's unusually long road from production to the screen. Nothing particularly remarkable, but enjoyable enough for fans of the movie.

"Jessabelle: Deep in the Bayou" (9:14) is your average canned EPK-style featurette, with the usual soundbytes from the cast and crew, although there's some fun discussion about the bugs. Deleted scenes (7:48) and outtakes (2:39) are both basically as expected, although you can see the scene Snook got pneumonia for and a glimpse of Preston's deleted child, and it's fun to see a lot of the actors breaking during some of the more extreme horror moments. The disc wraps up with a slightly extended ending (1:11), which is not significantly more or less effective than the final version. All of the extras are in HD.

Trailers for Sinister, The Haunting in Connecticut, The Quiet Ones, Mas Negro Que la Noche, and a promo for Epix play before the main menu. No trailer for Jessabelle is included.

Jessabelle is surprisingly effective in spurts, but they can all be attributed to either director Kevin Greutert or the film's exceptional cast, who overcome the deficiencies in the script. Sadly, mediocrity wins out with an underwhelming ending, tipping the film into rental territory.

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