Life hasn’t been kind to the titular 26-year-old protagonist of Kevin Greutert’s fetid and shallow Jessabelle. After a horrible car accident results in the loss of her boyfriend and their unborn child, Jessabelle (Sarah Snook) is left temporarily wheelchair-bound and forced to return to her childhood home in swampiest Louisiana. Her family’s history is just as unfortunate as her recent bad luck, as Jessabelle’s mother was diagnosed with brain tumors while pregnant with her and died soon after giving birth, and her estranged father (David Andrews) is a reticent and aloof plaid-and-truck-hat-wearing boozehound prone to whiskey-infused outbursts. Her dusty Victorian home, all curved moldings, rustic floral wallpaper, and decades-old furniture, seems calculated for ghosts and objects to bump in the night, so it’s no coincidence when she’s immediately plagued with gruesome nightmares and, upon discovering her name inscribed on a box containing two VHS tapes from 1988, visited by her tarot card-reading mother (Joelle Carter), who warns her of a female presence in the house.
Editor of five Saw films, Greutert eschews his oeuvre’s propensity for torture-porn scenarios, and though he’s attuned to the particulars of Jessabelle’s increasing paranoia and psychological unhinging, he and the expressive Snook are still unable to create a fully realized character. Despite the entrance of Preston (Mark Webber), an unhappily married former flame who Jessabelle jilted when she fled to go to a “fancy college,” the audience never gets a read on either her time spent in Louisiana during her early years or her purported wanderlust. Throughout, she remains a blank slate of vulnerability, a stock scream-queen archetype trapped in an impotently staged haunted-house attraction. There’s a glimmer of a second life in the mystery surrounding a small gravestone with Jessabelle’s name and birthday inscribed on it, but rather than commit to exploring her existential crisis, the filmmakers opt to pile on the clichés straight until the rotten denouement: oblivious cops, icky romantic rekindling, and, most offensively, not-so-good-ole Southern voodoo picking on a helpless white girl.