Barbara Crampton has been acting in horror movies for almost 40 years now and has classics like Body Double and Re-animator on her resume (alongside more recent cult favorites such as Lords of Salem and You’re Next), but she’s never had a part that utilizes her talents as thrillingly as the title role in Jakob’s Wife. An insightful meditation on the precarious difficulties of maintaining a marriage that also manages to deliver the horror movie goods with terrifying and often hilarious gusto (imagine Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage crossed with early Sam Raimi), Jakob’s Wife tells the story of Anne (Crampton), whose life with small town minister Jakob (Larry Fessenden) has grown incrementally more suffocating and stagnant over the course of decades. When Anne is bitten by a local vampire, her repressed feelings rise to the surface in shocking, funny and ultimately surprisingly moving ways, and she and Jakob are forced to deal with the dissatisfactions that have snuck up on them and reconcile the tension between individual freedom and marital support and harmony once and for all.
Director Travis Stevens (who cowrote the endlessly inventive script with Mark Steensland and Kathy Charles) modulates his offbeat blend of serious, thoughtful observation and heightened gore and black comedy with admirable precision and confidence; he has an infallible sense of just how far to push the horror and how deep he can go with the drama in a way that serves both, and his sense of how to best showcase his actors via restrained, expressive framing is impeccable. The movie is consistently unpredictable not only in its plotting but in its empathy; Fessenden and the other actors take these characters seriously enough to avoid cheap laughs at their expense, so that even figures we assume are going to be treated as jokes are allowed dignity and complexity. In the end though, it’s really Crampton’s movie —for perhaps the first time in a career with over a hundred credits, she gets a part that requires her to play every note on the emotional scale and does so flawlessly. Jakob’s Wife is newly available on Blu-ray from RJLE Films with deleted scenes and a brief but informative making-of featurette.
Also new to Blu-ray: Criterion’s edition of producer David Wolper’s extraordinary omnibus film Visions of Eight (1973), which covers the 1972 Olympic Summer Games in Munich from a variety of unorthodox and intriguing perspectives. Tasked with creating a cinematic document of the Olympics, Wolper assembled a team of world class filmmakers—Milos Forman, Kon Ichikawa, Claude Lelouch, Juri Ozerov, Artur Penn, Michael Pfleghar, John Schlesinger and Mai Zetterling—and gave them creative license to focus on whatever aspect of the event inspired them. The result is a collection of riveting shorts that rank among the best Olympic films (right behind Ichikawa’s own 1965 masterpiece Tokyo Olympiad, one of the greatest of all sports documentaries) and exhibit the unique strengths of their individual directors. From Forman’s cheeky look at the decathlon and Lelouch’s heartbreaking study of defeat to Zetterling’s close examination of weightlifters and Penn’s slow-motion poetry in his pole-vaulting segment, the films that comprise Visions of Eight are all classic examples of personal expression in the realm of non-fiction filmmaking.
Equally fine is an exceptional brand new sports doc, Trey Nelson’s The 5th Man, streaming next week as part of the Stony Brook Film Festival’s virtual program. A portrait of Paul Limmer, a Long Island high school track coach who holds the New York state record for wins (737 in a 50-year career), The 5th Man is one of those remarkable documentaries that tells an intimate human story but uses it as a springboard to tell the story of an entire era; Nelson deftly weaves interviews, archival footage and lyrical interstitial segments that recall his gorgeous work on Lost in the Sun to examine not only the rewards and costs of a life devoted to a single-minded goal, but the ways in which an era shapes its athletes and vice versa. Deeply affecting and visually stunning, The 5th Man is one of the best films I’ve seen so far in 2021, and it and Visions of Eight (which, in addition to being newly available on Blu-ray, is streaming on the Criterion Channel) make a terrific sports-themed double feature.
My next recommendation is, like Visions of Eight, an exemplary anthology film. Who Will Start Another Fire, which is new to DVD and the Kino Now platform from Kino Lorber, showcases work by new filmmakers from underrepresented communities: among the shorts are titles from Uganda (Nicole Amani Magabo Kiggundu’s Family Tree), the Phillipines (Alex Westfall’s The Rose of Manila) and Nigeria (Olive Nwoso’s Troublemaker), as well as several pieces from the United States that examine communities rarely explored in mainstream cinema. What links all of the shorts is an obsessive engagement with the time and place in which they were made; aesthetically rigorous, politically daring, and thematically provocative, they’re all forcefully immediate and riveting, and announce several emerging filmmakers worth watching.
Who Will Start Another Fire is one of several excellent new titles from Kino; their “Studio Classics” line in particular is firing on all cylinders this month with new editions of the Cecil B. Demille Western Union Pacific and Henry Hathaway’s swooningly romantic treasure Peter Ibbetson. Best of all is a new Blu-ray of Alias Jesse James, a hilarious Bob Hope vehicle from 1959 in which Hope plays an insurance agent who makes the mistake of selling a policy to the infamous outlaw of the title. The final film from director Norman Z. McLeod, a comedically inclined craftsman responsible for some of the best Marx Brothers movies (Horse Feathers, Monkey Business) as well as the W.C. Fields classic It’s a Gift, Alias Jesse James is a model of comic delivery, both on the level of performance (Hope is razor-sharp here) and direction. Groucho Marx may have said that McLeod was no genius, but his instincts for knowing where to place the camera and where to cut for maximum comic impact were unerring.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.