Before riding the twisty tracks to Crazytown, the horror film Jessabelle (formerly known as Ghosts) relies on a much simpler, more effective scare tactic: Its heroine can’t go anywhere. Plenty of films have exploited the fundamental vulnerability of the disabled, like the blind Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, or the laid-up Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window; for starters, a disability immediately resolves the question of why these characters don’t just open the front door and run away from whatever’s threatening them. In the case of Jessie (Sarah Snook), who’s bound to a wheelchair after a car accident, she’s filled with dread even before she’s stuck in her father’s creepy two-story on the Bayou. In fact, her loneliness and sense of isolation is so acute that eerie VHS tapes of her late mother reading tarot cards make her happy, because at least she has some company. So what if every reading begins with the “Death” card? That just means “transition,” right?
Jessabelle doesn’t have to do much in the early going beyond rolling its heroine into her mother’s old bedroom, denying her access to any technology that wasn’t available in the mid-1980s (her cell reception stinks), and putting a scare into her. When the crash severely limits her from the waist down (though it doesn’t paralyze her), Jessie reluctantly agrees when her father Leon (David Andrews) offers to put her up while she recovers from her injuries and from the loss of her fiancé and unborn child, who died in the accident. Once there, her father’s alcoholism soon starts to manifest in abuse and neglect, so she clings to tapes her mother Kate (Justified’s Joelle Carter) made while was pregnant with her. The prophecies on the tapes are dire, however, and Jessie is soon haunted by a spirit that appears to want her dead—or perhaps is finding terrifying ways to send a message from beyond the grave. For help, Jessie turns to Preston (Mark Webber), an old high-school boyfriend who knows his way around this literal and metaphorical bog.
Scripted by Robert Ben Garant, half (along with Thomas Lennon) of the comedy team behind Night At The Museum and Reno 911!, Jessabelle writes itself into terrible trouble. To the effective simplicity of Jessie’s confinement, the film keeps adding layers of backstory and shocking revelations, atop the clichés of tarot, voodoo, and other backwater-hick rituals. The more complicated it gets, the less scary it becomes, because the main focus for viewers is figuring out the mystery behind the hauntings, rather than the threat of the hauntings themselves. Director Kevin Greutert, who cut his teeth on the Saw series (editing the first five and directing Saw VI and Saw 3D), whips up some generic Louisiana atmosphere, but his PG-13 shock effects are ineffectual, and he’s eventually given over entirely to a story that twists into melodramatic knots. The takeaway from all this: Sometimes less is more.