The Jester (2023) Movie Review: Out of the many sub-genres and themes that horror films tend to deal with, there’s one that has always fascinated me. It’s the idea of having a monster or a spirit take advantage of one’s vulnerabilities born out of the torments of the human condition. These torments can manifest as either anger, regret, grief, or even resentment. Regardless, such avenues are always rifled with potential. Using those emotions to churn out effective psychological dilemmas has always been a classic formula of horror. What’s scarier than the ghosts that lie within, ones that you never see but actively feel burdened by?
Adapted from a short film of the same name, writer-director Colin Krawchuk’s “The Jester” follows estranged half-sisters Emma (Lelia Symington) and Jocelyn (Delaney White), who are tormented by the ghosts of their personal lives. They begin to manifest when the two are stalked by a nefarious jester on Halloween night after their estranged father’s supposed suicide. What exactly is making Jester chase the two leads? Will Emma’s struggle for absolution be enough to cloud The Jester’s potential threat? Is he just a moral-instilling ghost or a mindless, chaos-loving demon?
Mind you, the Jester here isn’t one who has to actively kill and torture his targets. He’s capable of maiming and killing without touching his victims, which makes him peculiar from contemporary horror villains. In the opening sequence of the movie, we get an instant recognition of the despair John (Matt Servitto) seems to be in. It’s during this eerie night that he attempts to call Emma. After his futile attempt, the sinister monster wearing his signature neon-orange hat appears, only to hang John down a bridge till he eventually kills him.
“The Jester” seems like the kind of straight-to-TV movie we got during the mid-2000s. But instead of the unhinged campiness that made those movies stand out, Krawchuk’s feature breaks down as its melodramatic portions outweigh the titular character’s threatening presence. Even when that makes sense from a thematic point of view, it’s the kind of scenes that take place at a leaf-ridden cemetery – or one that unravels at a liquor store during the late hours of Halloween night – that linger in vain of a movie that could’ve been. The same goes for a strangely wholesome yet perfectly off-kilter scene involving the masked man with two young trick-or-treaters.
The crisis that stems out of the film’s clashing tones could’ve helped ignite a story with dreary undercurrents of grief. But devoid of frequent injections of fear or threat, the story runs out of more vicious energy that’s often needed for a horror flick of this subgenre. The mix of darkened memories and frustrations that the characters exude never transforms the film into the kind of psychological drama it wants to be. While the Jester’s indifference to such character projections makes him an intimidating presence, the push toward themes of grief comes across as forced rather than organic.
While the film partly serves as a nostalgia-infused Halloween ghost story, the fundamental structure of narrative progression leans too heavily on drama. Set pieces that excel in mood-setting get undercut by long stretches of scenes where characters talk as if they weren’t given the right cues. There’s a theatricality to the titular masked man, which makes the monster inside him even more menacing, but there never comes an implication of why he was there in the first place.
Sure, good horror lets your imagination fill in the gaps with what you project onto the characters. “The Jester” conflates that notion and remains too vague to ever become enticing enough to warrant its genre roots.