Written by: Jared Rivet
Directed by: Kevin Greutert
Starring: Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen Dorff, and Johnathon Schaech
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Jackals opens with a scene that’s both familiar and disturbing: via a roving first-person shot, audiences find themselves prowling through a suburban home, where a family is startled awake by the presence of an unseen stalker. They seem to recognize whoever it is, which makes it all the more shocking when the intruder brutally stabs them to death before checking himself out in a mirror. We find that he’s wearing a strange mask, making it even more impossible to shake the obvious comparisons to Halloween. But despite the awfully familiar trappings during this homage, it still manages to exploit that primal horror of home invasion. We’re supposed to be at our most safe within the confines of our own home, but this genre perverts and upends that by insisting this is when we could also be at our most vulnerable.
Jackals takes this notion a step further by also insisting that the familial ties that bind can also be undone in violent fashion if one falls prey to a cult. Following that prologue—which doesn’t figure into the rest of the proceedings beyond introducing the masked killer iconography—the film takes a bit of a whirlwind turn. We find a family holed up in a remote cabin, speaking cryptically about an impending arrival; a few miles away, two young men are forced to the roadside to address some car trouble, only to see a van speed up to their location. A pair of men jump out and abduct one of them and bring him back to that same remote cabin, prompting a bewildered audience to wonder just what in the hell is actually going on here.
It turns out that the abducted man is Justin Powell (Ben Sullivan), the family’s youngest son, who has fallen victim to a local, violent cult. As their last resort, the Powells have hired a cult deprogrammer (Stephen Dorff) to break the group’s hold over Justin in the hopes that he’ll return to them and flee the murderous cult for good. Unfortunately, his adoptive family—a group of howling, masked maniacs –aren’t exactly willing to let him go easily and have descended upon the cabin to reclaim him by any means necessary.
A lean, mean piece of work, Jackals introduces a clever wrinkle to the home invasion formula by mounting the suspense inside and outside the house. Obviously, the knife-wielding psychos lurking outside pose a threat; however, so, too does Justin, whose unnerving presence threatens to unravel the family from within. It’s an unnerving dynamic, one that’s further heightened by the film’s willingness to go for the throat at every turn. Even though Dorff cuts a commanding, authoritative presence during the early-going, he’s not long for the film when he wanders outside to investigate the mysterious figures prowling about. If the film’s grim prologue weren’t disturbing enough, this turn of events only reinforces and foreshadows its unrelenting nihilism.
This group’s motives might be well-known, but there’s still something unfathomable about this horde of evil that swarms about the Powell family. Powerless against the group’s impossible number (they just seem to appear everywhere, much like an infestation), the family brandishes makeshift weapons and game plans scenarios, only to be continually thwarted. Pure evil surrounds them, baying like wild animals outside of the home, almost as if they were a force of nature that can’t be stopped. Certainly, they cannot be bargained with, as Justin has become a dead-eyed shell of his former self, his personality completely subsumed by this sociopathic husk that embraces pain and relishes in watching his family—which includes a girlfriend and his baby daughter—cower in fear.
His angle is what obviously sets Jackals apart from other home invasion films. Riley Stearns mined the rigors of intense deprogramming routines to great effect in Faults, and Jackals writer Jared Rivet seemed to look at that film and wondered what it might look like if a pack of homicidal slashers were introduced to the mix. The result is pretty solid, as the family’s desperation to recover their son’s soul both deepens the emotional stakes and makes them more vulnerable to the cult’s mechanizations. The performances here a uniformly strong, so the premise isn’t just cheap lip service: Johnathon Schaech and Deborah Unger are tasked with walking a delicate line as the parents, who must defend their own family without also sacrificing their brainwashed son. Unger especially reveals that angst throughout, and you can practically watch her come to the slow realization that her entire family isn’t likely to remain intact after this ordeal.
At a certain point, however, I think it is fair to say Jackals degenerates into a stash-and-stalk display, albeit one that’s been infused with a potent sense of atmosphere and striking images. Director Kevin Greutert—who is certainly no stranger to this sort of thing—doesn’t treat the violence as a matter of course but rather garnishes it with suspenseful camerawork and evocative photography. Shots of the masked jackals howling outside of the house are pretty killer, even if they might be a tad more enjoyable in a film that were, well…more enjoyable. I say this not as a critique but as an observation: ultimately, Jackals isn’t the type of film you really enjoy, not when it eventually wallows in gruesome, torture based violence that involves a man being roasted as his parents watch on. Some violent outbursts (such as an almost artful throat-slash) are stylish, but it’s in the service of a film that’s ultimately a total bummer.
Despite its 80s setting (which winds up being more functional than anything: without cell phones, the family is truly isolated), Jackals does not follow in the tradition of that decade’s riotous, rousing slashers. It might look the part, particularly when it leans on some questionable, predictable decisions, but this is a pretty nasty affair, one made all the more disturbing by the insistence that it’s based on a true story. I’m almost afraid to look any more deeply into that claim, and that’s a testament to Jackals itself: its ability to conjure up the fears associated with home invasions and cults is disturbing enough. It doesn’t quite stick the landing coming out of its clever setup, but it doesn’t completely flub it, either, as there’s enough skill and style on display to carry it past any niggling concerns about its script.
Jackals is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory. The disc includes a commentary with Greutert, the film’s trailer, and interviews with the cast and crew.
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