Set in the 1980s, an estranged family hires a cult deprogrammer to take back their teenage son from a murderous cult, but find themselves under siege when the cultists surround their cabin, demanding the boy back.
September 1st, 2017
Deborah Kara Unger
The film’s opening sequence is quite breathless, with powerful, percussive editing from Greutert (his editing credits are impressive, including The Strangers and basically all of the Saw films). It’s a masterful set-up of “what’s going on?” as the central family awaits the arrival of someone at their remote mountain cabin. We then see two young men with a flat tire on their car; on a desolate highway. One of them is kidnapped and brought to this same cabin. It’s a really great set-up and smartly done, but when the film takes a much-needed first breath – it sadly never regains the tension and power of the film’s first 15 minutes.
And that’s a shame. The film is shot well, scored well, acted well – but never fully engaging.
The kidnapped person is 20-something Justin (Ben Sullivan) of the Powell family. Mother Kathy (Silent Hill and The Game’s Deborah Kara Unger), father Andrew (Johnathon Schaech), brother Campbell (Nick Roux) and Justin’s former girlfriend Samantha (Chelsea Ricketts) as well as her newborn child – have all come together to basically hold an intervention, and attempt to bring their wayward son Justin back from his new family – a cult called the Jackals. Former military man and now cult de-programmer Jimmy Levine (Leatherface’s Stephen Dorff) is along to keep things in check and to do most of the heavy lifting. When Justin’s fellow cult members arrive to take him back – the evening becomes a bloodbath and both families battle for what they believe to be “their son”.
I appreciate that the film was set up in the ‘80s, so there never had to be the necessity to justify no cell phone usage/reception (filmmakers don’t even try to explain this away anymore!), but that seems to be the only reason to set the film in that era. And the cabin is rustic enough that it could be set at any time. Other than a pink polo shirt with the collar up and a rotary phone – there’s not much to firmly set the film in the ‘80s. This whole period exercise felt unnecessary.
There’s a pre-credits sequence lifted directly out of Carpenter’s Halloween (including “hand-held” camera and the donning of a mask). It’s barely related to the whole of the film, only used to establish that the waywardness of Justin and his engagement with the cult – is not a first time scenario. This is another brainwashed kid taking vengeance on his biological family. But like the ‘80s setting, it again feels unnecessary – only proving that the filmmakers like Carpenter (don’t we all?)
I was impressed with performances overall. Everyone brought their A-game, but the script/scenarios didn’t offer up a whole lot of oomph as far as character-driven drama. I’ve always loved Unger’s work, and she has no problem bringing proper emotion to all she does – including here. But like the rest of the characters in the film, there’s not much background to Kathy. There are feeble attempts to have the characters reminisce about their old family cabin, but it never takes hold or feels authentic. It’s never enough. And like any other film (horror or not), we have to first care about these people before we’ll fear for them or cheer them on. I simply didn’t care about any of these people – but that blame can’t be thrown at the feet of the actors, who do the best with what they are given.
I realize it’s probably a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers, but the fact that there’s no resolution to this family’s problems – even in the heat of the siege on the cabin and in the climax – doesn’t sit well with me. With no redemption or closure on so many open things – it just makes it seem as if the characters are lambs being led to the slaughter. And again – if that’s what was intended, fine. But it did nothing for me and even less when attempting to gain sympathy for the characters.
The visuals of the masked cult members standing outside the cabin, bathed in car headlights from behind – casting murky and creepy shadows – looks fantastic, but it became repetitive. I didn’t want (or expect) introductions to the cult members and some attempt to understand their actions – but a bit more variety as far as they were concerned, would have been a welcome change.
The film owes a great deal to Wes Craven’s seminal classic The Hills Have Eyes. Two warring “families” – one who is used to being cold, calculated and violent and the other coming from a place of cushions, entitlement and money.
The problem with Jackals, is that the “rich” family takes too quickly to their “kick-ass” side. It felt too natural a shift – given that the moment things go bad, they don’t just grab random weapons, they begin to construct something with the weapons – making spears. It felt like the “normal” family of The Hills Have Eyes fumbled far more before they found their survival instincts – which is more reasonable. And that is one of the key problems of Jackals. They’re monsters far too quickly. That fumbling time serves to bring up lots of sympathy and fear for the “rich” family. Jackals falls far short in that.
And it felt very reactionary all throughout, whereas Craven’s classic completely turns the tables on the “bad guys” when the “rich” family finds their footing and change from defense to offense. That shift doesn’t completely happen in Jackals.
But in the tethering and burning of one family member, the presence of a crying baby, the threat of rape against the women and again – the two polar opposite families fighting against something they can’t understand – the comparison to Craven’s (far better) film is quite apt.
Had the film kept the water boiling at the same intense level as what we saw with the character’s introductions, I may well have been writing a far more positive review. As is – it sadly doesn’t work.
Good production values, solid acting and an intense opening can’t make up for the unsympathetic drudgery and pacing issues of the rest of the film. At a tepid 3-star rating, I’ll leave it up to my avid readers of 2 to make their own choice as to whether they offer up their time and dime to this one.
Jackals will be released theatrically and on VOD on September 1st, 2017.