Jackals. 2017. Directed by Kevin Greutert. Screenplay by Jared Rivet.
Starring Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen Dorff, Johnathon Schaech, Nick Roux, Alyssa Julya Smith, Chelsea Ricketts, Jason Scott Jenkins, Ben Sullivan, Alex Kingi, Cassie Hernandez, Alex Castillo, & Carol Abney.
Tommy Alastra Productions
Not Rated. 85 minutes.
Although Kevin Greutert didn’t sit in the director’s chair until 2009 when he directed Saw VI, he’s old hand in the industry, working in the editorial department as far back as Ernest Scared Stupid; he did uncredited work on big budget features like Titanic and Armageddon. So it’s nice to see his name as director on a couple recent films that are top notch horror.
Such as his latest, Jackals: a brutal horror-thriller centred on a family with deep, divisive issues, one of whom has been lured into a cult. The action begins as the family, along with a hardened cult deprogrammer take their son forcibly to a cabin in order to save him from the grip of these mysterious people. Only the cult’s got different ideas.
This is easily Greutert’s best work. Due in no small part to the morbidly exciting screenplay from Jared Rivet in his feature film debut as writer, giving us a story that doesn’t need twists and turns to be scary or wild. Together, Greutert and Rivet craft a very human, devastating movie that will eat at the heart of anyone with even half of one.
I dig that the film takes place in mid-1983, yet it isn’t a forced period piece. Sometimes the throwback ’80s film works, though often enough in horror it feels too much of a choice rather than a natural progression. Jackals feels at home in the ’80s because of the Satanic panic craze that swept America, the era of repressed memory therapy when far too many doctors messed up their patients by planting memories rather than digging them up. An era of confused people searching for meaning.
The son, Justin (Ben Sullivan), is terribly lost. A creepy cult’s wrapped him up with their rhetoric of madness. Scariest of all it’s not just community, it’s family the cult has provided him. Paralleled with the family he feels cast out by, in various ways, from his secretively adulterous dad Andrew (Johnathon Schaech) to his sort of alcoholic mother Kathy (Deborah Kara Unger), and most of all his psychologically abusive brother Campbell (Nick Roux).
The film’s greatest strength, on top of its bleak horror, is its examination of what makes up a family, as well as how dangerous things can happen when a family doesn’t perform its proper function. While the individual’s responsible for themselves ultimately, a family constructs the foundation of their actions and emotions. What seems like years of inattention has led Justin to feel abandoned by his natural family, causing him to seek out family in the arms of the psychotic cult.
Everything in the plot forces the broken family to either mend, or die; if there’s even an option. They’re all trying to do what they couldn’t before, save Justin. And through it all they try finding redemption, if they can bring themselves to do whatever must be done. Whether that happens you have to watch and see for yourself.
There’s a great moment when the family, between in-fighting, are left wondering how Justin could’ve fallen in with such violent types of people. Dear ole mom knows: “He‘s a young man. Young men need to find their, drive.” Unfortunately, this drive doesn’t always wind up positive. Like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy – may as well toss Jim Jones in while were discussing cults – Justin’s drive became murder and other psychopathy.
Going along with that there are moments in Jackals which scream, or should I say howl the influence of Charles Manson. Specifically, Justin feels much like one of the Manson family’s male followers, wide-eyed, spouting insane shit. Plus the fact they call it a family specifically, at least Justin does. And that’s a concept of cults very specific to the infamous leader. Then, the howling. He howls like a wild animal, something very Manson-esque. More than that he calls his family “piggies” and that’s straight up Charlie.
Spooky moments are plenty throughout. A solid start opens the film on a POV shot of a guy murdering his family, putting on a jackal mask to join his cult friends. Then there’s the howl from Justin, returned by his family outside sounding just like a pack of animals; maybe the creepiest of all. However, there’s one kill in particular which takes the cake involving a super meticulous burning, a slow, painful death, and it’s… cruel, no other word for it. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t get the job done! That’s what we’re here for, right?
With a grim end, void of any hope, Greutert’s Jackals cements itself as one of the best horrors of 2017. Unsettling cult members + weird masks? Check. Vicious violence? Cheeeeck. Add to that good characters with genuine depth, solid writing bringing them out through dialogue that doesn’t clunk through each scene like too many horror flicks out there, and with the tension Greutert creates it’s a nasty piece of work.
This is a grounded view of cults, their brainwashing, the later process of trying to deprogram someone from outrageous, dangerous, indoctrinated thought. There are emotional roots in the story, which make the terrifying events later all the more impressively scary. So much tension, never lets go.
Is a family only those with whom we share blood? Can others become the family a person needs or wants? People find their own families, no matter how brutal, no matter at what expense. Even if they have to violently leave their natural family behind.