Anything for Jackson. 2020.
Directed by Justin G. Dyck. Screenplay by Keith Cooper.
Starring Sheila McCarthy, Julian Richings, Konstantina Mantelos, Josh Cruddas, & Yannick Bisson.
Brain Power Studio / Vortex Words Pictures
Not Rated / 97 minutes
The following essay contains SPOILERS!
If you thought old people were scary already, you’re in for it now because Anything for Jackson will do nothing to assuage those fears. It’s really fitting Justin G. Dyck directed this film. He’s done a lot of TV movie work that’s decidedly family/kid friendly. Usually horror that involves kids or old people, or both, ticks a box for me that other horror can’t match; not saying all such films are good, because they’re not, there’s just a greater chance they’ll truly unsettle me if they involve children or the elderly. Dyck’s film, written by Keith Cooper, focuses on both in an unexpected way.
Dr. Henry (Julian Richings) Walsh and his wife Audrey (Sheila McCarthy) are heartbroken over their shattered family. They’re so devastated they concoct a dark plan to kidnap a pregnant woman and transfer their dead grandson’s spirit into the lady’s unborn baby with occult magic. They nab one of Henry’s patients, Shannon (Konstantina Mantelos); the old couple only call the pregnant woman by her last name, Becker, as if it somehow keeps distance between them and their crimes. The newly Satanist senior citizens discover they’re in over their heads very quickly.
What the film does best is offer a unique perspective on Satanist horror, from there everything else flows naturally. Richings and McCarthy are so perfect for these roles, they chew every bit of scenery they’re dropped in the middle of, and Mantelos pulls her weight as an appropriately terrified pregnant woman in the midst of absolute horror. Keith Cooper’s screenplay brings out the darkest of comedy from its premise, and helps illustrate why ageism in film only deprives of us more rich, unique stories. Best of all, Anything for Jackson uses its main characters to explore the Gothic side of ageing, and flips the idea of family on its head with Satan.
An eerie and hilarious part of Anything for Jackson has to do with the film’s perspective on old people and the 21st century. We see a subverted idea of grandma and grandpa learning how to use technology when they’re learning it for the sole purpose of abusing it to kidnap a pregnant woman. “You‘re a full–blown techie now,” Henry says to his wife like she’s just learned their fancy new remote, not how to cover their tracks digitally to be sure nobody suspects them in Becker’s disappearance. While most grandparents are learning to text so they can keep in touch with their grandchildren, Henry and Audrey are doing it for selfish, sinister reasons.
Another scene that’s equally funny and disturbing is the pre-written monologue delivered by Audrey to Becker. To start, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the twisted serial killer David Parker Ray, who pre-recorded instructions for his victims to play when they woke up. I note this only to say that Audrey and Henry feel more like serial killers than grieving grandparents. The letter reading’s also the most darkly comic bit of the film, which is already chock-full of dark comedy. Audrey tries to make herself and Henry into victims. She talks as if it hurts them just as much as it will Becker to do what they’re doing. She tells the frightened pregnant woman, without a shred of self-awareness: “We all have feelings.”
I love the juxtaposed ideas of death and life with a dead child’s soul meant to be transposed into a newborn child’s body. This element fits well with the mangled idea of family at the centre of Anything for Jackson. Henry and Audrey want to recreate the family they lost. They’re actually only playing into “Satan‘s kingdom without end” by using life in order to channel death. The most interesting is that the demon they appeal to is Surgat, a minor demon in the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, the Secrets of Solomon, and the Grimorium Verum. The name Surgat is awfully close to the word ‘surrogate,’ which Becker becomes physically and spiritually.
So, in every sense, Henry and Audrey are creating the dark inverse of traditional family, conjuring up a Satanic family for themselves. Satan becomes the sinister godparent to Jackson in his new form. The elderly couple come to see the disturbing error of their actions later, in part due to similar lessons learned as the ones the characters learn in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.
My favourite aspect of the whole film is how Henry and Audrey, in their still green phase of Satanism, accidentally break the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead. Horrific ghosts appear all throughout the house; one of the scariest ghosts, a suffocating man with a bag over his head, is played by the extraordinary Troy James, who sprang into our collective nightmares as Pretzel Jack in the final season of Channel Zero. The most important ghost is a little trick-or-treater, who goes from child-sized to towering above Audrey. We learn the old couple’s full backstory in this moment. The trick-or-treating girl starts to posit the Gothic haunted house as one filled with bad memories, not necessarily literal ghosts; the haunting of memory. The haunted house here is also a house haunted by ageing—the older you get, the more bad memory ghosts cling to you and your home, until the mind is a haunted house all of its own.
Anything for Jackson is my favourite film I saw during Nightstream. I’m not huge on comedy and horror, but the story’s largely horror and its comedy is so subtly played it never gets in the way of the darker, disturbing things happening. The irony of the line “Something‘s wrong with Ian” made me laugh so hard, and it’s one reason why Julian Richings is an underrated actor. Richings and McCarthy soak up all the pathos of this tragic story and never miss a beat, whether for creeps or laughs. Their gentle qualities among all the Satanic madness make you want to care for Audrey and Henry, despite knowing what they’re up to, and it’s often in paradox where the greatest horror lies.
I’ve long hated the idea that once performers are so old they’re relegated to specific, dreary supporting roles. Horror’s been better than some genres, though there’s been plenty of focus on youth, from the sexualised female bodies and pretty young faces of slasher films to the various 1990s horrors full of beautiful twenty-somethings playing teens. It’s been a welcome surprise that the 2000s have been gradually moving away from that, at least somewhat. Films like The Visit and The Taking of Deborah Logan have done legitimately terrifying things making use of older actors, and for more than just a throwaway scare or two. Anything for Jackson is a unique use of Satanism in horror, and a scary look at the horrors of growing old. By far one of the best horror films of 2020.