Kevin Greutert isn’t a household name, but if his latest film JACKALS is any indication, that may soon change. He is best known for editing the first few SAW sequels and directing SAW VI (2009) and SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2010). Greutert has proven that he has an expert understanding of pacing, as well as the ability to get everything and more out of the actors under his direction. JACKALS not only further cements these attributes, but shows they have been elevated to another level. Greutert also hasn’t lost his touch in the editing room as this film is stitched together perfectly.
In JACKALS, Actress Deborah Kara Unger (CRASH, SILENT HILL) is a mother who, along with her ex-husband (Johnathon Schaech) bring in a specialist named Jimmy (Stephen Dorff, BLADE and the upcoming LEATHERFACE) to abduct and de-program their son Justin (Ben Sullivan) who has joined a cult called The Jackals. Also along for the ride is Justin’s girlfriend Samantha (Chelsea Ricketts), his newborn baby girl Zoe, and his brother Cam (Nick Roux). Abrasive and borderline psychotic from the beginning, Justin warns that the brothers and sisters of his cult will soon arrive to retrieve him. This warning comes to fruition, leaving the family no other choice but to try and fend them off.
Ben Sullivan was clearly invested in his role as the brainwashed Justin. He portrayed the character with an inhumane viciousness and as a viewer, made it near impossible to sympathize with him. This helped show how deeply rooted he had become in the Jackals’ doctrine. It also showed just how hard it would be for his family to get through to him. With every attempt that was made, there was a more disturbing response from Justin. This included comments and glances towards his baby daughter Zoe. These exchanges are cringeworthy in all the right ways. It shows how far gone Justin really is. Throughout the film, The Jackals dawn some pretty creepy masks. Justin shows that it’s the shell of a person under the mask that should be feared.
JACKALS never tries to be more than it is, which ultimately makes it a very enjoyable watch. Everything about this film is simple and to the point, allowing tension and mood to take the forefront in scenes. This makes you feel just as trapped inside that little country cabin as the Powell family. Every member of the family desperately trying to reach Justin is very effective. Each seems to be haunted by him in their own way and for their own reasons. Much of this is shown physically rather than verbally, which speaks to the high level of acting that was turned in across the board. It is clear that Greutert was able to get exactly what was needed out of all involved. The family is there for the same reason though, and that is to get Justin back.
Once the Jackals arrive at the cabin, the nightmare begins. Their organization shows that they have done this sort of thing before. When the first blood is drawn it becomes clear just how dangerous they are. Even though there isn’t a word spoken by a cult member (besides Justin) their enjoyment in the experience is clear. The attack on the cabin is just as much mental as it is physical. It is evident that controlling is just as important to them as simply defeating. It seems the goal is to defeat you, but not before they make you bow down to them. This made perfect sense, as this is exactly what cults do to their own prospective members. Only, instead of discarding those prospects they are brought in to be a part of the machine.
The tension in the film was built gradually throughout but was present from the opening scene. This was best showcased by Deborah Kara Unger’s character Kathy Powell. It was clear that she was having issues beyond her son Justin and this caused tense moments with others in her family. These interactions are the foundation for the tension and are neatly built upon as the film unfolds. Once the Jackals start playing their mind games, the tension is twisted tight like a rubber band. You are left anxiously waiting for it to snap at any moment. It is this anxiety that keeps you invested in the film and carries you through to the fitting conclusion.
The cinematography is another high point in the film as Andrew Russo turned in a great effort. The transformation of a picturesque cabin on a fall day to the nightmare it becomes as darkness falls was expertly captured. The surreal blue-black shots of the jackals outside of the cabin were haunting and helped further accentuate the terror the Powell family was experiencing. These night shots had a surrealism to them that reminded me of something right out of a David Lynch project. A fine achievement indeed…Damn fine. All joking aside, it was a perfect visual backdrop for a dangerous cult like the Jackals. Seeing their masks slowly creep out of the darkness surrounded by fog was nightmare-inducing. These are the types of images that will linger in your mind well after the film has ended.
The inside of the cabin was expertly captured as well, highlighting earth tones and a comforting quaintness during the day. Natural light shines in and reflects off of the wooden walls beautifully. Two large windows look out onto the yard that is surrounded by autumnal trees. many stunning shots result from this setup. As the film progresses the cabin turns from quaint to claustrophobic. shadows replace the lit hallways and rooms, making inside seem just as dangerous as out. It certainly took away any level of comfort that existed and Russo captured it perfectly. This level of accuracy sometimes goes unnoticed but is imperative, as shots that were too dark would have made the film hard to follow.
The beautiful camera work was accompanied by Anton Sanko’s simple but effective score. Saying that it is simple is by no means a slight, as anything overdone would have taken focus away from the film itself. Sanko was able to craft the score in a way that played perfectly with the action of the film, while still being beautiful music in its own right. Sanko is no stranger to the horror genre as he composed both OUIJA (2014) and THE POSSESSION (2012). It is no surprise that he was able to deliver a thoughtful score to JACKALS.
Jared Rivet wrote the screenplay for JACKALS and in all honesty I thought it was a little shallow in parts. That’s not to say that it was bad, but some of the dialogue between the Powell family was a bit clunky. As I stated before, the acting that was turned in was on point and largely made up for these encounters. One of the aspects of this film was Justin being the glue as well as the undoing of the Powell family dynamic. Had the exchanges between the Powell’s been a bit deeper this would have been more effective than it was. It is hard not to wonder where JACKALS could have been elevated had the script been a bit deeper.
The Jackals not speaking a word wasn’t an issue, but it would have been nice to have a bit more background on the cult itself. This could have been done through a montage of news reports regarding the cult or through Jimmy who is supposed to be the cult expert. It was clear that the cult was dangerous, but to what extent? Were they localized in one area of the country or spread out across many states? How many members were there? Answers to these questions could have given the cult a bit more depth. In turn, this would have made them seem even more dangerous. Simplicity made this film what it was, but a few areas would have benefited from some complexity.
As a father, this film certainly struck a chord with me. It is scary to think that a complete stranger could brainwash your child to the point that you mean nothing to them. This of course has happened in the real world which, brought a terrifying element to the film. I put myself in the Powell’s shoes and realized that I would do anything I could to try to get my child back if I was in the same situation. The emotions shown by both parents in the film were realistic and made it very easy to root for them throughout. They don’t see Justin as a psychotic cult member. Instead, they see the little boy that they had raised and desperately want him back. They show they will go to any length necessary even if that means losing a bit of their own humanity.
JACKALS may not break new ground in the horror genre, but it is absolutely worth watching. For the little bit that the film is lacking it makes up for in overall delivery. It’s that time of year again when a chill begins sneaking into the air and JACKALS is the perfect way to kick off the fall season. Grab some candy corn and a giant glass of apple cider and have yourself a creepy movie night.