When it comes to “Anything for Jackson,” the only thing more amusing than getting caught up in the ghastly, ghostly thrills of this often squirm-in-your-seat-disturbing horror joint (now streaming on Shudder) is perusing the past works of its director, Justin Dyck. Here are a couple: “Love By Accident.” “Baby In a Manger.” “Love Alaska.” “Christmas With a Prince.” “Christmas Catch.” “Christmas in Paris.” “A Christmas Village.”
That’s definitively how Dyck’s busy career shakes out up to this point. Even if those thirty-some projects created in just six years (!) are largely TV movies cashing in on the enduring candy-cane sweetness of the holidays, the sheer consistency has fully earned him and screenwriter Keith Cooper, a frequent collaborator, the right to experiment in other genres. What the highly effective “Anything for Jackson” proves is that, for all that time in Christmasmovieland, Dyck and Cooper clearly found time to remain versed in the language of modern horror. Their first contribution to it is a small-scale tale of Satanic suspense that finds success in how self-aware it is. Two committed lead performances anchor the movie, and the range they’re asked to cover (and cover it they do) is wonderfully summed up with this line: “We have to keep up appearances.” It’s equally something a grieving family may say and the potential words of a couple that has kidnapped a pregnant woman. Here, it just so happens that both are true.
Sheila McCarthy and Julian Richings play Audrey and Henry Walsh, an older couple who begin the movie in unassuming conversation before doing something ghastly: They take a young woman hostage soon after she has arrived at their home. Cooper’s to-the-point screenplay teases agendas before revealing motivations, but Audrey’s calm air of rehearsed practicality suggests a quiet menace as she reads from a script to their unwitting guest, Shannon (Konstantina Mantelos, a horror-actress name if there ever was one). Audrey apologizes for all the ruckus downstairs, but insists that “We want you to be comfortable here—for you and for the sake of the baby.” At the same time, Shannon observes a young boy in the same room, a boy Audrey can’t see but insists is Jackson, their dead grandchild.
Perhaps Audrey’s words are sincere – after all, they took the liberty of sleeving Shannon’s handcuffs in pieces of comfy, thick sweater! – but more questions arise in a kaleidoscope of plot intrigue. What’s their relationship to Shannon? How did they know she was pregnant? Is the couple cuckoo, or are supernatural forces at play? Some of these questions will be answered quickly, via dips into the very recent past and by also revealing Audrey and Henry to be amateur members of a demonic cult early on. At the same time, sound foundations are laid for Dyck and Cooper to toy with audience expectations; the fact that the dear old probably-have-never-hurt-a-fly Walsh couple are new to this demon-worshipping, stranger-kidnapping business becomes a springboard for darkly ironic flourishes. In one funny moment, they recite incantations from an ancient, “Evil Dead”-style Book of the Dead as if it were instructions for fixing a leak under the kitchen counter. In another, Audrey handles a screaming Shannon’s cell phone with a hilariously ginger touch while laying the social media breadcrumbs of a fake disappearance (“DTF? What’s that?”). From soundproofing their prisoner’s room to keeping the nosy local detective off their tail, the couple has planned this all out.
So too, thankfully, have the filmmakers. It’s to Dyck and Cooper’s credit that “Anything for Jackson” possesses (pun intended) the foresight to weave morbid dread throughout its black comedy, and to make the best of it. Here’s where they find their source for spooks. Premonitions start to haunt Audrey and Henry, the protagonists start to question reality, terror starts to be unleashed (you might decide to take a break from flossing after one of the movie’s most memorably scary sequences). “Anything for Jackson” refers to the Walshs’ plans for Shannon and the baby inside her as a “reverse exorcism.” It might be asking too much for audiences to naturally arrive at that realization, but it doesn’t take away from what we observe anyway as the movie begins to transform: For all their precautions, Audrey and Henry are two people totally in over their heads, and now some mischievous spirits from hell have come to play. Eventually, a fellow human the couple enlists to help will cause just as much mayhem.
“Anything for Jackson” keeps the chaos down to a couple specifically horrific elements, which in turn allows them to be utilized for maximum fright wattage. There are some overly obvious signs here and there that this is a modestly budgeted production, but the movie compensates with its writing. Dyck and Cooper help themselves out by keeping things juuuuuuust out of the territory of parody in the movie’s first half, and the payoff is that the Walshs’ steady loss of control dovetails organically with their very human motivations—the narrative never loses sight that the reason they’re going to these wild lengths is to see their grandson again. Is that a twinge of sympathy we feel for them, despite everything? If so, it’s a sign of how absorbing and malleable McCarthy and Richings are in their performances. You’d have to stretch to find real blood-and-guts commentary on entitlement and generational privilege (as with recent thrillers “Run” and “Kindred,” “Anything for Jackson” prioritizes atmosphere over revelation), but the movie’s co-leads make the burden simultaneously scarier and easier to bear—for us and for the film they’re in.
"Anything for Jackson" is not rated. It's now available to stream on Shudder.
Starring: Sheila McCarthy, Julian Richings, Konstantina Mantelos, Josh Cruddas
Directed by Justin Dyck
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