“Well worth an evening’s sacrifice”
Horror comedies – and those with madcap characters – are difficult to get right, but Anything for Jackson hits the nail on the head (or cross), authentically as sweet as it is sinister. The film is a suitably weird collaboration from director Justin G. Dyck and writer Keither Cooper, the pair having carved out their careers with family-friendly TV Christmas Movies (Baby in a Manger, A Christmas Village) none of which you would have likely seen. But whatever tenderness softened those films, it has been extracted and distilled to wickedly smart effect in this devilish offering. Featuring a demonic contortionist that will make you scream, Dyck’s swerve into the horror genre is well worth an evening’s sacrifice.
Satanic dramas are usually good fun, but where Anything for Jackson hits home is the uncommonly heartfelt performances from Sheila McCarthy and Julian Richings as Audrey and Henry Walsh, the elderly couple intent on abducting a woman so that her unborn child can be sacrificed in a diabolical ritual. In an industry where a young couple might have been cast instead, it’s refreshing to see these two ageing actors grab the mantle by the throat and deliver two of the most enjoyable performances of the year.
The film wastes no time in getting down to business, smartly trickling in its backstory much later than you would usually get with a horror film like this. It begins with the Walsh couple arguing about trouser cuffs, signalling the humour that underlines the scares throughout. But it’s only a few heartbeats before Henry drags the pregnant Shannon (Konstantina Mantelos) kicking and screaming through their nice home. Once hand-cuffed to the bed, they let Shannon wail hopelessly for help – it’s important to test their recently sound-proofed bedroom so that they can open the gates of hell undisturbed. Of course, they have not prepared for unwelcome nasties, one of which is a ghoulish woman flossing her bloody teeth out one at a time, the awful sound cues sliding straight and satisfyingly to the brain.
The bones of the story are that Shannon’s unborn child is to be phantom swapped during a shady ritual so that little Jackson – Audrey and Henry’s dead grandson with a gash in his head – can return to life through the window of Shannon’s pregnancy. At least, this is what the ancient occult tome the couple carry around reads – but neither are great with the translations. It’s a terrible plan at best, but for Henry and Audrey, there’s no going back, even as the house gets stuck in a loop of death and destruction: “You can’t win a moral argument with me, I’ve made a deal with the devil,” he tells Shannon, in one of the film’s slower, more emotionally charged scenes.
This is also where the script writes itself into holes – rituals of this sort only go one way. The only ending for these characters is a bad ending. A weak third act that feels unfinished and is predictably hijacked by a side character can’t help leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. It’s disappointing that the film does a disservice to its great opening and middle act – the latter of which consists of a rolling slideshow of one demonic set piece to the next. It’s a lot of fun and much of the enjoyment comes from Audrey and Henry reacting to their awful decision and coming to terms with the fact that maybe a pact with the devil wasn’t such a great idea – especially when neighbours and other characters start getting sucked into the carnage like food into a blender. This is all inherent to the horrible pleasure of horror films and the director has a natural sense for this.
Mostly confined to the Walsh house, Dyke gets the most of his cast and environment. Creative flairs such as a murder of crows circling the house at the half-way point keep things progressively fresh and the scary sequences are uniformly good, the two apparitions mentioned earlier lingering long in the mind. There are a few shades of Sam Ramie’s Drag Me to Hell (2009) in Dyke’s approach to the horror – a likely side-effect from the director’s background in Christmas comedies – in the demonic designs and airy campness to the horror.
Mantelos does as much as she can from her chained bedpost, her early screams thankfully tuning into something more driven and interesting towards the end, but her overall role feels undercut and the climax only compounds this. It’s not a huge problem, the stars of the show are rightfully Sheila McCarthy and Julian Richings. It’s difficult to convey just how much they bring to familiar horror trappings without you seeing the film, but there’s a simple, irresistible charm to everything they do. One example is the way Audrey goes straight for a cup of tea after being chased through her home by a terrifying toothless hag. Anything for Jackson is built up of small moments like this. Even when it leans too much on expected paranormal territory, there is always a sharp line from Audrey or Henry to bring out the film’s surprising heart.
Don’t be fooled, though, Anything for Jackson is no cute horror-comedy. Although Henry and Audrey bring real warmth to their occult abductor roles, they both know what they are doing is bad and neither will turn back. There is a refreshing determination to their self-made doom that’s delicately balanced with a true sense of grief and tragic love, for each other and the grandson they have lost. For all of its plot deficiencies, Cooper’s script does wonders on a character front. McCarthy and Richings have such a handle on the balance of light and darkness in the film that you can’t help but believe every word they say, even as events nose-dive into the absurd. This is the sort of fiendishly quirky film that’s easy to vouch for despite some damaging flaws.
Director: Justin G. Dyck
Producers: Keith Cooper, Justin G. Dyck, Christopher Giroux, Bill Marks
Cast: Sheila McCarthy, Julian Richings, Konstantina Mantelos, Josh Cruddas
Release Date: 2020
Available on: Shudder
Feature image courtesy of Shudder