Nightstream 2020: ANYTHING FOR JACKSON

The opening scene of Anything For Jackson is disarmingly cozy. An elderly man is chatting with his wife, asking her to help hem his pants, concerned that if they are baggy he will look like a “rap music person.” She gently teases him that it isn’t likely anyone is going to confuse him for such, but their genial conversation is broken off when she spies something outside. They both rush out quickly, and a few moments later return with a woman, visibly pregnant, who they abduct up through an in-home elevator.

This scene functions as a perfect sampler for what director Justin Dyck is up to throughout the film: juxtaposing the sweet co-existence of two people who have lived a loving, if difficult life together, and the horrific violence they find themselves immersed in. It helps that Dyck’s lens portrays their suburban, affluent living as comfortable until they take steps into the unknown. By the end of the film, that quiet existence has been disrupted irrevocably. But it still somehow remains… sweet? It is a unique film, and one I won’t soon forget.

That sweetness is probably an by-product of a fact I have to address: Dyck’s previous output before this movie (and at least two films he has made that are in post-production) was almost exclusively made for TV Christmas films. In fact, the majority of the cast and crew of the film at Hallmark movie veterans. This isn’t a pedigree that the film would suggest; this is a classist horror film, having more in common with The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby than Dyck’s other movies like A Very Country Christmas. But there is an undercurrent that suggests a sympathy and familiarity that clicks into place once you know that connection.

Anything For Jackson tells the story of elderly doctor Henry Walsh (Julian Richings) and his loving wife Audrey (Sheila McCarthy in a fantastic performance),the sweet couple from the opening film. Henry and Audrey have begun to dabble in some old-fashioned Satanism as a means to resurrect their lost grandson, the titular Jackson. Their method for doing this is to abduct pregnant woman Shannon(Konstanina Mantelos), a patient of Henry’s, and to have a ceremony to force her unborn child to be resurrected form of Jackson.

Here is the central conflict and argument of the film: that the pain of grief can make otherwise reasonable and lovely people to horrific acts, that the passion of love can push towards what we would otherwise find unspeakable. Henry and Audrey aren’t gleeful Satanists, constantly affirming to Becker that they have no intention of hurting her if they can help it at all. At one point, Audrey knits small woolen coozies for the handcuffs that keep Becker tied to her bed, to make sure she is as comfortable as possible. These are evil people; they are good people whose love for their grandson and the pain of missing him have driven them towards evil.

As you can imagine, things don’t go according to plan and soon the escalation of the consequences brought about by their supernatural meddling forces Audrey and Henry to reap what they have sown. But they remain resolute throughout, Audrey to the mission of bringing Jackson back, and Henry in his blind, resolute devotion to Audrey. The thing that makes the film something truly special is the chemistry between Audrey and Henry; they truly feel like a pair who have lived life together, who have seen joys and sorrows, who are lonely and remorseful but still deeply, truly in love with each other and with the idea of their family. I dare say they are likeable, even as they dig themselves deeper and deeper into forces they can’t possibly control.

The rest of the cast is also fairly strong, especially Mantelos, whom you’re never quite sure if her quiet kindness towards Henry and Audrey is genuine or just a ploy to free herself. Josh Cruddas plays a fellow Satanist Ian, who is less sympathetic or driven by personal grief in his interest in the occult; he stands as a start contrast to Henry and Audrey, who are simply attempting to get what they want with no long-term investment.

Make no mistake: this film is creepy, with a brooding atmosphere and long lingering shots of disquieting hauntings. The subject matter, including the potential endangering of an unborn child, is unsettling and the film is uncompromising in lingering on those dangers; if that is a hard out, then this film does not relent. Especially as the film escalates to it’s final act, it balloons into bigger and bigger horrific circumstances. But it is precisely in that tension, a creepy atmosphere populated by misguided but empathetic forces, that the film finds its magic, and sparks of dark humor. There would be a way to tell this story bereft of humanity or pathos; Anything for Jackson transcends those more exploitive impulses to tell a recognizably human story.

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