Anything for Jackson (2020 | Canada | 97 minutes | Justin G. Dyck)
Anything for Jackson begins with the most picturesque of uninterrupted long shots, as an older married couple, Audrey Walsh (Sheila McCarthy) and her husband Henry (Julian Richings), chitchat over the latter’s coffee. Their kitchen and dining room are tinged with warm natural light. All through the conversation, both of them are gentle, civilized, and exude placid, comfortably lived-in domestic cohesion.
That almost Lifetime Movie of the Week generic title, and the first prosaic minute of that opening scene, portend something restrained and almost leisurely in its slow-burn. But this is a film making its international premiere on the popular horror streaming service, Shudder. And in another two minutes’ time, director Justin G. Dyck makes sure we know we’re in the unmistakable clutches of a horror movie. Fortunately, it’s a damn good one.
Reviewing a genre film that does its job well presents a unique challenge. I deliberately watched Anything for Jackson completely cold, without a look at the trailer and only the barest of glimpses at the synopsis. With hindsight, it’s probably the best way to experience a movie that doesn’t so much redefine the genre as deliver several familiar elements with fevered imagination, craft, and considerable effectiveness.
The relatively spoiler-free pitch is as follows: The Walshes, as it happens, are grieving grandparents who’ve lost their grandson Jackson in a car accident. Jackson was indisputably the apple of their eyes. And the intensity of their dotage leads them on a very dark journey. That’s as much as you’ll get from this corner.
On the face of it, it’s yet another variation on that venerable short story, The Monkey’s Paw, with elements gleaned from scores of other shockers. Evil festers beneath the banality of everyday life a la Rosemary’s Baby. An inverse exorcism provides a key plot pivot. And along the way sprinkles of The Conjuring, The Omen, and Pet Sematary (among others) likewise find their way into the end product.
Dyck orchestrates those elements with deftness, navigating between somber thoughtfulness, straight-up shocks, and batshit lunacy with surprising ease. Keith Cooper’s script, meantime, serves up enough left turns and dark humor to likewise keep the central conceit from being too oppressive. The movie also looks great, especially given its relatively low budget: DP Sasha Moric cannily manipulates light and shadow in the Walshes’ house, while the snow-covered Ontario exteriors are used to immersive, foreboding effect (Dyck and Moric do snowbound eeriness with a bleak elegance that rivals David Cronenberg). And if some of the onscreen menaces offer a tinge of familiarity, they still pack a wallop, and they’re executed with conviction, full-throttle verve, and a fine blend of practical and computer effects.
It may seem a bit out-there to call a horror film an actors’ movie, but there’s also no denying that Anything for Jackson owes a good share of its success to its cast. Konstantina Mantelos proves to be a relatable and resourceful heroine, and Josh Cruddas is alternately funny and deeply creepy as a combover-coiffed, pasty-faced incel living in his Mom’s basement while deciphering ancient demonic manuscripts.
The best horror films cherish their character actors—age and conventional notions of physical beauty be damned—so Dyck wisely gives the actors playing the Walshes much of the spotlight. Richings and McCarthy both possess wonderfully nuanced, distinctive faces that you’ve seen for decades in films and TV–Richings logged in a memorable stint as Death in the long-running horror series, Supernatural, while McCarthy’s likewise accrued dozens of credits since gaining international acclaim in Patricia Rozema’s beloved 1987 indie feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Both actors make the most of their screen time, establishing a believable, near-telepathic, and genuinely touching marital rapport.
As the 2020 presidential election’s graphically demonstrated, it’s often a Devil’s Bargain to stop at nothing in the quest to get what you wish for. Thanks to Dyck’s sure directorial touch and McCarthy’s and Richings’ sterling work, Anything for Jackson delivers that lesson with emotional resonance to match the (sometimes very) wild-and-wooly scares.