Saturday, September 30, 2017
Father Anubis' Hounds: Jackals (2017)
Starring: Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen Dorff, Johnathon Schaech
Looking back at notorious groups and communities started by the likes of Charles Manson, Jim Jones or that one bald Heaven's Gate guy who believes aliens will save everyone's souls via suicide, one can agree that brainwashed cults are pretty terrifying for the lengths they do to show their devotion, which nothing short of an obvious reason why cult themed horror flicks are still a staple to this day, albeit in varying quality in terms of scares, thrills and seriousness. Among all of them, though, how many ever tried tackling the subject of deprogramming a cult member?
Set in the 1980s, Jackals starts with a cold opening of someone's point-of-view, quietly breaking into a house and entering the sleeping owners' room to steal some cash. The intruder, finding a pair of scissors, then proceeds to snip a few strands of hair from the sleeping couple, only for both of them to wake up and prompting the intruder to stab them to death. Now with a need to satisfy their bloodlust, the intruder next enters the couple's daughter's room, only for her (and us) to realize that the murderous figure is her brother; this, sadly, did little to save her from being strangled to death by her own kin.
One credit sequence later, we watch another family waiting in a backwoods cabin for someone to bring back their teenage boy. That someone is Jimmy, a military trained "deprogrammer" who's supposed to have the skills to undo brainwashing, something the family needs right now as their estranged boy, Justin, joined a notorious murder cult.
Now for Jimmy, kidnapping, drugging, driving back with and restraining Justin in the cabin is the easy part. To deprogram him, however, proves to be a challenge as not only is Justin utterly convinced that his real family (as in the cult) is out there, but his real "real" family isn't all that functional themselves; through the course of the movie, it shows that Mr and Mrs Powell separated after one of them was caught cheating, Justin's brother Campbell has a short temper, and Justin knocked up his girlfriend Samantha, who is now taking care their baby girl, Zoe. Their situation worsens, unfortunately, when the cult itself decided to show up and surround the cabin, intent on killing those responsible for kidnapping their "brother" and getting him back.
See, I like this concept. Perhaps there are already films tackling cult deprogramming before Jackals but this one is a first for me and I love the fact that it's even one bit slasher flick and another bit siege movie. One can imagine an intense psychological mind game between the deprogrammer and the cultist while a family fights off a murderous group from the plot alone but, perhaps, I expected too much.
Sadly, while the psychological aspects is there in the film's flow, some directions it took made its outcomes too obvious and almost borderline the film into tedious territories. Without giving away much, let's just say that a supposedly important player in the cast gets killed off too soon (and not so spectacularly, if I may add), leaving the rest of the "group" to deal with the brainwashing matter on their own and failing miserably multiple times. Perhaps it's the movie's attempt to toy with the audience's hopes that the drama brewing within this "group" would chip into the psyche of a cult member and somehow reverse whatever bullshit they are believing (plus there is that one teeny-tiny moment where Justin seems to recognize his mother), but, again, seeing how everyone in this "group" handle one another through the film, the results are painfully obvious and it could have been handled better. (In case you don't know who the "group" consists of, see paragraph# 5. Spoiler alert.)
This left Jackals more recognizable as siege and backwoods slasher hybrid of sorts, which would have been fine if the slasher antics are anywhere as good as the opening act, and the siege was more, what's the word? Perfectly timed? For me, what made movies like The Strangers (2009), or Them (2006) work so well is that their suspense has a build-up; we get to know the characters and their situation first before the movie creeps up the scares and shocks until its chaotic climax. Jackals, on the other hand, reveals the full extent of what the family is dealing with a way lot early and basically left them (and us), alternately waiting for one of two things to happen for the rest of the run: a dumb plan or an attack.
To be fair, some of the plans the family throws around to survive the night wouldn't sound so dumb (and dare I say might have even lead to some decent thrills and surprises) if the movie hadn't rushed itself. If you ever saw Adam Wingard's You're Next and recall that one scene where a character plans to run out for help only to meet a deadly piano wire neck-first, I find that nasty death one of the better executed kills from that film since there was very little hint that the trap was already there. In Jackals, we have a similar situation where one of the characters decided to make a run for their cars while another distracts the cult, giving enough time for at least a chance for the plan to work. By that time, though, we are more or less made well aware of the odds the cultists have over the family, so let's just say the painful results later didn't have the same impact as seeing a lady prepping herself to a sprint, only to get her throat sliced open by a nearly-invisible wire.
This is just some of the few examples of Jackal's missed opportunities for some good surprises and shocks thanks to it's mishandled execution, something that unfortunately affected to what I was hoping would make up for these flaws: the slasher sequences. Now, as a slasher, Jackal's opening killing spree is perhaps it's best set of murders as the rest tried to take a more dramatic approach seeing this is a cult; instead of crowding around the house and simply use their number to muscle their way in to get their "brother", the cult leader (simply referred to as "Father", who wears a bitchin' Anubis mask and leather trench coat) would rather intimidate them into handing the teen over and send out his underlings one by one (or by a small group) to siege the cabin and kill whoever gets in the way. Nice approach, but the killings were tame and whatever action they got going were pretty forgetful. The only time they decided to do something a bit more complex than dropping someone dead or strangling them was at the near end as the cult inevitably got the upper hand, but it felt late in the party and all interest I once have at the beginning of the film is gone.
So I've been negative about Jackals so far, was there anything I enjoyed about it? Welp, apart from the cool-looking Father and his animal-masked flock of killers and the first 20 to 30 minutes of the movie, and that one scene involving one of our casts hiding underneath the cult's cars, not a lot really. The acting felt stone cold for a whole lot of the run s if the casts aren't even that invested in the story, most of the script is technically just our family pleading and begging Justin to remember and snap out of it as if it'll work in a snap of a finger, and the ending looked like as if nobody knew how to finish this damn movie and just cliffhangers everything. I want to believe Jackals would have been a fairly fun ride if it was handled differently, but truth be told, it is what it is now, a poorly paced and directed backwoods slasher-siege-cult monstrosity, and there's nothing much I can do but move on and see the next 2017 horror offering that I might enjoy. Perhaps another cult-related movie with a talking doll and Jennifer Tilly...
1 female stabbed on the throat with scissors
1 male stabbed with scissors
1 female strangled
1 male brained to death
1 male bled to death from a gutted belly
1 male strangled to death
1 male dropped to his death
1 male hacked with a pickaxe
1 female had her throat slashed with a knife
1 repeatedly stabbed, hacked with an axe
1 male dies from shock (?)
(Y'know, it suddenly occurred to me: why exactly did the family have to do this in the middle of the woods? I mean, surely, a more crowded area like a town or a city would do, right? Heck, since this involves a cult member, why not drive all the way back to a town, convince a priest to borrow the church for one or several nights and just do the deprogramming there?
Or why didn't Mr. Jimmy brought along some help in case things go South and sour real fast? I mean, heck, I'm sure a couple of army buddies would love to kill off a cult member or two in case they decided to pop up...