Studio: Scream Factory Films
Director: Kevin Greutert
Writer: Jared Rivet
Producer: Tommy Alastra
Stars: Deborah Kara Unger, Ben Sullivan, Chelsea Ricketts, Nick Roux, Johnathon Schaech, Stephen Dorff
While trying to deprogram their brainwashed son, a troubled family’s secluded cabin is beset by masked cultists.
It’s too late for Andrew and Kathy Powell to save their marriage that already ended in divorce. But it might not be too late to save their estranged son Justin, who joined a mysterious cult of mask-wearing murderers and rechristened himself as ‘Thanatos.’
With the help of an ex-Marine turned brainwashing deprogrammer named Jimmy, Andrew violently abducts Justin, hoping they can find a way to bring back the young man’s mind. Justin is restrained inside a secluded cabin for a forced intervention, flanked by his mother Kathy, brother Campbell, girlfriend Samantha, and infant daughter Zoe, all of whom Justin renounces as not being his true family.
The people to whom Justin now pledges allegiance are right outside the windows. Assembled in the shadows are the very cultists that the Powells hoped to take Justin away from. They’ve come to retrieve their stolen sheep, and they plan on taking him back during a siege set to terrify and terrorize everyone caught inside the cabin.
In the vein of “The Strangers” and other films of that ilk, “Jackals” combines quiet cult chills with home invasion horror for a film featuring visceral violence as well as psychological spooks. The movie purports to be “based on true events,” although that’s a generous stretch of the phrase. Screenwriter Jared Rivet was only loosely inspired by the climate of the ‘Satanic Panic’ from the 80s/90s, as well as an interview with a retired cult deprogrammer about his unorthodox tactics. Rivet merged those two seeds for a fictional “what if?” exploring how far a homicidal horde might go to rescue one of their own. “Based on true events” just sounds so much sexier as a selling point than “peripherally influenced by unspecific people who didn’t actually exist.”
“Jackals” takes place in 1983, yet you wouldn’t know it if not for text identifying the date. Aside from collared clothing and a tube television in the background, there isn’t a throwback tone to anything onscreen. Add the usual line of dialogue lamenting a lack of cellphone service and the setting could be current all the same.
“Jackals” also opens on a single take scene of someone stalking inside a family’s house in first-person. The shot is clearly ripped right out of John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” though its obvious origin isn’t what’s wrong. The problem is that this prologue is separate from the cult chaos at the cabin, and doesn’t weave into that plot with any direct relation at all.
Which speaks to the overall issue sticking in the film’s foot like a nagging splinter hampering its stride. Oftentimes, the movie plays out as a series of setups instead of an arcing story challenging characters to do something other than survive.
The greatest hurdle for the screenplay is coming up with new reasons to separate somebody so one cultist after another can wildly grab at him/her before another nick of time rescue. One such moment has Samantha moving to another room to change her baby. Really? There’s an army of masked murderers literally on the doorstep. Now isn’t a time for modesty. Everyone can probably stand to deal with a dirty diaper for sixty seconds if that means your safety is still in their immediate eye line.
Another dagger cutting a great deal of blood out of “Jackals” is Ben Sullivan’s terribly annoying portrayal of Justin. Sullivan seemingly has no interest in playing Justin using more than one note. Dialogue doesn’t give him anything more interesting to say than vaguely threatening taunts like, “piggy, piggy, piggy, piggy, piggy!” But his unblinkingly wide eyes and psychotic smirk are such tired tics for this kind of character. He’s like a movie Martin Shkreli whom you just want to punch in the face.
Stephen Dorff, on the other hand, does a lot to liven up his lines. Dorff alternately softens his delivery to the women while taking a tougher tone toward the men in the same sentence. It’s subtle. It’s smart. It’s how an experienced actor elevates a practical role into a charismatic personality using motivated mannerisms.
Jared Rivet wrote “Jackals” in 2006. Unfortunately, the finished film arrives at a time when intruders in animal masks have run their course as part of any horror movie premise.
Cinematically, “Jackals” hits all the right visual cues with sinister shapes standing still in silhouette and intermittently intense moments of suddenly frenzied action. Except formulaic finesse can’t counterbalance lacking story substance behind the cult or the characters in the cabin. “Jackals” has external appeal as a moderately frightening thriller, but not enough depth for scant scary movie satisfaction to last very long.
Review Score: 55