Jackals (2017) Directed by Kevin Greutert. Starring Deborah Kara Unger, Stephen Dorff and Johnathon Schaech. A wealthy family and the cult deprogrammer they hired to help their kidnapped son find themselves under attack by a crazed, animal themed cult intent on getting their acolyte back.
We open in 1983. A suburban house is broken into by an intruder, and we share his POV as he moves stealthily through the home. In an upstairs bedroom, he finds a sleeping couple and steals an envelope containing several $ 100 dollar bills from their dresser. A barking dog next door wakes the homeowners up, which forces the intruder to murder both in rapid succession. He then heads into their daughter’s room and turns on the light. The girl, Luisa, blinks awake slowly. Instead of responding in terror at the sight of a stranger looming over her bed, Luisa greets him with warm concern and mentions that he’s been missing.
He is her brother, Mateo. She notices the blood on his hands and runs to her parent’s bedroom while Mateo puts on an animal mask. It’s all over for poor Luisa.
At a beautiful cabin in the mountains, a mother named Kathy Powell (Deborah Kara Unger) and her adult son Campbell and daughter-in-law Samantha await the arrival of tough cult deprogrammer Jimmy Levine (Stephen Dorff) and Kathy’s cultist son, Justin. Samantha only recently gave birth to Justin’s daughter, Zoe. On a rural road, Justin and another young cult member are forced onto the shoulder by Levine’s van. They are dragged out of their car at gunpoint by a masked Levine and Kathy’s ex-husband, Andrew (Jonathon Schaech).
The boy is chloroformed before being taken back to the Powell’s cabin. Once he comes to and finds himself tied to a chair, he warns his family of coming violent retribution from the cult. He also claims that his name is now Thanatos, the personification of Death in Greek mythology.
Justin refers to the Powells as “greased hogs waiting for the knife” and demands to be set free. Samantha shows him their newborn daughter in an effort to reach him but to no avail. After allowing the family to plead with Justin, Jimmy locks them out of the deprogramming session and gets down to work. He points out to ‘Thanatos’ that the cult chose him because his family is wealthy, which grants them a source of funds either through burglary or ransom. The cult’s leader has predicted a massive cataclysm, an End Times event in which only the worthy will survive the carnage.
The only reason Justin is worthy because he’s rich.
Levine then sends Samantha in to speak to Justin alone. She seems to be getting through to him, as Levine fills in Andrew on the progress downstairs. While they’re talking, Andrew notices movement on the cabin’s grounds. Being a man of action, Levine steps outside with a semiautomatic pistol and confronts Fox Girl, a masked cultist who leaves arcane symbols in the dirt before fleeing. He stupidly follows her deep into the shadowy forest and gets caught in a booby trap. Jimmy had the only gun, and now the Powell family are left to gather golf clubs as the entire cult shows up armed and masked.
There’s a nice shot during the reveal of the whole group in which we see the blade of a cult member’s axe dominating the foreground and Andrew in the background, made to appear much smaller through distance. It’s an unsubtle visual reminder of how helpless the Powells have become.
I never really understood why people in these kinds of films ask the villains: “What do you want?” If six or seven folks wearing animal masks and carrying axes show up on my front lawn at the crack of dawn, it seems pretty obvious to me that their Keurig is busted and they’re fiending for Medium Roast.
Once Andrew and Campbell are safely back inside, the silent bad guys follow the Evil Cult Rule Book. First, the power is cut. Phones are down. Then, the prisoner Justin begins laughing about how his sinister brethren have come to set him free. Then, the classic reach-in through a shattered window to attack Samantha. These are the rules, and Jackals is not much of a rule breaker as a film. It follows familiar and well-worn paths as if the villains from 2008’s “The Strangers” went to Target and picked up the animal masks from “You’re Next.” The family gathers kitchen knives and fireplace pokers while Samantha begins boiling vegetable oil to throw in an attacker’s face.
Damn, girl. Look at you, getting’ all medieval.
The baddies eventually break in and have a series of violent encounters with the Powells and Samantha as they try to liberate their captured brother, Thanatos. Loyalties are somewhat divided among the family, as Campbell suggests simply turning Justin over to the cult and we needlessly learn secrets about extramarital affairs and other family problems. A different film would’ve expressed these issues without overtly explaining them. It would be in a look of distance and distrust between the divorced couple and inform the subsequent fight for survival as old issues were put aside.
Film is a visual medium. We shouldn’t have to have sit through pace killing exposition about betrayal. With a stronger, more streamlined script, it would all be right there in their faces.
Upstairs, Justin begins communicating with his new family via wolf howls and other animal noises. The Powell clan meets the cult’s leader, who looks every bit the Final Boss he is in a stylized and armored black mask and costume that suggests he was a part of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video. He brings tons of reinforcements with him, and before you can say Manson Family, we’re up to our necks in masked zealots.
Jackals isn’t a poorly made film by a long shot. The actors turn in solid performances and it has obvious production values. But one of the things that irked me early on was the disclaimer “Based On True Events” in the opening credits. “Jackals” director Kevin Greutert is the editor of “The Strangers,” another film which purports to be based on actual events. I didn’t mind it when “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” rolled out the true crime gimmick because that movie is terrifying and original, and “The Blair Witch Project” nicely played with the reality aspect through found footage. But to see the True Story conceit used as a selling point for a weakly scripted horror flick is irritating, and “Jackals” is sadly not the only offender.
The family’s idiotic decision-making aside, “Jackals” just doesn’t do or say anything new. As the characters were going through the motions, I was able to name the films that were being liberally borrowed from. Boiling hot oil to the face of a home invader? “Straw Dogs.” Escaping the bad guys and then dumbly flagging down a car on a lonely country road? “House Of 1000 Corpses,” “Choose” and about 50 others. If they began pulling horror films off the shelves for a lack of originality, there would be about three left.
It’s not a sin to be unoriginal, but I’ve occasionally seen genre movies rise above their conventional plot clichés and become something fresh and exciting.
John Carpenter’s “Halloween” sounds like any one of the slasher clones that it fathered: attractive babysitters stalked by murderer. But what a film is about is not the key. How it’s made is. A visual cinematic language is the result of an array of methods including cinematography, sound design,and editing that transmits information to the audience. It begins with the choices the screenwriter makes. “Jackals”, unfortunately, is content to only walk the beaten path without that spark at script level that sets other projects apart from the pack.