Dir. Justin G. Dyck; Sheila McCarthy, Julian Richings, Konstantina Mantelos
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
In the final act of Justin G. Dyck’s deliciously deranged Anything for Jackson (2020), grieving grandfather Henry Walsh (Julian Richings) wearily tells his captive Shannon Becker (Konstantina Mantelos): “You can’t win a moral argument with me. I’ve made a deal with the devil.” In a different movie, I imagine this line delivered with the luscious hamminess of a Vincent Price or late-career Peter Lorre, but there is none of that winking campiness here. Instead, we have arrived at the end of a spiral of grief, desperation, and love that makes the line more heartbreaking than anything else. Henry, an OBGYN, and his wife Audrey (Sheila McCarthy) have kidnapped his pregnant patient Shannon with the hope of carrying out a sort of reverse exorcism to coax the spirit of their dead grandson Jackson (Daxton William Lund) into Shannon’s unborn baby. As these stories tend to go, the ceremony brings with it more darkness than the Walshes intended. The resulting blend of adept character study, family drama, and good-old-fashioned haunted house horror makes Anything for Jackson quite the thrill ride.
Dyck’s directorial slate before Anything for Jackson consists predominantly of Christmas movies of the Hallmark variety released on Netflix or straight-to-purchase. I cannot say that I’m overly familiar with his body of work, but as a lover of holiday movies, I have seen a few of his movies. Suffice to say his approach to the likes of A Very Country Christmas (2017) or Christmas in Paris (2017) did not prepare me for the wonderfully atmospheric work he delivered for Anything for Jackson. The traces of his past movies can be seen mainly in the snow-covered setting of the Walshes suburban home, but that is where the similarities end. The opening shot of the film stands out as one of my favorite beginnings in recent memory and embodies the efficient and moody approach seen in the rest of the film. It is a wide shot of the kitchen where Audrey bustles around and Henry sits at the table. They appear as any other older couple in the morning getting ready for work, and even have an entertaining debate about whether the hemming Sheila has done on Henry’s pants will make him look like a “rapper.”. The couple seems like a quaint pair, but the unmoving camera builds a sense of unease. Why are we being kept at a distance from these people? What will fill all the negative space waiting in the shot? The answer comes when they jump up and then drag a screaming Shannon into the house, taking her up to a locked room where she will stay. Dyck and screenwriter Keith Cooper give us everything we need to understand about the movie in that opening shot: these are relatively normal people who have chosen to go down a stunningly dark route because of their desperation.
Cooper’s writing and McCarthy and Richings’ remarkable performances blend wonderfully with Dyck’s careful and Kubrickian style of precise framing. Dyck keeps his camera relatively stationary, letting his performers fill the moments. Both McCarthy and Richings bring Cooper’s script to life by imbuing their characters with a devastating humanity. I do not make a habit of rooting for kidnappers or satanists in movies, but it is nearly impossible not to feel for the Walshes as they reveal the depths of their grief. They are grandparents who had their little grandson taken from them in a car crash, and they want nothing more than to have him back, which is a painfully relatable sentiment for those of us who have lost family members far too soon. Neither Sheila or Henry are stone-cold; in fact, it is their humanity that makes the movie so compelling. We see Henry in his office caring for a patient, and the tender way in which Richings delivers tender lines about Jackson and his wife reveal a man full of love, even as he gags Shannon and ties her to a bed.
McCarthy is the soul of this film for me though, and her deft blend of grandmotherly concern and desperation is endlessly effective. Speaking with the captive Shannon, she chastises her for cursing, saying “Swearing is bad for our baby!” just the way I imagine my own grandmother saying it. The scene that will haunt me is when a trick-or-treater dressed as a ghost dressed in a sheet starts haunting the house by first knocking on each of the doors and then infiltrating the house. At first it feels like a practical joke, and then rises to the level of dread as Sheila frantically tries to send it away to no avail. This is unsettling enough, but it is two moments at the end of the sequence that stand out. The ghost rushes towards her and then dives onto her only for her to end up holding an empty sheet, which she holds to her body, crying. We learn as she checks on Shannon that the Walshes daughter “always insisted on dressing like a ghost for Halloween,” and right there McCarthy’s performance takes the sequence from simple thrill to an examination of the many ways Sheila is haunted by the past and preemptively by her present. Neither she nor her husband want to bring Shannon harm, but what they need is for Jackson to be alive, and so they will do “anything” to achieve that.
Alongside the emotional horrors each character experiences, we are treated to an array of hauntings that inject the film with layers of terror. These serve the purpose of underscoring the tumult caused by the couple’s growing eagerness to bring Jackson back, and the anguish at what they must do to get there. The scope of the film is tight with most of the scenes taking place either in the Walsh house or the grounds outside. The house therefore becomes a trap, in ways both physical and emotional, that Dyck and company capitalize on to great aesthetic success. I already mentioned one ghost, but after the Walshes conduct their first ceremony to bring Jackson’s soul forward into Shannon’s baby, they are overrun by an assemblage of spirits and demons that tingle the spine. One such spirit attacks Shannon and will continue to live rent free in my nightmares for a long time. Whether by enlisting a contortionist or through remarkable special effects, this ghost is a man with a bag over his head who walks on all fours twisting about like a possessed spider (reminiscent of The Exorcist (1973) I may add). He emerges from under Shannon’s bed and then climbs on top of her while she is handcuffed to the bed, bending backwards in a seemingly impossible angle to take a bite of her stomach. Thankfully, the Walshes storm in and interrupt before he can do any more damage, but the terror sticks, and the hauntings only build from there. I will not spoil them, but as time goes on, the spirits get continuously more aggressive, manifesting both in their own forms and taking over unsuspecting visitors to grisly ends. With each ghostly apparition, the stakes build, and we are treated to what it must look like when a house becomes haunted, evil seeping in not in spite of but because of the Walshes best intentions.
Truly the only criticism I can level at Anything for Jackson is the score. It relies far too heavily on clichéd bursts of noise at tense moments and adds nothing else to the mood of the film. It is due to the power of everything else on screen that this eye-rolling sonic approach is only a minor annoyance as opposed to a detracting distractor. Anything for Jackson starts with an emotionally loaded idea and never disappoints as its narrative unfurls. The achievement of forcing viewers to interrogate their allegiances in the movie is successful enough to recommend it, but it is the filmmaking that pushes Anything for Jackson into the level of ‘Must See.’ I do hope that Dyck returns to more haunted settings as his career progresses because this movie suggests that he has much to add to the ever-expanding and diversifying horror genre.