Gory yet sensitive, hilarious yet terrifying, Anything for Jackson is a wild study in contrasts that serves up wicked humor and disturbing scares to subvert the typical cinematic exorcism to create a biting and oddly touching horror-comedy. Grieving grandparents Henry Walsh (Julian Richings) and his wife Audrey (Sheila McCarthy) kidnap a pregnant woman named Shannon (Konstantina Mantelos) in order to replace her unborn child with the soul of their dead grandson Jackson. When the Walshes perform the Satanic rite incorrectly, all hell quite literally breaks loose, and they scramble to fix their mistake and bring their beloved Jackson back to the earthly realm.
Both Richings and McCarthy are extraordinary, perfectly capturing both the pathos and the humor of their characters. Richings moves organically from panicked frustration to unimaginable sorrow to grim resignation as he takes in the increasingly horrific consequences of their botched reverse-exorcism. Throughout the whole performance, his love for his wife shines through in his heartbreaking (if deranged) devotion. McCarthy steals the show as the bizarrely prim and hilariously calm Audrey. Accompanied by an ironic soundtrack of cheery records that Jackson used to love, Audrey chats pleasantly with the shackled and screaming Shannon and chides her captive for cursing. In one especially cruel bit of irony, Audrey struggles to read a medication label and chuckles confidingly to Shannon, “Don’t get old,” knowing full well that she is going to murder the young woman as soon as she gives birth. Audrey’s deluded politeness starts to drive the viewer mad right along with Shannon, but we relish the trip because of McCarthy’s impeccable delivery.
The supporting characters are just as vividly drawn, adding to the horror and humor of this nightmare that the Walshes have called down upon Earth. Their goofy neighbor Rory (Yannick Bisson) seems to want nothing more in life than to shovel the Walshes’ driveway as he unwittingly interferes time and again with their attempts to summon the Devil and perform necromancy. The Walshes meets up with a local Satanist group at the community center, engaging in arcane rituals in a rec hall with snacks laid out and plastic chairs piled up in the corner. When they enlist the help of fellow Satan-worshiper Ian (Josh Cruddas), he too is a study in contrasts: he brags about his unparalleled knowledge of the Dark Lord (which, in fairness, he proves when he helps the couple finish their rite) in the same breath that he yells at his mom that he doesn’t want to leave the basement for dinner or complains that Yolanda (Kaitlyn Leeb), the leader of the Satanist group, doesn’t take him seriously. The Walshes’ oppressive grief grounds the whole film, though, never allowing the comedy to detract from the very real trauma that they have suffered or that which they now inflict on others.
The mix of genres is perfectly balanced: punctuated by wry humor, Anything for Jackson‘s horror scenes are that much more effective when they arrive to jolt the viewer out of their seat. Eerie hauntings and shocking violence (including an unforgettable instance of dental trauma) are made all the more harrowing by the measured, deliberate camera movements that give the viewer no hope of escape. There are no quick cuts to relieve the tension, just static shots and agonizingly slow pans that let the viewer know that they’re stuck in this hell right along with the characters on screen.
Director Justin G. Dyck and writer Keith Cooper seem destined to have a devoted cult following for Anything for Jackson. The film walks an impossible tonal tightrope and the plot manages to surprise viewers at every turn. Julian Richings gives one of his best performances in a career full of scene-stealing moments, and Sheila McCarthy is luminously funny as a pearl-clutching grandmother desperately trying to raise the dead. Hilarious, terrifying, and mournful, Anything for Jackson is a horror-comedy that gets both parts of the equation perfectly right.
Anything for Jackson premieres on Shudder on December 3rd. Watch the trailer here.