The demonic possession film has been in a rut for nearly 50 years now. Despite many attempts at originality, each new entry in the subgenre still seems to owe a great debt to landmark works Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). Need proof? Just take a look at how many films exist that are entitled “The Exorcism of [Insert Name or Place Here]” — even the poster art for these movies tends to be just as uninspired, typically featuring the image of a young woman either levitating in the air and/or wearing a creepy face. Formula is part and parcel of genre, to be sure, but the demonic possession film is one that wants to evoke character and emotion over spectacle and flash to really sing. For that reason, this month’s Anything for Jackson seems like a breath of fresh air on paper: as the official description for it reads, the film concerns a “reverse exorcism,” whereby a demonic spirit is deliberately placed inside a host. Just like the film itself, however, appearances can be deceiving, and that key phrase doesn’t accurately capture the whole movie, which is much closer to the standard low budget demon/supernatural film than it initially appears. For that reason and others, Justin G. Dyck’s Anything for Jackson is a rather underwhelming experience.
Anything for Jackson opens promisingly, introducing elderly couple Audrey and Henry Walsh (Sheila McCarthy and Julian Richings, respectively) who initially appear to be going about their innocent daily routine before roughly kidnapping a young woman off the street. It turns out that Shannon (Konstantina Mantelos) is not only Henry’s patient but also nearly nine months pregnant, and the couple is frighteningly well-prepared to keep her captive. Audrey and Henry keep repeating that they don’t intend to hurt Shannon or her baby, and they’re being truthful for the most part. What they really want to do is perform a Satanic ritual in order to place the soul of their deceased grandson, Jackson (Daxton William Lund), inside Shannon’s unborn child. Jackson was taken from them by tragedy, and in the wake of that — plus another loss that followed — the two have found Satanism thanks to a local library worship group (one of the film’s sly touches), fumbling their way into larger and more permanent acts of black magic. When Audrey and Henry perform what they think is the ritual to get Jackson back, they begin noticing a lot of strange occurrences in and around their home, and that combined with their inexperience with abduction and criminality bodes ill for the desperate couple. A shady member of their worship group, Ian (Josh Cruddas), finds out what they’re up to and claims to be able to help them, but can he be trusted?
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Much has already been made about Dyck’s history in the film business, as up until now he’s been making a steady stream of Hallmark holiday movies, with Anything for Jackson being quite a noticeable departure. While that fact makes for some fun trivia, praising Dyck just for switching genres seems like overreaching, especially where the film itself is concerned. It’s a standard low-budget, shot-in-Canada genre flick, with flat lighting and basic camerawork. Where Dyck and his crew seem to be making the most effort is in the design and execution of the ghosts that begin to plague Audrey and Henry once they screw up the Satanic ceremony. A good many of these are fun — there’s a creepy lady who just can’t stop flossing her teeth, for instance, and what seems like a demented contortionist. The best one is a person in the classic “ghost sheet” costume, a figure that begins as a persistent trick-or-treater and turns into a towering giant whose lack of visage makes them that much more creepy and imposing. Even better, this apparition is also the most emotionally charged, as Audrey reveals who it was under the sheet a scene or two later.
Therein lies the heart of Anything for Jackson’s issues, however. Dyck and writer Keith Cooper hold back some pertinent information for far too long while not providing enough information elsewhere, and instead throw a steady stream of shock moments at the audience that has an overall numbing effect. While the in medias res of the opening scene makes for a great hook, the rest of the film tends to follow that pattern, staging moments and introducing plot elements that are only given context long after the fact (if at all). It gives Anything for Jackson the feeling of a “puzzle movie” when in fact the ultimate storyline is fairly straightforward, needlessly entangling it in ham-fisted mystery that’s too distancing. Perhaps the worst offense of this sort is when it comes to the movie’s central core of grief: the titular Jackson. The child is invoked numerous times as the main reason for the Walsh’s jumping heedlessly into black magic, but Dyck and Cooper never show why the couple made such a drastic choice — Jackson only briefly appears in a tiny handful of scenes looking and acting like a standard angelic cherub of a kid, and the filmmakers assume that such a glimpse should be enough to warrant Audrey and Henry’s extreme behavior. It’s not, and even a later reveal of what happened to Jackson’s mother — the Walsh’s daughter — is tossed off in a flashback that’s far too short. Anything for Jackson seems to want to be a parable about how grief can make people go to extreme lengths, but the lightly satiric approach combined with Dyck’s interest of throwing in as many cheap haunted house characters dilutes any emotional weight the story may have.
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Anything for Jackson is a perfect example of wasted potential, as the film contains some solid elements that Dyck fails to build upon. These are mostly found in the cast: McCarthy and Richings make for a believable couple, finding some genuinely touching moments together. In addition, Mantelos lends her character a credible inner strength, and Cruddas makes his Satanist creep truly off-putting. The problem is that, unlike its characters, the movie suffers from a lack of focus. It doesn’t help that its premise is very similar to the far more beguiling A Dark Song (2016), and the “reverse exorcism” aspect — something that only turns up in the last act — isn’t enough to make it stand apart. Yet it’s that scattered focus and wavering tone that ultimately spells doom for Anything for Jackson, veering from too-vague expressions of loss to crime movie-like “the amateurs get caught” moments of satire without a solid core of plot or emotion to fall back on. Like their characters, the filmmakers should’ve paid more attention to the spell they were casting — it’s all too easy to miss a key step that can unravel everything.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.