After opening with a proficient yet nearly pointless restaging of the first scene of John Carpenter’s Halloween, Jackals settles into a promisingly neurotic and mysterious scenario. Director Kevin Greutert and screenwriter Jared Rivet drop the audience in a cabin somewhere out in the woods in the 1980s—currently the preferred setting of self-consciously retro horror films—where a family is on edge in anticipation of some kind of arrival. This rarefied family’s unease, mixed with the blatant foreshadowing of the genre-movie dialogue, suggests a fusion of a European chamber drama and an American splatter film, yielding an intriguingly weird cultural tension.
This tension is amplified by a clever reversal. We know from the opening that the film is concerned with a brainwashing cult, so when Justin (Ben Sullivan) is cornered by a van of masked assailants on the side of a country road, it’s logical to assume that he’s being accosted by the cult. But Justin already belongs to it, and his kidnappers are revealed to be his father, Andrew (Johnathon Schaech), and Jimmy (Stephen Dorff), an ex-Marine who deprograms brainwashed cultists. Andrew and Jimmy toss Justin in the back of the van after a tussle and head toward the cabin where the rest of Justin’s family awaits, leaving another battered cultist along the side of the road.
The film’s first act allows us to get reacquainted with two stars who’re mostly associated with ‘90s cinema. Once a bit too vapid-seeming even by the standards of pretty American leading men, Schaech exudes a majesty of unease, disappointment, and latent aggression here. Andrew is understood to be a patriarch who’s been emasculated on two complementary fronts, as he’s divorced from the mother of the family, Kathy (Deborah Kara Unger), and now fighting to reclaim one of his sons from a cult that brandishes knives and axes, and whose members dress in masks that suggest paganist Harley Davidson helmets. Schaech makes quiet, hostile comedy out of Andrew’s confusion, which contrasts with the electrical entitlement that Dorff exudes as Jimmy. With his crisp physicality, Dorff is somewhat reminiscent of Frank Sinatra in Suddenly and Humphrey Bogart in The Desperate Hours, and his coiled intensity builds anticipation as to where Jackals is headed as Jimmy enters into a battle of wills with the almost demonic Justin.
But the filmmakers run out of ideas just as Jackals introduces its central conflict. An unexpected murder, in the Psycho tradition of eliminating the central character at a premature juncture, robs the film of its emotional motor, turning it into yet another siege thriller in which a group of well-armed sociopaths proceed to work a family over for the majority of the running time. There’s a reference to Straw Dogs, but Jackals doesn’t have the Sam Peckinpah film’s sense of give and take, in which characters on both sides of the moral equator are allowed to surprise us with their ingenuity.
In Jackals, the besieged family never wins and is never in danger of winning, and so the audience pummeled with unearned nihilism; as a result, we wonder throughout why the family doesn’t hand the odious Justin back over to the cult. Certain sounds and images suggest the influence of Rob Zombie, but Greutert, like many of Zombie’s imitators, isn’t able to replicate the unmooring mixture of comedy and violence that invigorates the former’s cinema, creating an uncomfortably exhilarating kind of chaos. Instead, Jackals smugly wears its hopelessness as a badge of honor.