| October 10, 2017

In 2017’s Jackals, director Kevin Greutert (Saw VI (2009) and Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (2010)) takes us back to 1983 for a spooky little home invasion thriller set in a cabin in the woods. After a Halloween-style, first-person murder tour through a suburban home, the film smash cuts to a kidnapping. Two men in ski masks overtake a car and hurl its driver inside their van. But it’s not what you think. These kidnappers are the good guys, and they’re played by Stephen Dorff and Johnathan Schaech at that—two faces you sadly don’t see all that often nowadays.

The victim of the kidnapping: Justin a.k.a. Thanatos, devoted member of a mysterious cult and the son of affluent Andrew (Schaech) and Kathy Powell (Deborah Kara Unger). And Stephen Dorff’s there as a hardass former Marine with experience deprogramming cult members to help the Powells break through Justin’s brainwashing. If only the Powells could stop fighting each other long enough to get through to Justin before it’s too late. And “too late” arrives all too soon as the cult shows up and stands menacingly around a swing set for the last hour of the film, draining everyone’s car batteries for effect.

It’s a terrific setup, and the story of a family trying to break through a brainwashed cult member’s programming could carry an entire film. And it’d be a beautifully economic story too for filmmakers working on a budget as limited as Greutert’s clearly was on Jackals. Unfortunately, the film strays from this promising setup far too quickly in favor of a home invasion story that sadly never quite pays off.

The home invasion portion of the movie is definitely fun in spurts though. Individual scenes find the Powells in brutal conflict with cult members trying to free their brother Thanatos. And those scenes absolutely deliver the intense sort of action you expect from a home invasion movie. You get hot oil thrown in invaders’ faces, people getting hit with fire pokers, and a whole drawer-full of kitchen knives are brought into the fray.

All this is fine. Engaging setup. All the makings of an exciting home invasion film. The problem is that Jackals doesn’t go anywhere from there. Once the cult shows up, it’s the Powells vs. the cult. In the process, we learn little about the Powells aside from the fact that they suffer from the usual rich people problems of too much drinking and marital infidelity. And the cult? Nothing. The costumes they wear are imposing and I suppose they’re called “The Jackals” or something, since that’s what the film’s called. But we learn nothing about the cult other than: they’re here and they want Thanatos back. What are their teachings? What are they trying to accomplish? What does it mean to them not to get Thanatos back? We’re never told.

There’s a definite line between filmmakers leaving some things up to audience interpretation (which is a great tool) and not telling your audience anything at all, and Jackals stays firmly on the latter side of that line all the way up through the closing scene. That’s unfortunate because the opening really does show a lot of promise, and the cast is terrific all around. Although Jackals fails to deliver on the promise of its opening, the home invasion stuff is fun enough and the film short enough (at 87 minutes with credits) that Jackals does make for an enjoyable, if disappointingly ambiguous, bit of Halloween viewing, especially if you enjoy home invasion films as a rule.

Jackals is currently available from Scream Factory on separate Blu-ray and DVD format releases. Special features on the Scream Factory release include feature-length commentary with director Kevin Greutert and writer Jared Rivet, interviews with the cast and crew, and trailers.

About the Author:

Tabby is a film critic and writer in Illinois with a background in micro-budget film production.

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