Belief can be a powerful – and frightening – thing. In part, belief is what makes cults both compelling and the kind of subject matter ripe for horror movies. The charming and manipulative cult leader, apocalyptic visions, and self-destructive tendencies that characterize cults have produced real-life atrocities that have made their way into dozens of cinematic adaptations. Just the Manson Family murders have informed a sizable number of horror movies and thriller since the 1970s. Several years ago Saw-alumni Kevin Greutert decided to take a stab at a horror-thriller set in the world of a dangerous cult that visually mixed bits of You’re Next and The Strangers. At the time of its released, critics weren’t quite that charmed with the results of Jackals.
Deep in the woods at their old family cabin, estranged husband and wife, Kathy and Andrew Powell, anxiously wait for a cult de-programmer to arrive with their abducted son. A military veteran Jimmy Levine has brought their son, Justin, back for what promises to be a grueling attempt to undo years of brainwashing. But when night falls, the masked members of Justin’s cult show up outside the cabin. They want Kevin back and they’re not going to leave survivors behind.
Jackals Halfheartedly Explores a Few Different Subgenres, None to Great Effect
Though it wastes little time getting started, Jackals circles its premise in a holding pattern for quite a bit of time. To some extent, the thriller suffers from an identity crisis not unlike the character who sets the story in motion. Director Kevin Greutert (Saw 3D, Saw IV) and writer Jared Rivet don’t seem entirely sure what movie they to make with Jackals. Obviously, the promotional material and synopsis promise a home invasion thriller. And Greutert’s past work on the Saw franchise – and subject matter itself – hint at brutal survival horror. Nevertheless, Jackals spends some its early runtime exploring family dynamics and trauma. But it lacks the dramatic chops to spend too much time seriously exploring these themes.
Perhaps Greutert and Rivet wanted to subvert expectations, but the result is a movie that feels like it’s always in a holding pattern.
Yet its home invasion and survival horror elements aren’t well executed. We’ve seen enough of these movies to know how they play out. Perhaps Greutert and Rivet wanted to subvert expectations, but the result is a movie that feels like it’s always in a holding pattern. A few half-hearted siege efforts don’t generate much in the way of tension. Despite his ‘Torture Porn‘ background, Greutert only includes one genuinely uncomfortable scene close to the thriller’s finale. Everything that follows feels oddly rushed. Just as it feels like Jackals is about to kick things into a higher gear, the movie abruptly ends.
Jackals Wastes Much of its Premise With the Lack of a Compelling Villain
One of Stephen Dorff’s (Leatherface) earliest roles was in the criminally underseen Canadian 80s horror, The Gate. Every once in a while, Dorff returns to the genre including his memorable turn as Deacon Frost in Blade. Not surprisingly, Dorff lends a believable and reliable presence to the thriller as the cult de-programmer. Arguably, Jackals would have benefitted by asking a bit more from Dorff. Another veteran character actor, Deborah Kara Unger delivers a quietly strong performance as a mother forced to watch her grown children disintegrate in front of her own eyes. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast looks outstretched by the material and while the performances aren’t bad, they lack much in the way of emotional heft.
But Greutert and Rivet opt to treat their cult as an anonymous, shadowy set of figures. No names, no ideology …
Yet what’s really missing from Jackals is a compelling villain. Just the ideal of cults is chilling enough and good thrillers have managed to channel a variety of social anxieties into charismatic but menacing cult leaders. Martha Mary May Marlene, The Sacrament, The Invitation – even I Drink Your Blood – found considerable unsettling frights in the power of a dangerously influential person. But Greutert and Rivet opt to treat their cult as an anonymous, shadowy set of figures. No names, no ideology – just a lazy riff on You’re Next and The Strangers. By 2017, animals masks had officially become a horror movie trope. This absence of a frightening antagonist exacerbates the thriller’s more generic elements.
Jackals Missing Something to Set It Apart From Other Followers
By and large, Jackals is a watchable, if not familiar, thriller that feels like a missed opportunity. It’s less a case of the third act missing something as it is an instance of the thriller mostly lacking a third act. Greutert abruptly ends things just as it feels like the story is about to accelerate. In addition, Jackals lacks anything in the way of an identifiable villain. Greutert’s amorphous cult can only feel so creepy without any discernible traits or ideology for so long. Some hit-or-miss performances further prevent this thriller from distinguishing itself. At just under 90 minutes, there’s nothing here objectionable enough to turn it off. But you’re not likely to give this one much thought after it’s over.