The more “normal” a villain seems in a film, the scarier they seem to be when the mask comes off. It’s a chilling reminder of how many of these people we’ve encountered in our lives, without realizing what they really were. True evil does its work undetected, behind closed doors, like in Shudder’s Anything for Jackson, a horror-comedy about what happens when one refuses to accept death as a part of life.
To be fair, Audrey Walsh (Sheila McCarthy) isn’t evil, nor is her hapless doctor husband, Henry (Julian Richings). Like Louis Creed in Pet Sematary, they’re good people driven mad by grief — in this case, the death of their daughter and beloved grandson, the titular Jackson, in an accident. While some people would take comfort in such time by attending church or grief circles, Audrey and Henry take up Satanism, joining their fellow worshipers in what appears to be a community center basement. Their only recourse is to kidnap one of Henry’s patients, Shannon (Konstantina Mantelos), and perform a ritual that will allow Jackson’s spirit to be reincarnated in Shannon’s unborn child. What’s going to happen to Shannon? Well, they’re a little cagey about that.
Because these things never go well, the first step in the ritual opens the door for a number of horrifying visitors, including a pesky trick or treater and a monstrous, gnarled figure wearing a plastic bag over its head. They seem to serve as warnings to Audrey and Henry that they should not go any further with their ungodly plan, but, perhaps at a loss over how else to go on with their lives, they continue. Even when spontaneous suicides just start happening in their presence, it’s not enough. Jackson was their whole life, and if they can’t bring him back, then there’s no point to any of it.
People describe Justin G. Dyck‘s Anything for Jackson as a “horror-comedy,” but the comedy is subtle, and all but gone by about halfway through the movie. One assumes it’s necessary to soften the edge of a movie so focused on child death and the Devil, without feeling cheap or exploitative, and it works. What also works is establishing the loving relationship Audrey and Henry have, and how Henry’s desire to see Audrey happy (or at least, at peace) leads to something so awful. It’s unclear whose idea this was initially, and Henry is clearly the uneasier of the two about it, but they’re in it together, no matter how it ends.
Despite its occasional comic elements, the actors play everything straight, and they’re all excellent, particularly Richings as Henry. Richings, probably best known to audiences as Death in TV’s Supernatural, could have played Henry as overly creepy and imposing, but he’s gentle and reserved, at least as reluctant to hurt anyone as he is to get caught. It could all be the act of a sociopath, but it’s more than he simply made an agreement, and knows he has to keep it. “You can’t win a moral argument with me,” he says in one scene. “I’ve made a deal with the Devil.”
If there are any drawbacks to Anything for Jackson, it’s that its often dimly lit scenes don’t always come across well on a TV screen. The climax also feels rushed, and if you’re not paying attention you might require one of those interminable “ending explained” videos on YouTube. That aside, it’s a creepy little movie with tragic undertones and doesn’t pass judgment on the characters. Grief makes us do insane things: if such a thing were possible most of us would at least try to bring back the people we’ve lost. Maybe terrible things would happen if we did, or maybe our love would be enough to save us.
Anything for Jackson is currently streaming on Shudder.