Grief is a theme we all understand; it’s a great despair that can torture you inescapably. In the horror genre, grief often works as a backdrop, allowing a story to build on the possibilities that desperation and loss can inspire. Some would do anything to get back what they’ve lost. In Anything for Jackson, doctor Henry Walsh (Julian Richings, Supernatural) and his wife Audrey (Sheila McCarthy, The Umbrella Academy) are two such people.
After the tragic death of their grandson, Henry and Audrey make the ill-advised decision to kidnap a very pregnant woman and perform a dark ritual (a reverse exorcism, if you will) that will bring Jackson back into the world of the living, via the yet-to-be-born child. The Walshes have all the confidence of two affluent Satanists who really have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. They’ve thought out every contingency, except the one that turns their home into a revolving door of malicious spirits. Because once you open a door to the other realm, every ghost that wants a host will come clambering through.
Richings and McCarthy are Canadian genre royalty, so to see them on screen together is a real treat. McCarthy is utterly charming as Audrey, the maternal-minded driving force behind the couple’s risky caper. She’s very sweet and well-intentioned, which makes her highly questionable actions even more surprising. Audrey exudes a naivete that’s humorously contradictory to the matter-of-fact way she manages the whole “abduction for a reverse exorcism” thing.
Richings as Henry is ever the doting husband. There’s a touch of sadness in his performance that keeps his character grounded, even as control slips quickly from his grasp. You feel for Henry, who’s just doing his best to try to keep everything according to plan. It’s easy to forget that what Henry and Audrey are doing is very wrong; they’re both so poised and sweet that you don’t even question it.
There’s been enough time since Jackson’s passing that the emotional wound isn’t still fresh, which allows Audrey and Henry to approach the kidnapping with a practical and clinical focus. Early scenes of their orientation with their abductee, Becker (Konstantina Mantelos), are actually quite funny. Audrey stiffly reads a prepared statement in a scene that’s just so out-of-place wholesome that — were you the one handcuffed to the bed — you’d almost want to play along, just to be nice (or perhaps that’s just me being deeply Canadian).
Anything for Jackson has a fantastically creepy ambiance that’s maintained through strategic lighting and colour, and sound editing that works in collaboration with the film’s many practical effects. If you’re a fan of practical effects (and who isn’t), Anything for Jackson delivers with its horrific ghost designs. There’s one ghost that falls a bit flat, though its context makes it more tragic than terrifying. Using both prosthetics and performance, some of the ghosts are a thing of nightmares — quite literally. If you’ve ever had a dream about your teeth falling out, I must warn you, this film will probably make you uncomfortable (and it’s excellent).
The pacing tends to slow a bit between these scenes of ghoulish fun, but there are enough surprises to grab your attention. Anything for Jackson has mastered the art of the shocking turn, with some moments that have that same sudden hit as The Omen (it’s all for you, Jackson). Each shift is swift and effective. Director Justin G. Dyck wields these moments well.
In horror, we so often see young protagonists getting into trouble for all the wrong reasons. In Anything for Jackson, it’s actually quite refreshing to see an older generation take their turn with the terrible decisions. Their mission is born (no pun intended) from a deep place of grief and loss, not from pure dumb curiosity or greed. They’ve followed all the instructions carefully with the intention of bringing a spirit back; this is no inconvenient-yet-for-the-sake-of-the-plot accident. They didn’t stumble upon this book locked in a basement, they sought it out with full knowledge of what it was capable of.
And therein lies the crux of the film: what would you do for someone you love. What risks would you take to mend a broken heart. There are layers of guilt and grief that flood the film, working to build a balance with the many spooks and scares. That said, this equilibrium often leans away from the heavy side of the scale, so it doesn’t quite drag the film down as much as it could have, were it to take a more serious approach. This makes it a more accessible film, but the tone is perhaps a bit muddled as a result.
Peppered with genuinely unsettling spirits and some bloody surprises, Anything for Jackson is a cautionary tale that tackles emotional themes without getting too lost in its sorrow. Some parents would move Heaven and Earth for their children, but for Jackson, Hell will do just fine.