Arriving in Barrie, Ontario, I find myself standing in front of an old movie theatre, converted into a soundstage for the filming of Anything for Jackson. It seems like a perfect place to shoot a movie, like the building was reincarnated; reborn to live through the life cycle of a film. I’m brought to the set — a little boy’s room — once full of light and love, now tainted by the presence of a large, demonic-looking symbol painted at the foot of the bed in what is clearly intended to be blood. It’s suitably haunting.
As I meet with the film’s writer, Keith Cooper, and the director, Justin G. Dyck, I’m ushered to a set of chairs behind a monitor to watch the dark ritual they’re about to begin. Stars Julian Richings and Sheila McCarthy fuss over a woman — Konstantina Mantelos — chained to a bed while Josh Cruddas reads from an ancient tome.
In Anything for Jackson, two grieving grandparents, Henry and Audrey — played by Richings and McCarthy — kidnap a young pregnant woman, Becker (Mantelos) in the hopes that an ancient ritual will bring the spirit of their deceased grandson into the unborn baby living inside their unfortunate guest.
“It’s their first time performing devilish rituals, so it doesn’t go as planned,” explains director Justin G. Dyck as we break for lunch. “Instead they just open up some portals, and there’s lots of different ghosts who are haunting the area, looking for a way to come back to this earth. They all start banging down the doors trying to come back as well.” It’s a real mess that Henry and Audrey end up unraveling, though their intentions are pure.
“It makes you think, who has the right to what, and why do they feel entitled to do what they do? And yet the justification is love,” says actress Lanette Ware, who plays Detective Bellows, “So that alone is a very layered, complex, beautiful concept. Everyone that’s lost anyone can understand wanting to keep the soul and spirit of that energy, that life — animal or personal life. So it’s understandable, which is what makes it so much more horrific in concept.”
“It just kind of really shines a spotlight on how far people will go when they are desperate.” Adds Cruddas. “It’s scary and it’s horrific and it’s exciting, but at the core of it — at its center — is a story about two human beings that I think anyone who’s going to watch this movie, whether you’re young or old — whoever you are — you’re going to relate very strongly to these characters because of their humanity.”
Grief is a driving force behind Anything for Jackson; it’s a theme that is evergreen in horror. “Horror often deals with death in various ways. And this movie does in its own way — a quite poignant way — and quite an emotional way at times, and then a very horrific way, too,” Cruddas continues, “And so I think grief also pushes people in directions they never would have thought they would go before experiencing it.”
“I think it’s something everyone connects with. Everyone.” affirms Dyck, “Whenever someone feels grief, they want to think there’s a way out of it.”
But as much emotion as there is in the film — and that river runs deep — there’s also a lot of spooky goodness. Between takes, writer Keith Cooper and I huddle around a phone screen to check out footage from the previous days’ shoot. Key Makeup Artist Karlee Morse has put together a deeply unsettling ghost that sheds its teeth as it furiously flosses, and — a vision of horror — a contortionist that jolts and shudders towards the camera, face wrapped in plastic.
“Each ghost is very much on purpose, and based on nightmares and nightmare analysis.” Details Dyck, “Dreams of losing your teeth and what that represents, dreams of suffocating. Each ghost is specifically based on nightmare analysis and where the characters are in that space.”
Morse does excellent work, and she was so excited to work on the film that she wrapped up early on another project to join the team. “The ghost design is something very near and dear to Karlee’s heart,” says Dyck, “Which is why she agreed to come slumming with us and make this little movie, so that she could design all these ghosts.” As a fan of the Black Zodiac lore of Thir13en Ghosts, I can understand why she would jump at the opportunity.
But Morse isn’t the only crew that’s been particularly drawn to this project. “People are just excited to lend their talents to this movie. People are flying in from other places just to be a part of the effects work,” Cruddas observes, “We’ve got a couple of ghosts who have very specific skills and they are flying in from places and they’re doing amazing work.”
It seems that everyone has been willing to put in the work to make Anything for Jackson something truly special. Ware took the opportunity to learn as much as she could to prepare for her role as the film’s savvy Detective. “I was fortunate enough that Keith and Justin and the team went and introduced me to Toronto’s longest running Lieutenant/Detective who had just retired last year, and put us together for a conversation.” divulges Ware, “So I took the project seriously. I took the role seriously, although I had played detectives before, she was a different kind of detective in my opinion. Because she’s leading the case. And I learned a ton.”
Stars Julian Richings and Sheila McCarthy are Canadian film and television royalty, so securing their names to the project was a big step in the right direction. “I had a friend who had worked with Sheila [McCarthy] in the past, and we decided she would be the best person to play Audrey in this project,” details Dyck, “So we reached out to her. She read the script and was on board immediately. She said, ‘I love it, I do big projects so that I can help people like you out and do little projects with scripts that I like to connect with’.” With McCarthy attached, Vortex Words + Pictures was intrigued, and thankfully they really connected with the script. The role of Henry was written specifically with Richings in mind, so once he signed on, it was full steam ahead.
For Cooper and Dyck, Anything for Jackson was a passion project, and a bit of a departure from their previous work. Dyck commented on their repertoire of films, saying “This is a one location movie, with somewhat minimal characters, so we can make this for a low budget. We both have a lot of experience in other genres, from kids and family, teen episodic, romance, Christmas, and so we decided we wanted to do something a little more creative, a little less commercial, and really think outside the box in terms of how to create it.” As fans of horror, they were excited to put their ideas to work. “All the Christmas movies I worked on last year, you always learn something on set. Someone comes with a great idea, and you’re like, oh that would be cool if you just twist it. And then it becomes horror.”
I can tell by their excitement that they both have a deep love for the horror genre. After Dyck and I discuss some genre film favourites (Funny Games, Haute Tension, Silence of the Lambs) and points of inspiration (It Follows, Martyrs, The Orphanage), Cooper shares with me the trial-and-error lessons learned when trying to find something to throw in a snow blower that would effectively mimic blood and guts. (Hint: whatever it is, you’ve got to freeze it first.)
After checking out a special effects rig set up for the big, climactic finish, I head back behind the camera to watch the filming of one last scene. A ghost is caught in the echo of its death, startling the characters as they move through their dialogue.
A great American poet once said, “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that”. Appropriate to the film’s title, Henry and Audrey truly would do anything for Jackson. I ask Dyck what he hopes audiences will take away from the film, what he wants them to ponder through the closing credits.
“What are you willing to do for someone you love? Anyone will say, you know, I’d die for my kid, or I’d die for my grandson or sister, spouse or whatever. But what’s worse than dying for somebody?” asks Dyck, “What’s the next step? Would you be willing to do that? So I guess that’s how they connect right? Anyone who does have loss — and I’m sure everybody does — what would you be willing to do to take that hurt away?” Dyck pauses, then laughs, “And then I want them to get really scared.”
Ware is confident that audiences will be. “I know how they’re gonna feel, trust me. Scared as *bleeps*,” she laughs, “They will not see half of the movie coming. Which is a good thing. The element of surprise never hurts in horror. I mean, if you don’t have that, you don’t have a horror film. That — if anything — I say is probably like the bare bones, you need to make sure they are afraid.” Smiling, she adds, “And they will be.”
This was Ware’s last day on set, and after all the spooks and scares I’ve seen through the day, I’m confident that she’s right. The ghost designs are impressive, and with their roots in dream analysis, I’m not surprised that they make me feel so deeply unsettled.
As I walk back to my car, I can’t stop thinking about the fantastic practical effects I’ve witnessed, and the deep emotional themes that run through the film. Anything for Jackson looks to be a well-constructed, heartfelt horror film that will surprise (and hopefully delight) audiences. I honestly can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.
You can check out Anything for Jackson on Super Channel in Canada on Shudder in the US, UK, New Zealand and Australia as of December 3rd, and you read my review out of Fantasia Fest here.