When Justin Powell (Ben Sullivan) is captured by two ski-masked men and dragged back to a secluded cabin, it's anything but a standard kidnapping. Waiting for Justin at the cabin is his father (Johnathon Schaech, That Thing You Do!), mother (Deborah Kara Unger, Crash, Silent Hill), brother (Nick Roux), and former girlfriend (Chelsea Ricketts). Together, they are dedicated to freeing him from the sinister brainwashing he's undergone at the hands of a vicious cult known as The Jackals.
With the help of Jimmy Levine (Stephen Dorff, Blade), an experienced cult deprogrammer, the family does their best to bring Justin back to reality … but their plans go awry when the cult descends upon the cabin, demanding Justin back. A vicious battle unfolds, testing familial loyalties and unleashing a bloodbath from which no one is safe.
There's a measure of truth to that old adage about imitation being the most sincere form of flattery. When a film upends an entire genre and creates an army of imitations, it may be flattering to the filmmaker but for audiences it can lead to stale and uninspired films. Some call this kind of filmmaking an "homage" while others call it a blatant "ripoff." For director Kevin Greutert's Jackals, the line between homage and ripoff becomes increasingly blurry as scenes, dialogue, and various plot scenarios feel increasingly like they were lifted from other better horror films. Most of the film works. It's an engaging flick with some genuinely decent scares, but they come at the expense of familiarity.
All Andrew (Johnathon Schaech) and Kathy Powell (Deborah Kara Unger) want is their son Justin (Ben Sullivan) back. After being inducted into a powerful cult, Justin has sworn off all family leaving his wife Samantha (Chelsea Ricketts) and his young daughter to be with his new true "family." After hiring cult deprogrammer Jimmy Levine (Stephen Dorff), the Powells, their eldest son Campbell (Nick Roux) and Samantha orchestrate Justine's abduction and abscond with him deep into the mountains to the family's cabin hoping to turn him back. Unfortunately, they didn't anticipate the cult stopping at nothing to retrieve their newest "son."
From the opening POV shot taken from the opening moments of John Carpenter's Halloween, Jackals makes numerous callbacks to horror films that have come before. Outside of names and some story specifics, there's really very little new to the recipe here. Taking some cues from films like The Strangers, You're Next, and Eden Lake, the film falls into a pretty predictable claptrap of familiarity. At the outset, it tries to sell the film with a "Based On A True Story" card but in actuality, that card should have read "Based On Other Movies You Already Know."
While I know it sounds like I'm raking Jackals over the coals, I will stand up and say that I did actually enjoy this flick. While director Kevin Greutert's previous efforts with his outings with Saw VI and Saw 3D: The Final Chapter and even his turn with the halfway decent Jessabelle were stronger efforts, I'll say the man knows how to set a scene and build a sense of dread. Jackals is steeped in atmosphere and mood. A Strong turn from the always reliable Stephen Dorff and Ben Sullivan help keep the first half feeling exciting and interesting with a nice psychological game of cat and mouse. It's when the cultists arrive that things go off the rails and the smartest characters in the room start doing the stupidest things possible checking off every horror cliche to thin the cast.
I guess my biggest issue with Jackals boils down to the simple fact that it didn't need cultists in creepy animal masks at all. The first half is actually pretty strong stuff. A family drama potboiler dressed in the trappings of a psychological horror flick. Had the filmmakers chosen the braver path and stayed the course rather than introducing a faceless army, this flick could have been something genuinely worth writing home about. Instead, it, unfortunately, becomes pretty routine once the sun goes down.
All in all, I wouldn't dissuade anyone from giving Jackals a look. As I said, I was actually entertained by it. I dug the mood, the creepy visuals, and the performances are generally decent. But like a lot of horror films made on a small budget, some different creative decisions could have yielded a better crop of scares. If you don't demand too much from it, Jackals stands a chance at entertaining. There are certainly worse horror flicks out there demanding your attention.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Jackals arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc, the disc comes housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to an animated main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
Jackals sports a decent 2.39:1 1080p transfer that is indicative of its digital source. The opening Halloween-inspired POV opening sports its share of camera glare, video noise, softness, and uninteresting colors. More or less it looks like it was shot with an older GoPro rather than a higher-end production camera rig. Even if it is more or less a near shot-for-shot ripoff of that infamous opening, it's low-fi qualities give it a gritty quality and set the tone for the rest of the movie. Once the A-story kicks in and the hapless family are holed up in their cabin, the film sports a higher-end appearance with more robust colors, stronger details, and mitigated video noise. When the lights go out the transfer sports some solid black levels that gives the confines spaces a great sense of space and depth. It's even creepier in the woods where thick shadows go a long way towards adding dread to the flick. All in all, this is a solid transfer. It's got a couple issues to contend with, but nothing serious and more indicative of production limitations.
Where Jackals earns some strong marks is with its DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix. I was impressed with the film's sound design allowing silence to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Rather than fill every scene with noise, there's plenty of silent atmosphere allowing little background sound effects to do their jobs and push that sense of dread. This is especially the case when the cultists arrive. Sounds of digging in the dirt, crackling tree branches, and howling really punch things up. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout without any interference. There is decent imaging throughout the flick. Most of the film is a rather front/center affair but when and where it counts there is some terrific surround activity along the sides and rears. They may not always be engaged but they do get a little bit of a workout. Levels are also spot on, I never felt the need to adjust volume once I was in the middle of the flick.
In true Scream Factory fashion, Jackals arrives with a decent assortment of bonus features content to pick through. The commentary track with director Kevin Greutert and writer Jared Rivet is a solid listen. The cast and crew interviews are a bit on the EPK side of things but still informative.
Cast and Crew Interviews (HD 19:48)
Audio Commentary featuring director Kevin Greutert and writer Jared Rivet.
Trailer (HD 1:48)
Jackals is one of those middling horror films with an overwhelming sense of familiarity. Part of that is due to simple happenstance that a number of the genre conventions are now commonplace. The home invasion cult flick was once fresh and new and is now all too familiar. It's difficult not to hold this film's creepy people in masks up against all those other films featuring creepy people in masks. That said, some assured direction and a decent cast make this unfortunate vacation to a cabin in the woods at least worth taking a look at. Scream Factory brings Jackals to Blu-ray in fine order with a good A/V transfer and a few decent bonus features. Jackals may not be the greatest, most original thing ever made, but it's still decent and worth watching on a cold dark night. Worth a look.