Imagine that Rosemary’s Baby didn’t focus on the toxic yuppie couple, but was instead about the kindly, elderly Satanists living next door. The end result would probably look a little bit like Anything For Jackson, a deliciously dark horror comedy in which the mundane and the malevolent live side by side.
Reeling from the loss of their grandson, elderly couple Audrey (Sheila McCarthy) and Dr. Henry Walsh (Julian Richards) have turned to the dark side. In their case, it’s a satanic coven that holds regular meetings at a local community centre (snacks provided). After sourcing an occult grimoire, the pair abduct a pregnant woman, Shannon Becker (Konstantina Mantelos), and hold her hostage in their soundproofed home. Their plan is to use black magic to reincarnate their lost grandson, with her unborn child as the host. Pretty soon their plan goes awry, and their home becomes a supernatural battleground as evil spirits gather to rush through the gateway that they have naively opened.
At the heart of the film is a set of incredibly strong performances by veteran character actors Richards and McCarthy. There’s a depth to their interactions that keeps the film anchored even as we head into the insanity of the third act. The doddering but devoted couple are capable of warmth and charm, but there’s an underlying edge of violence to their suburban niceties, and a steely, uncompromising determination. At one point, Audrey chides Becker that swearing is bad for the baby, an absurd scolding coming from someone who has tied a woman to a bed and intends to steal her baby.
As the story progresses, the supernatural occurrences become more brutal and terrifying. Physical effects and some really horrifying monster designs are artfully executed. Most memorable perhaps is a demon that appears to be suffocating on a plastic bag, with cracking limbs that shift under its flesh as it contorts itself and scuttles around. Certain familiar motifs, including the ubiquitous creepy child ghost, are given new spins. Even scares that are clear homages to classic horror moments from The Omen and It Follows manage to catch us off guard.
As with any horror comedy, the key is balance. By keeping the laughs muted and naturalistic, the film creates an engaging dynamic. Moments of mild domestic tedium counterpoint the violent occult absurdity. The juxtaposition of polite, outwardly harmless characters and their dark secrets, along with the snowy backdrop, make the film feel like a cross between Fargo and Hereditary.
Perhaps the most impressive piece of tonal acrobatics is when a shocking event jolts the audience, only for the exact same event to reoccur later as a macabre joke, and then again later on as a scare. For director Justin G. Dyk, whose filmography mainly revolves around TV movies like Ponysitters Club: The Big Sleepover and A Puppy For Christmas, it’s an accomplished and impressive departure.
Overarching tension is added to the mix when a detective investigating Shannon’s disappearance begins to suspect that the kindly couple may know more than they let on. It provides just enough impetus to keep the plot moving forward at an engaging pace as we wait for the inevitable denouement.
In the last act we are introduced to a new character, as the hapless couple turn to more experienced satanist Ian (Josh Cruddas) for help. Ian clearly sees himself as the occult equivalent of Mr. Wolf from Pulp Fiction; a suave expert in matters metaphysical, there to clear up the mess that Henry and Audrey have made. Instead, he comes across as a sneering, arrogant adolescent – more at home blogging about black metal than dancing with the devil. Although his character appears abruptly, and would perhaps have benefitted from being introduced earlier in the film, he’s a welcome addition. He provides a more unsympathetic villain to root against when the blood gets flowing in the film’s climactic final scenes.
It’s hard to overstate just how much fun Anything For Jackson is. The comedy is genuinely funny but never overwhelms the grimness of the story. The scares, although often ones we’ve seen before, are approached in fresh ways and can be genuinely creepy. Thanks to strong central performances, the emotional core of the story holds strong, and the sense of earth-shattering loss makes for some complex and semi-sympathetic villains. The expert balancing act of these contrary elements makes Anything For Jackson a superb midnight movie.