The Powells – father Andrew (Jonathan Schaech), his divorced wife Kathy (Deborah Kara Unger), their sons Justin (Ben Sullivan) and Campbell (Nick Roux), Justin’s former girlfriend Samantha (Chelsea Ricketts), and Justin and Samantha’s baby daughter Zoe – are having a reunion in their vacation cabin, This, however, is no ordinary family get-together but rather an intervention, as Justin has just been violently abducted from a cult by his father and ex-marine deprogrammer Jimmy Levine (Stephen Dorff), and is now tied securely to a chair upstairs, surrounded by those he once loved. This, however, is to be a tale of two families, as the cult’s members, dressed in jackal masks, surround the cabin, and the beleaguered, dysfunctional Powells find themselves being tested from within as much as from without.
There are some disconcerting similarities drawn between the Powells and Jimmy on the one hand and on the other, the antagonists outside. Jimmy’s ‘semper fi’ tattoo and past allegiance to a military chain of command serve as parallels to the cultists’ own talismanic tattoos and organisational structure – and both sides resort at times to masks and violence. It is clear that this is a death cult, because of the name Thanatos (Greek for ‘death’) that Justin has adopted, because of the jackal masks worn by the cultists (evoking the jackal-faced Egyptian death god Anubis), and because of the prologue in which we see a masked cultist break into his own home and slaughter his own family. Yet despite its cultic subject matter, Jackals lacks the psychological subtlety of Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Faults (2014) or The Invitation (2016) – and despite its explicit setting in March 1983 and a textual claim to be “based on a true story”, the film reveals little about the sociopolitical context of the Eighties.
Rather, director Kevin Greutert (Saw VI, Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, Jessabelle) strives to milk as much tension as possible from fairly standard home invasion plotting. Beginning with an extended murderer’s POV sequence that references the opening to Halloween (1978), it soon settles into riffing on the siege scenarios from The Night Of The Living Dead (1968), The Strangers (2008) – which Greutert edited – and You’re Next (2009), while exploiting the timeless creepiness of silent figures wearing animal faces. If there is a coherent theme to be traced through all of this, it is the failure of the traditional family, and the attraction of alternatives, however negative, that fill in the vacuum – but for the most part Jackals is best regarded as a genre amusement ride, always well crafted if never distinguished enough to achieve genuine cult status.