The year is 1983. Memories of the 1978 Jonestown People’s Temple mass suicide are still relatively fresh. Cults continue to dominate tabloid headlines—and the fear is warranted. The Powell family could very well be sadistically tortured and murdered by the cult that seduced the younger brother Justin, but at least he is not a Scientologist. Yet, this ominous mask and leather jacket-wearing band of ritual murderers might even be slightly more stalkerish. When the Powells abduct Justin for a Ticket to Heaven-style deprogramming, they will quickly find themselves under siege in Kevin Greutert’s Jackals (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles and Denver.
The prologue should give us an idea what the Powells will face when one long-estranged cult member murders his God-fearing, Reagan-voting family in the middle of the night. However, Kathy and Andrew Powell have opted to go on the offensive, hiring Marine Corps veteran Jimmy Levine to whisk Justin off to their remote cabin to give him a serious talking to. Jerky older brother Campbell has his doubts regarding their strategy, which will soon be vindicated. Unfortunately, that cabin is a little too remote for their own good. When a small army of Jackal-mask wearing cult-members surrounds their mountain home, they are clearly on their own.
Levine and the Powells are outnumbered at least ten to one, but the cultists hold back. According to the Jack Bauer of deprogrammers, they are giving Justin time to free himself and earn redemption on his own. Nevertheless, there will be periodic skirmishes that will thin Team Powell’s already meager numbers.
Jackals hardly breaks any new ground, but it is still viscerally effective, in a throwback 1980s kind of way. In terms of the look, score, and a narrative reminiscent of Assault on Precinct 13, the film wears its John Carpenter influences on its sleeve. Greutert and screenwriter Jared Rivet understand how cults’ ruthlessness and collective denial of individuality get under our skin and they skillfully play on those fears. To that end, they do little to differentiate the violent hordes massing outside the cabin, with mixed results. There is no central villain to get our blood circulating, but their almost supernaturally hive-like behavior is definitely creepy.
Stephen Dorff is absolutely terrific as Levine. In fact, he could have been one of the great horror movie protagonists, but the film ill-advisedly undercuts him in a forehead-slappingly frustrating way. It is also cool to see Deborah Kara Unger as Kathy Powell, the wine-swilling mother. Johnathon Schaech gives the film more dignity and presence than you would expect, as Andrew Powell, the unfaithful father. The rest of the cast is serviceable, but they never leave much impression.