Vicious Fun / Anything for Jackson
by Thom Ernst
(August 26, 2021 – Toronto, ON) In a career that bends unmistakably towards horror, Toronto actor Julian Richings stays the course in director Cody Calahan’s Vicious Fun but breaks new ground (somewhat) in director Justin G. Dyck’s Anything for Jackson.
And though both films purposefully mine genre filmmaking traditions—Vicious stalks slasher films of the 80s while Jackson is somewhat of a mirror image of The Exorcist—there is in the familiar something unique.
Anything for Jackson is a radical change for its director Justin G. Dyck. Dyck’s career has been in making cookie-cutter made-for-television Christmas movies. Jackson is a move that seems to surface out of nowhere, like discovering the local school crossing-guard is an accomplished free-style gymnast. A more direct (although reversed) analogy would be that time Wes Craven made Music of the Heart, that feel-good story starring Meryl Streep as a tough teacher who changes the lives of inner-city students through music.
Make no mistake, Anything For Jackson is a horror film, but one cushioned in chamber room respectability even when rotating snowblower blades and other such schemes of malice come into play. The difference here for Richings is that he is the leading man, as much as the film has one. And he is the perfect choice to play the good Dr. Henry who, with his wife Audrey (the equally effective Shelia McCarthy), don black hoods and drone through Satanic incantations at their local community center.
Audrey and Henry are the most unlikely of worshipers among their local Satanic order members: elderly, prominent, and kindly (to a point). But their dedication is stronger than even Talia (Claire Cavalheiro), whose posturing as a high priestess seems to be just a way of passing the time. And the couple stands far and well above the erratic basement-dwelling Ian (Josh Cruddas).
It’s easy to understand Audrey and Henry’s rationale for dipping into the black arts. They only wish to reanimate their dead grandson, Jackson, although audiences versed in genre films knows conjuring up demons is risky business.
Sacrifices must be made. And so, Audrey and Henry abduct Becker (Konstantina Mantelos), a young pregnant woman, to use as a vessel for the spirit of Jackson to enter and be reborn.
But amateur Satanists, like amateur sleuths, tend to invite more trouble than resolutions. Soon Audrey and Henry’s quiet middle-class suburban home becomes a flophouse for the murdered, and the confused spirits who squeezed through the tear made between hell and their guest bedroom.
Shades of dark comedy hide in the crevices of the character’s unshakeable determination and in the grisly games the demons toss in to amuse themselves. Dyck, in turn, employs a liberal reversal of The Exorcist with a goal to cast in a demon rather than expel one. And Becker, bound to bedposts, in turns pleading and tormenting her captors, channeling enough of Linda Blair’s possessed Reagan to make your head spin.
Through it, all Richings and McCarthy play it deadpan. The results of their misadventure induces an occasional moderate shock, but soon they ride out the mayhem like two people reluctantly accepting of the antics of a very strange house guest.
Richings also appears in Vicious Fun.
A night of murderous collaboration is sparked when a film critic (Evan Marsh) stumbles upon a support group for serial killers.
Think about that: A support group for serial killers. That’s premise enough to get eyes on the screen. But add a genre-specific film critic to Abbott & Costello things up a bit, and that’s high-concept comedy coming to life.
The aptly titled Vicious Fun serves dual purposes; one to fuel audiences’ expectations that this will be vicious, and it will be fun. The other references the pleasure this band of group-sharing serial killers gets from inflicting harm upon others.
Richings is one of several people who takes part in a support group for serial killers. This time, Richings takes a secondary role as Fritz, an accountant who dresses up as a clown to pursue his murderous habit. The support group is not meant to curtail anyone’s penchant for killing but rather offer ways to improve their skills, groom their victims, and garner the personal glory and hype they require without detection.
Marsh stars as Joel, a horror film critic with an unpublished killer script that no one seems too interested in. He harbours an unspoken love for his roommate, whose current boyfriend, someone Joel has only seen from a distance, is a certified creep.
Joel follows the creep to a bar, sits down to have drinks, and, under the guise of a fellow womanizer, discovers just how lecherous and unfaithful of a scumbag the boyfriend is. So, Joel does what every scorned lover does when learning that the bad boy wins; he drinks himself to oblivion and passes out in a broom closet.
Hours later, he wakes and stumbles upon the Support Group. After a few comical stints of confusion, scattered assumptions, and mistaken identity, Joel recognizes the dire situation he’s in and begins to play along, pretending to be just another serial killer in need of a thoughtful ear. Thankfully he has the details of his unproduced script to fall back on.
But when his game is exposed, Joel becomes the target of an all-out hunt. Things get messy.
Richings’s role is limited, and one does wish there were more of him in the film. But his presence is quickly noted. His nebbish accountant look is the perfect for the role and hardly needs the extra boost of dressing in a clown outfit. Yes, clowns can be terrifying but let’s give accountants their due.
Richings makes it work.
Vicious Fun and Anything for Jackson are currently available to stream.
Poster and image for Anything For Jackson courtesy of Vortex Words + Pictures.
Poster and image for Vicious Fun courtesy of Black Fawn Films.
Thom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.