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There’s snow on the ground, tea in the kettle, and an elderly couple who could very well be your grandparents doing everything they can to keep you healthy and happy. All you have to do is stay in bed and keep the noise down. If this sounds like an opening invitation for the most wonderful time of the year, it isn’t. In the Shudder film Anything for Jackson, billed as a “reverse exorcism,” a grieving couple turns to Satanism, kidnap a young pregnant woman, strap her to a bed, and use her unborn child as a resurrection vessel for the soul of their dead grandson, Jackson. But when they open the door to the other side, it isn’t just Jackson who makes his way back out.
The story behind one of the most haunting films of the year is nearly just as fascinating as the story that unfolds onscreen. That story is one that begins with a filmmaker in search of his first feature film, a soccer-playing monkey, and an abundance of made-for-TV Christmas films.
Like so many in the entertainment industry, Canadian filmmaker Justin G. Dyck’s road to making his dream project was not without its many twists and turns. But what set Dyck apart was his willingness to take every opportunity that came his way, and use them as learning experiences, preparing him for the creative endeavor he’d spent years dreaming about: making a horror movie.
“I had worked in the industry for a long time as a cinematographer and editor, and directed music videos and as many short films as I could get my hands on,” Dyck tells The Hollywood Reporter.
With all of that experience under his belt, he decided it was time to make a feature film, and an indie horror film was at the top of his list. Fate, as it would turn out, had another plan in store. He approached a producer for financing, with the hopes she’d deliver him a horror movie script. What she came back with was something else entirely. She offered him a family film about a kid who plays soccer with a monkey. Dyck, good-natured and still finding humor in the situation recalled saying to the producer, “I don’t have a feature film under my belt yet, so I guess the first one is going to be about a kid playing soccer with a monkey.”
That film, Monkey in the Middle (2014), was successful enough with its target audience that it led to a wealth of career opportunities for Dyck, each one pulling him further away from the dark little dream that dwelt in his mind, but each one giving him the skills, relationships, and creative opportunities he’d later put to use on Anything for Jackson. Following Monkey in the Middle, Dyck directed a number of romance and children’s television movies, and more Christmas movies than you could watch in a holiday season, ranging from Christmas Catch (2018), Christmas with a View (2018), A Very Country Christmas (2017), and A Puppy for Christmas (2016), to my personal favorite title of the bunch, My Dad Is Scrooge (2014).
“One of them kept leading to the next and none of them were the indie horror film I’d always wanted to do,” Dyck says, while remaining grateful for all the experiences he’s had on what he refers to as his day job, one populated by “creative people who want to make something creative.”
Yet, even in the midst of keeping busy with holiday and family films, Dyck didn’t give up on making a horror movie. He and his writing partner, Keith Cooper, who also penned a number of those holiday, family films, began putting pitch packages together and finally found financing for the film that would become Anything for Jackson. Dyck emphasized that filmmaking is a journey, and that Anything for Jackson would not be the film it is if it had happened earlier in his career.
“I’m much more comfortable on set now than I would have been if Anything for Jackson had been my first feature. I’m somewhat relaxed on set and I understand how it all works. I think Anything for Jackson would be a very different film had I not been practicing on thirty Christmas movies.”
There is, of course, an idea that if you want to be a director and you’re not directing movies in the industry then you’ve missed the mark somewhere along the way. But Dyck offers wisdom that doesn’t rely on following one set path: “Any day you’re working on a film in any capacity, whether you’re writing, on set, breaking down films, reviewing films, all of that informs and moves you ahead.”
And moving ahead is exactly what Dyck and Cooper have done with Anything for Jackson, a far cry, to put it mildly, from their career beginnings.
“We very much set out to make it as real and grounded as possible,” Dyck says. “We asked if you were to find a group of Satanists in a small town, where would you find them? They would have to rent out a community room at the local library like everybody else. So it really just came down to absolute realism. We kept asking ourselves, what would you do if you saw this ghost in your house? What would you do if you needed to find a Satanist or track down an ancient text? So the characters and the plot came from that desire for realism, and I think with that came comedy just because it is funny to look at the world through those eyes.”
Those eyes belong to Henry (Julian Richings) and Audrey Walsh (Sheila McCarthy), whose gentle geriatric natures create a sense that they aren’t necessarily bad people, but have given themselves over to bad things, creating a tone for the film that’s scary, poignant, and at times, fondly comedic.
“They had to be honest. They had to be driven by their grief,” says Dyck. “They come from a place of privilege so they’re a bit blinded and are not overly sympathetic people. Their own grief has shut that part of their brains down, hence the title.”
After performing a ritual on the pregnant Becker (Konstantina Mantelos), Henry and Audrey serve as hosts to a number of ghosts who haunt their home, including a flossing woman who has carved out a space in my brain for a week.
When asked about the funhouse nature of the ghosts, each with their own unique look, and potential to have their own stories told in the vein of James Wan’s Conjuring Universe, Dyck credited his writing partner.
“When he wrote each of the ghosts, he tapped into dream analysis. So each ghost is tied to the character they’re haunting. These characters are going through something that would, according to dream analysis, lead to having those types of dreams,” says Dyck. “So the flossing ghost is an example. Henry, who is our logical, thinking, sort of stable rock in the story, he is haunted by the flossing ghost. And a typical dream you’ll have when you feel like you’re losing control is that your teeth are falling out.”
As for creating these ghosts, Dyck, with the help of a talented VFX and makeup team, was inspired by the filmmakers he grew up watching, and went almost entirely practical. His writer had a visual effects background, and they enlisted Karlee Morse to do special effects makeup.
“All the ghosts are practical. We used digital effects as sparingly as we could,” says Dyck. “That’s the best way to make horror and it just feels like the ghosts are coming after you at that point.”
Part of the fun practical is learning along the way, and while most of the effects went off without a hitch, the process of trying to resurrect a taxidermied crow with fishing line proved to be a bit more difficult than originally expected.
“It looked like a Muppet was coming to life. It was hilarious and it did not work at all. But luckily we found some stock footage and some incredible VFX artists and we managed to pull that one off with some snap edits and minor VFX. But, ‘don’t puppeteer taxidermized crows’ would be my advice to anyone trying to do a horror film.”
Another bit of advice that guided Dyck on the film was an age-old adage to “use what you have.”
Anything for Jackson was mostly shot in writer Cooper’s family home in Canada, a space the lends itself well to some of the film’s biggest scares. Dyck was also able to pay tribute to a place that had a major impact on his becoming a filmmaker.
“Jackson’s room was actually a set that we built in an old movie theater that is shutting down now. It’s not one of the main chains, but it’s actually one of the ones that I grew up going to and fell in love with movies there. So it was nice that we were able to build Jackson’s bedroom in cinema 3 and say goodbye by making a movie there.”
As for those movies Dyck fell in love with growing up, he says that
he’s seen influenced Anything for Jackson in some way, oftentimes subconsciously. But the films he revisited while preparing the shot lists and considering the themes of grief and love were, The Omen (1976), The Changeling (1980), The Shining (1980), and most invaluably, What Dreams May Come (1998).
So what’s next for Justin G. Dyck? When THR spoke with him, he had just finished on set for the day for another Christmas movie and has a few more of those on the docket, but horror he assured is where his future lies.
“Horror is definitely something I plan on moving my career forward in. The holiday stuff, I’m very lucky, I get a call from the producers who hire me to make a lot of those movies, I show up, they give me an order, and I deliver the product. We’re making entertainment and it’s a fantastic day job,” says Dyck. “But I do consider Anything for Jackson to be my first movie, the first one I’ve developed from the ground up with my writer partner Keith, and that’s the movie we set out to make.”
If Anything for Jackson is any indication, Justin G. Dyck has a long career in the genre ahead of him, one that was worth the wait and the monkey business that kicked it all off.
Anything for Jackson is available now on Shudder.
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival