Tuesday 16 May 2017

Jack's Back

I've beamed this review over to AiP from the Retro Slashers website, where it was published on 26 September 2011. Things have changed a little since then... Jack's Back is now available on Blu-ray. And, oh yeah, we now have Blu-rays.

With its twins, dead prostitutes and copious dream sequences, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jack’s Back is a lost Brian De Palma movie. In fact, it was written and directed by Rowdy Herrington, who – although probably best-known for the 1989 Patrick Swayzefest, Road House – specializes in hard-edged thrillers like Striking Distance (1993), A Murder of Crows (1998) and I Witness (2003), the latter of which reunited him with his leading man from this project, James Spader.

Spader plays rebellious medical student John Wesford, who splits his spare time between working at a free clinic and getting interviewed for the local news about the plight of L.A.’s homeless people. Also on the local news – and aggressively foreshadowed every time any character so much as walks past a TV set – is the ongoing police investigation into a serial killer who’s copycatting the crimes of Jack the Ripper one hundred years after the fact to the very day! Why he’s doing it in Los Angeles, however, is never actually addressed. Anyway, the gist of all this is that (a) prostitutes are turning up dead in very messy crime scenes, (b) a pregnant woman is probably going to be butchered next, and (c) Wesford is somehow going to get dragged into all this, along with his super-hot secret admirer and fellow med student, Cynthia Gibb!

That’s all you’re getting on the subject of the plot, however, because Jack’s Back is one of those films that works better the less you know about it on the way in. I’m tempted to draw a comparison with De Palma’s Dressed to Kill – not because this movie is anything like as good, but because the twists come satisfyingly thick even if you’ve guessed the identity of the killer (which, admittedly, isn’t a massive kick in the grey cells). That also means it’s good for a re-watch, making it all the more unfortunate that it hasn’t yet had a proper DVD or Blu-ray release. The closest is a full-frame video transfer put out on DVD in the UK a few years ago by a company I’ve never heard of before or since, called 111 Pictures.

That being said, Jack’s Back is a movie that really isn’t harmed by a VHS viewing. It’s one of those lumpy little late-80s gems like I, Madman or 976-EVIL that takes place largely at night in a world of its own making, where common sense gives way to a kind of frenzied internal logic that carries you along on a suspense-high, despite the surfeit of silliness if you actually stopped to think about it.

There’s solid work from Spader, who’s always an interesting actor but never more so than when he’s asked to be ambiguous – a quality that this tricksy whodunit explores from all angles. Cynthia Gibb is also on fine, hyper-likeable form as the love interest who gets to be a little bit more than the standard woman-in-peril.

The really fun thing about this film, however, is a characteristic it shares with a handful of sometimes less-than-perfect slashers like Cutting Class and Fatal Games: the frequent use of plot devices requiring characters to sneak out in the middle of the night, leaving the safety of their homes to prowl around deserted buildings, strangers’ houses, and anywhere else the killer might be lurking in search of clues. To me, this “scary adventure” quality is the chief pleasure of a good midnight movie, and one that can sometimes even be heightened by the nostalgia factor of fuzzy VHS. If it’s that you’re after, Jack’s Back provides it in spades.

Rating: 3/5

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