Sleazy and Clever: Jack’s Back On A Special Edition Blu Ray & DVD From Scream Factory!
“Let me give you a ride home. The Ripper’s out there. And tonight’s the night.”
First published at WhatchaReading.com, 2016.
There’s a sordid, grindhouse low-budget sheen to Jack’s Back that doesn’t quite blend with its synthesized 1980s frills, soundtrack and hairdos. A 1988 thriller involving a Los Angeles serial killer recreating Jack the Ripper’s legendary killing spree down to every detail a 100 years after the original murders, it stars James Spader, who at the time had memorably portrayed the venal rich jerk Stef in the Molly Ringwald vehicle Pretty in Pink and had performed in some other of the 80s teen-oriented low-budget flicks of the era that flew off video store shelves (Tuff Turf, The New Kids). Back‘s costar is the appealing Cynthia Gibb, best known to impressionable teenage boys of the 80s for her run on the television version of Fame. The first film from Rowdy Harrington, who later directed the infamous Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze (“Pain Don’t Hurt.”) and for my money the even more looney and pleasurably exaggerated Striking Distance, Jack’s Back doesn’t seem to have much hope as anything other than another faded photograph harkening back to a sunnier time when we all listened to Culture Club and Huey Lewis; back then, even low-budget films still got a short theatrical run and an (admittedly negative) New York Times review.
Jack’s Back is better than that, though and stands as one of the best American variations on the giallo formula perfected by Dario Argento and Sergio Martino in Italy in the 1970s. Fast-paced, JB throws you into the action late (it’s the night of the last original killing when the film begins) and gains immediate credibility when Spader shows up as an earnest doctor working at an Echo Park clinic helping the needy. Spader was only two years away from when Sex, Lies & Videotape would make him the king of indie weirdness for a decade plus before his 21st century makeover as a television star with Boston Legal and The Black List; as he investigates the murders (the final victim was actually his high school prom date), and indeed becomes the police’s number one suspect, you become enmeshed because Spader can’t help but give an alert, serious, credible performance even in these timeworn genre trappings. When the film throws an audacious surprise at you very early you have to chuckle, realizing that Jack’s Back at some level is going for all the marbles. Spader is up for this plot twist and credibly modulates his performance for the final two-thirds of the movie (and no, this isn’t a spoiler that he ultimately proves the killer…or is it?).
The film’s meager budget is palpable, and some scenes probably could have used a little more budget or time for further takes and coverage, but with Spader on screen 95% of the time, the film benefits from the greatest special effect known to film: a gifted actor at its center. Jack’s Back is sporadically sloppy but overall a trim, resourceful suspenser that feeds off of the good vibes it gets if you prove willing go with the film. You chuckle appreciatively at unforeseen moments, including just after you grumbled because you think the film has come up with the cop-out ending of all cop-out endings. It doesn’t, and when you recognize the film is going to pay off at some level, you appreciate Jack’s Back spirited malice, even if the concluding suspense sequence’s final beat is a bit fumbled.
Jack’s Back has earned a small, justified cult and has been released in a packed special edition by Shout Factory under its Scream Factory label. A commentary by Harrington is coupled with a “making-of” documentary featuring Harrington, fellow behind-the-scenes participants, and Gibb, ever-lovely at 50-something. Spader is absent from the looking-back proceedings, but that’s all right. He took the job in 1988 and took it seriously, and it’s his performance that anchors Jack’s Back. Spader can be so intense, it’s like he’s sending out rays. His performance isn’t subtle, and yet it is. There’s an anything-goes talent to his acting in trifles like this and Pretty in Pink that must have caught the attention of future Spader directors like Steven Soderbergh and David Cronenberg. His outsider deadpan is distinctive even in this early outing, and his finesse carries Jack’s Back past its dumber ideas. Jack’s Back also has a few surprisingly wily and warped ideas too, and its crazy plot developments and cuckoo central premise bounce along briskly. Like a lot of the best low-budget cinema, it’s almost shameless in its efforts to amuse you. Check it out.
And have a look at the trailer: