Jack’s Back (1988) — A pure ’80s murder mystery

“Jack? I’ve been meaning to tell you: you do good work.”

Kyle’s rating: A pure ’80s murder mystery, streamlined for timeless appeal

Kyle’s review: It’s come to my attention that I tend to get overly wordy and complex in my reviews, as though I’m trying to compete with the professional artistry of specific films by being both aloof and mysterious in an interesting way. The obvious response here is: Duh! Also, I am never to blame: it’s probably the Red Bull and my residual “juice” from daily Scrabble tournaments. But it’s worth a shot to remix and refine. Was it Socrates or Sheryl Crow who sang “A change (a change!) will do you good”? Doesn’t matter.

Curiously, the film Jack’s Back provides opportunity for both me to change my writing habits and for you to change your horror habits. Jack’s Back had been haunting me for years; a videocassette box with a big picture of sweaty James Spader on the front and the promise of an intricate Jack the Ripper-inspired written on the back. My mom never let me rent it at Safeway (where she held the lone rental card!) and I couldn’t find it anywhere else. But then it was on IFC, and I realized my destiny had come full circle. Would it live up to the hype of my memories and subsequent research in horror film tomes? Or would it be another 1980s slasher pic that rightfully faded into VHS anonymity like so many comers did? How could James Spader go wrong?

Thank the horror muses: viewing Jack’s Back should make you feel like your ’80s suspense love is back. It’s a film that is stuck solidly in the me decade, with odd fashions, a decisive divide between the haves and have-nots, and loads of cigarettes. It’s a film shot in the style of Michael Mann (think Manhunter) and written in the style of your favorite mystery writer, with the sole supernatural twist centering on the psychic (?) bond between twins. The murders aren’t as gory as they are wince-inducing, and the hard-boiled characters are memorable and honest. Plus, you may think you have the mystery solved, but you don’t! Well, maybe you do. I was surprised and fooled, but I’m slow. I can admit it.

James Spader is excellent and effective in dual roles, playing estranged twins whose experiences combine into a very bad 48 hours (insert Doublemint gum joke here). The rest of the cast, including a big beefy dude who may just be a big beefy red herring named Jack, is also quite good, looking appropriately moody, suspicious, and nicotine-addicted as necessary. But it’s Spader that we stick with for like 85% of the time, and it’s Spader that successfully carries the weight. Whether he’s the quirky and playfully shy the doctor twin, or he’s the mysterious yet valiant loner shoe salesman, Spader’s a magnetic presence. I used to wonder why the video cover was just a sweaty yet slightly disturbing James Spader head shot. Now I know. And you should, too!

Which brings me to you. Too often, it seems like modern film fans don’t always have the patience and understanding to watch older films without shooting the footage and story through their modern prisms and finding these older films painfully inadequate. Even horror genre fans, who are forced by the smallish (relatively speaking) selection of films for them to go nuts over, can’t resist giving in to their residual ironic tendencies and pointing out “A cell phone would have solved everything” and “Didn’t they sell bullets everywhere back then?” I’m not saying that’s what you’re like. I’m just sayin’. But if you can get over any irritation towards the past you may carry within, Jack’s Back is a great murder mystery with sinister undertones. Sure, if it took place today a lot of stuff would go down differently. But as a product of the times, Jack’s Back is super-cool. Give it a chance!

Yeah, Jack’s Back is good stuff. The Spader is kick-ass, the Jack the Ripper connection provides a lot of weight, and the ’80s-soaked Thunderdome-esque streets of Los Angeles are the perfect seedy setting for such dangerous goings-on. It’s a relic of a time when everybody smoked and twins were like freakish abnormalities, but it’s a very entertaining and rewarding relic, when a slasher movie wasn’t considered an easy product for cheap scares but a vehicle for intelligent drama that happened in and around horrific on-screen murders.

It might be tough to find unless you’ve got Independent Film Channel or a well-stocked rental place, but it’s worth the effort. Great moody ’80s stuff! Who’s up for a remake? I know I am!

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