James Spader had an interesting career trajectory in the latter half of the ’80s, shifting from preppy villains in films like Pretty In Pink and Less Than Zero to more interesting roles in adult-minded fare like Bad Influence and Sex, Lies And Videotape. An oft-forgotten part of this transitional phase is a little movie called Jack’s Back. This indie was marketed to the horror crowd thanks to its “Jack The Ripper” plot hook but it’s actually a smartly-crafted little thriller with Hitchcockian elements that could easily be appreciated by the mainstream viewers who enjoy Spader’s adult-minded films.
Spader starts off the film as John, an idealistic young doctor who works at a free clinic. He has the misfortune of stumbling across the latest killing of a serial murderer who is emulating Jack The Ripper’s string of killings on its 100th anniversary. Before he can call the cops, he is murdered. Enter Rick (also Spader), John’s twin brother who experiences his killing via a dream. He sets out to find the killer with the help of John’s colleague Chris (Cynthia Gibb). Cops who suspect Rick make things more complicated and the killer is determined to tie up all loose ends.
Jack’s Back was the directing debut of Rowdy Herrington, who is better known for Road House. Herrington also wrote the script and does fine work in both departments. The script bypasses the opportunity for slasher setpieces and instead concentrates on crafty plotting, mixing in effective red herrings and bits of savvy narrative misdirection that keep the plot twisty up through its final reel. The script further benefits from a focus on adult characters who are more complex and interesting than the cannon fodder you’d see in a more youth-oriented treatment of this concept.
Herrington’s direction is equally smart, giving the film a sleek style and working in some effective visual flourishes without allowing camera pyrotechnics to get in the way of the story. The director also gets strong work from his cast, with Spader giving an inspired double performance that shows his range: John is more like the kind of introvert Spader played in Sex, Lies And Videotape while Rick is more of a traditionally edgy Spader role. Gibb lends nice support as the romantic interest while the supporting cast is fleshed out with solid backing from familiar faces like Chris Mulkey as a detective and Joe Dante favorite Robert Picardo as a quirky psychologist with an interest in hypnosis.
In short, Jack’s Back is an underrated little thriller that cult movie fans should seek out. Spader fans will enjoy seeing the actor show his chops and the clever, tidy plotting is a nice bonus.
Blu-Ray Notes: Scream Factory has just revived another title from the VHS era with their new blu-ray for Jack’s Back. It features a new HD transfer that does well by the film’s inherently soft, smoky look, upping the detail considerably from the old SD versions and drawing out its subtle color scheme. The audio is a simple, straightforward DTS representation of the original mix, with a solid blend of sonic elements throughout.
Scream Factory has also thrown in a few extras. The first is a 24 minute making of pieces that features Herrington, Gibb, D.P. Shelley Johnson and producer Tim Moore. It covers the genesis of the film, the techniques used to create a film with unique style on a tight budget/schedule and plentiful detail on Spader’s acting process. There’s even a neat tale about how Spader indirectly helped Herrington get the directing gig for Road House.
There’s also a solo commentary track by Herrington. He maintains a steady stream of comments throughout, giving plentiful background on how the script and production came together, plenty of stories from the shoot and commentary on his choices as a storyteller. A clever one-minute trailer rounds things out, using the Jack The Ripper hook and plenty of thrills to sell the film.