On Scream Factory’s new DVD/Blu-ray set of the half-forgotten 1988 thriller Jack’s Back, the movie’s cinematographer Shelly Johnson talks about the days when writer-director Rowdy Herrington was just a gaffer, working with him on the horror anthology Nightflyers. After wrapping for the day, they’d sit around at a bar with their fellow crewman Tim Moore, and Herrington would talk about his idea for a serial killer thriller, set in Los Angeles exactly 100 years after the Jack The Ripper murders. Moore would go on to be Jack’s Back’s producer, and as Johnson puts it, all three men had spent so much time kicking around the project that they knew exactly what the film should be. They wanted the audience to feel like Herrington was just telling them this crazy story over a couple of beers.
Jack’s Back doesn’t quite pull that off. But it’s definitely more offbeat than the hundreds of other low-budget 1980s genre pieces that spent a few weeks at the multiplex before landing on some hard-to-reach video-store shelf. Its major selling point is the performance by James Spader, who at the time was a strikingly handsome bit player, best known for appearing in light youth-oriented comedies like Mannequin and Pretty In Pink. A year after Jack’s Back he’d appear in Steven Soderbergh’s left-field arthouse hit Sex, Lies, And Videotape, which would change Hollywood’s perception of what he could do, and set him up for a more eclectic career. But anyone who was paying attention would’ve already seen Spader’s range and charisma in Jack’s Back, where he plays both a cocky, idealistic doctor named John Wesford and the doc’s ne’er-do-well twin brother Rick.
That Spader was even playing twins—in a Jack The Ripper movie, no less—is a credit to the uniquely bent imagination of Herrington, who himself was only a year away from his breakout project, directing the cult favorite action picture Road House. Both of Herrington’s first two films are blessed with the skewed sense of “that’ll do” that fans of trashy cinema crave. It’s not that Jack’s Back’s “so bad it’s good.” But it does come across like the work of a man who’d internalized a lifetime of TV cop shows, dime novels, and corner bar bullshitting, and had refashioned it all into something like a personal statement. Most cheap mainstream action-suspense movies are flat, dull, and predictable. None of those adjectives apply to either Road House or Jack’s Back.
Herrington’s first film isn’t as quotable as his second one (which was written by David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin), though it does have its share of colorfully blunt lines, like when the LAPD believes that it’s solved the case of a Jack The Ripper copycat and a spokesperson boasts, “We’ve done something even Scotland Yard couldn’t do!” Jack’s Back is set in a world of tough-talking cops and defiant criminals, which means there’s a lot of “Bring this maggot in!” and “Yeah, tell that to my pimp!” Most of the dialogue is either expository in an unintentionally comic way, or sounds like it was cribbed from old Kojak episodes.
And then there’s the plot, which has Spader’s John Wesford getting accused of being the copycat killer, while Rick Wesford—distinguishable by his earring, his scar, and his don’t-give-a-fuck attitude—tries to clear his brother’s name by catching the real New Jack. On the Scream Factory set Herrington admits that he’s drawn to “simple morality,” which is evident in Jack’s Back just from the way the doctor hero works with the homeless and serves in a free clinic, before he gets drawn into the city’s Ripper panic. Lead actress Cynthia Gibb (playing another doctor, and the Wesford brothers’ mutual love interest) puts it well on the DVD/Blu-ray when she says there’s nothing too deep about Jack’s Back. “If there’s any lesson,” she says, “It’s ‘don’t become a serial murderer.’”
Nevertheless, Spader is all in with this movie, playing his dual roles with the kind of scenery-chewing gusto that he’d carry into his more recent hammy turns on TV, in Boston Legal and The Blacklist. (Herrington would go on to work with the actor twice more, in 2002’s The Stickup and 2003’s I Witness, and he says on his Jack’s Back commentary track that he’s “never made a bad scene” with Spader.) And Johnson and his camera crew achieve a decent mid-budget look on a pittance, using the common 1980s genre picture tricks of colored lighting and diffusing haze to add atmosphere on the cheap. No one involved with Jack’s Back had any illusion that they were making a masterpiece. In fact, Johnson argues that a slicker, more expensive version of the film wouldn’t “ring true.” This movie is really like a 97 minute brainstorming session, where no idea is off the table yet. Rather than “Once upon a time,” it should open with, “You know what would be cool?”