Throughout much of his career, James Spader has excelled at playing a type; and that type is specifically this: rich and arrogant, with a sense of condescension and an air of pretense. It’s not his fault; his wispy (or is that WASPy?) good looks and mellifluous voice initially offer little sympathy to the working class. But when he’s given an opportunity to play against this type, the results are exhilarating. Such is the case with Jack’s Back (1988), a clever thriller elevated by a terrific dual role performance from Spader. Come for Jack the Ripper; stay for James the Spaders.
Released by Palisades Entertainment Group in May, Jack’s Back only made back half of its million dollar budget at the box office and the critics were for the most part, unkind (with the exception of Siskel & Ebert, who liked it – go figure). But writer/director Rowdy Herrington (Road House)’s feature debut holds up due to an emphasis on character and a solid story, well told. And while it’s something I normally avoid, I will be getting a bit SPOILER-y from here on out folks.
Los Angeles, 1988. It’s the 100th anniversary of the infamous Jack the Ripper killings, and a copycat is re-enacting the murders to a tee. We meet John Wesford (Spader), a kindly young medical student working at a clinic in the depressed neighborhood he used to call home. He and fellow medic Chris (Cynthia Gibb – Youngblood) are under the thumb of Dr. Sidney (Rod Loomis – The Beastmaster), an exasperated man we’re introduced to admonishing a pregnant prostitute. Showing genuine concern for her welfare, John finds out where she lives and discovers her dead in her apartment…and not alone. Clinic orderly Jack (Rex Ryon – Feds) pleads his innocence to John; he claims he performed an abortion on her for a fee, left to get a prescription, and when he came back, she was dead. John gives chase, and when he tussles with Jack he ends up on the wrong end of a rope to make it look like he committed suicide; leading the cops to believe John was the Ripper copycat, and with a guilty conscience ended his own life.
But hold on a minute, because as John ceases to move, we see Spader wake up screaming in his bed, so we assume it was all a dream. Nope, this is RICK Wesford, John’s twin brother! Rick has visions of John being murdered, and he heads to the clinic and the police to find answers. The police are still convinced it was John (and now also suspect Rick too; how could he see his brother’s death if he wasn’t there?), so Rick and Cynthia set off to track down Jack, who definitely killed John and sure seems a likely candidate for Ripperhood. A police psychiatrist (Robert Picardo – The Howling) uses hypnosis to help Rick find the truth within his nightmares. But will he be too late?
The twin reveal in Jack’s Back is touted as the big “twist”, but it’s really more of a hook to offer up two Spaders for the price of one, and if I didn’t mention it I wouldn’t be able to give any plot description past the first 30 minutes of the film. And a killer hook it is; not only does it allow Spader to shine, but it changes the flavor of the picture – which is for the better, because the Ripper elements of the tale are put aside while Rick tracks down John’s killer. And this would be my one quibble with Jack’s Back – if you’re going to make a Jack the Ripper movie, give me more kills.
Which isn’t to say that Herrington fails in this regard; it was just never his intent. He’s clearly aiming for a Hitchcock feel (man falsely accused tries to clear his name), and achieves it regardless of the smoky, late ‘80s sex and saxophone vibe that was only a few years shy from turning into the prevalent “erotic thriller” of the early ‘90s. There are some moments of violence, and they’re handled well; but too much Ripper can never be enough, am I right?
But what he does offer instead is a character study of twin brothers; a yin and yang for the terror crowd, and this is what truly makes the film stand out. John is open and warm, Rick is insular and brusque. But make no mistake; they’re both good men who just took different paths in life. Herrington may distill the thrills to focus on the characters, but when they’re this rich the reward is ample beyond a few extra splashes of grue.
The performances are good for the most part; Picardo never fails, and Gibb is such a refreshing, open actress. But Spader is playing on a different level as the Wesford brothers. A lesser actor would go broad to really distinguish the personalities; instead he goes subtle. They’re different types, for certain – but Spader uses his interaction with the other actors to show those differences without showboating. It’s truly a terrific turn, and one that displays the breadth of his talent when he isn’t pigeonholed.
When I decided to revisit Jack’s Back, it was precisely how I remembered it, and I hadn’t seen it in almost 30 years. That’s a testament to Herrington’s debut, especially the writing; there should always be a place in the genre for films that emphasize the people within over the plot. Especially when those people are both named James Spader.
Jack’s Back is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SPIDER BABY (1967)