A movie like Jack’s Back seems like your typical 1988 slasher. The plot revolves around a serial killer in the Los Angeles area who is copycatting the infamous Jack the Ripper killings that happened in 1888. The crimes are very similar to the ones in London, even happening on the exact dates 100 years apart.
Here’s where the movie changes course. A typical slasher would start back at the beginning. But all four of the first murders have happened before the main titles. The beginning features what we presume is a prostitute running through a darkened empty alley before being killed off-screen by the copycat.
The city is in a panic as a massive heat wave engulfs the area. Law enforcement is on high alert as Capt. Walter Prentis (Wendell Wright) and Sgt. Gabriel (Jim Haynie) have consulted with a psychiatrist, Dr. Carlos Battera (Robert Picardo) into stopping the fifth murder and/or catching the killer.
Before I go any further, there will be some spoilers. So, you’ve been warned.
This is already a nice set-up of a whodunit as we don’t know if any of the police are being the killings or Dr. Battera. Picardo is one of those great character actors who always commands the screen and every role he’s in, you almost think he could possibly be integrating himself into the investigation.
The movie shifts gears to a young medical doctor, John Westford (James Spader) who spends his days working at a health clinic and a homeless shelter city. He’s passionate and idealistic which earns him respect from fellow doctor, Chris Moscari (Cynthia Gibb) and spite and ridicule from their supervisor, Sidney Tannerson (Rod Loomis).
While at work, Sidney has an argument with a patient, Denise Johnson (Danitza Kingsley) where it’s implied she’s a prostitute herself and pregnant. She’s also a former friend of John’s. Through a photo, it’s revealed they were prom dates and probably more years earlier when they were in high school.
Jack Pendler, (Rex Ryon), another young doctor, shows up at Denise’s apartment offering to give her an abortion. When John shows up later, he finds the apartment open and Denise lying dead on her bed with her body ripped open. Jack appears and him and John get into a physical altercation. A witness spots John but not Jack as Jack flees thinking John did it.
John loses Jack but stops to notify police but is assaulted by Jack who strangles him unconscious and then stages his body to make it appear John committed suicide by hanging.
Here’s where the movie switches gears again as we’re introduced to Rick, John’s identical twin brother, also played by Spader. This would’ve been a cheat if John didn’t already mention his brother in passing while treating a patient and seeing a photo of the two of them when they were young while going through his photo box to find the prom picture of him and Denise.
Rick is an opposite of John, who seems clean-cut and considerate. Rick is somewhat of a hothead and quick to anger. He has a foul mouth and change smokes cigarettes. Rick wears more darker flashier clothes while John wears mostly white clothes with a ball cap.
With an eye witness putting John at the scene of Denise’s murder and his death looked like he hung himself, the police are willing to pin the crimes on John and consider it closed. But Rick isn’t going to let it and begins to investigate. When people come forth to tell police that John was out of town on the night of one of the murders, police dig further into Rick.
Rick was a street hood growing up and went into the Army where he served as a medic. Could it be the witness saw Rick instead of John? This is one of those things Alfred Hitchcock used to do where he’d make a man put in a situation where all the signs point to him.
Rick gets help from Chris as they try to discover what really happened to John. The police are now following Rick as is Jack. Is Jack the serial killer and trying to keep Rick from uncovering the truth? Or was he just trying to cover up the illegal abortion?
The movie sets up so many possibilities in its run time as well as situations that later pay off. There’s a reference to Rick working as a manager of a shoe store that later comes into play. There’s also an interesting scene where Rick loses his gun in a scene I’m not going to say and has to buy a gun on the black market. But he’s not able to buy bullets. This also comes into play later in the movie.
Written and directed by Rowdy Herrington, he makes a B-movie thriller with some A-list effects. There are some scenes that don’t work well but this lower-budget feel makes the movie work better. You can forgive some pacing and plot points.
By 1988, Spader was mostly playing preppy jerks in Pretty in Pink or Less Than Zero. But here he is finally able to play a character who is more sympathetic and a nice guy. Also, despite being a character with a troubled background, Rick is still smarter than other people would think.
I liked that Rick and Chris are just working together to find out what happened to John. There’s no time and no need for them to have a romantic involvement which other movies would’ve resorted to. Herrington has made a good little thriller that does a good job of utilizing a cast of character actors.