Super Dark Times received a lot of buzz on horror critics’ ‘end-of-year’ lists. Less a horror film and more of a psychological character study with sinister undertones, Super Dark Times marks the directorial debut of Kevin Phillips and certainly highlights him as a filmmaker to watch in the future. Available now on Netflix, Super Dark Times has been on my ‘must watch’ list since the trailer surfaced several months ago. Like another hidden gem, Boys in the Trees, Super Dark Times is a coming-of-age-story minus the supernatural elements, where horror perhaps serves as allegory for both growing up and loss of innocence. Set in the mid-1990s, before Columbine, its story will nonetheless be familiar to most viewers as Columbine has become symbolic of public fears about American school violence in the twenty-first century.
Without going in to too much detail, the film follows two best friends – Zack (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) – as they grapple with the challenges that inevitably emerge in the transition from childhood to young adulthood. From debates about comic book superheroes to unrequited crushes and that inevitable first experience of rejection, Phillip spends much of the early runtime of the film exploring the normalcy of the boys’ relationship. Social outcasts who spend their days playing video games and avoiding the school druggies and ‘tough guys’, Zack and Josh will look and, more importantly, feel familiar to anyone who identified as a geek in high school. An afternoon messing around in the park with social hanger-on, Daryl, and his younger friend, takes a tragic turn that leaves the best friends hiding a dark secret. Matters are further complicated when Allison – a mutual crush of both boys – begins to show an interest in Zach. While Zack tries to move forward like nothing has happened, Josh becomes more withdrawn and erratic, feeding into suspicion, paranoia, and an inevitable confrontation.
Super Dark Times is not a film for audiences looking for jump-scares punctuated by loud sounds and slickly choreographed violence. This is an independent film at its core concerned more with exploring how guilt can destroy lives and relationships. Campbell and Tahan both turn in excellent, believable performances – they talk and sound like teenage boys. The dissolution of their friendship is foreshadowed in early scenes as Zach’s more boyish naivety is contrasted with Josh’s moody, introspective demeanor. In its first half the film feels like a spiritual cousin to other coming-of-age tales like Stand by Me. This authenticity in the depiction of the boys’ friendship makes the violence that emerges later in the film as they drift apart much more tragic.
The latter half of the film is a slow-burn of tension and escalating suspense as Zack increasingly questions Josh’s mental state while struggling with his own guilt. It’s in this second half where the horror elements of the film begin to emerge. Other reviewers have taken some issue with the film’s shift to a “slasher” film approach but I would consider this a matter of personal preference. There is not much in the way of excessive violence in Super Dark Times – we don’t see the carnage on-screen and the camera never lingers. Additionally, I would argue that the ending of the film was very much set from the outset, particularly in a post-Columbine era. Yet it’s Phillips’ scant use of violence – committed by young kids against other kids – that shocks and lingers long after the film ends. Zack’s paranoid nightmares, which evoke the dreamlike atmosphere of Donne Darko, are the closest the film comes to traditional horror. Much of the film’s suspense comes from Zack’s fearful anticipation of what Josh may or may not do next. And Phillips very effectively build a sense of urgency to the proceedings. One scene outside the principal’s office in particular gives the audience a window into Zack’s fear and desperation. While the second half of the film does give in to some horror film conventions, Philips never loses sight of the humanity of his characters. Allison, the boys’ mutual crush, played by the excellent Elizabeth Cappuccino, keeps the film grounded, and its her denouement that gives Super Dark Times added resonance, elevating it beyond straightforward horror.
Overall, Super Dark Times is clearly an independent, low-budget affair, where the focus in on atmosphere and character, which will ultimately determine whether you love or hate it. For the patient, discerning film fan, Super Dark Times lives up to the positive word-of-mouth from the horror community. Its underlying exploration of guilty, and perhaps the guilt of moving beyond childhood friendships as we grow older, will linger long after the onscreen violence is over.