Few indie horror films can claim the buzz that has surrounded the release of Summer of 84. From the same Canadian trio that brought us the delightfully strange Turbo Kid, Summer of 84 has built up a tidal wave of goodwill among horror circles prior to its release on VOD platforms this week. Filmed in and around Vancouver, the creative team of Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissel, also known as RKSS, look to mine the same ’80’s nostalgia that has worked so well for Stranger Things. To date, critics have been reasonably impressed.
Every serial killer is somebody’s neighbour.
It’s the ‘Summer ’84’ and teen Davey Armstrong and his three best friends – Tommy, Dale, and Curtis – are enjoying their holidays just like any boys their age. Most of their time is filled with dirty magazines and discussion about girls in their classes. Summer holidays hit a bump, however, when the local police announce that a serial killer is targeting boys in their small town. Soon Davey begins to suspect that his neighbour, police officer Wayne Mackey, may be that serial killer. As Davey begins to spy on Officer Mackey with the help of his friends, he quickly discovers that he may be the killer’s next target.
A Slow-Burn Mystery or Lethargic Pacing?
It’s a fine line that separates a good, tense slow-burn thriller from a movie that’s just plain boring. Summer of 84 is far from boring but it’s undoubtedly a movie that will require a lot of patience from its audience. Directors Francois Simard and Anouk and Yoann-Karl Whissell intersperse a few well-executed jump scares across the movie’s first 45 minutes. Aside from these carefully placed jolts, not much really happens in Summer of 84 for a large chunk of its runtime.
Aside from these carefully placed jolts, not much really happens in Summer of 84 for a large chunk of its runtime.
Even once Davey and his friends begin to suspect Officer Mackey, Summer of 84 continues to meander for too long. Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith’s screenplay offers a few ‘is he, or isn’t he’ moments as the teens take increasing risks in their investigation. These scenes offer such well executed bouts of tension. But one can’t help but wish that the filmmakers had committed to building on them. As directors, the RKSS team prove to be quite adept at mounting suspense when they feel like it. Davey’s eventual descent into Officer Mackey’s locked basement delivers some of the best tension seen in any recent horror thriller. Instead the RKSS team seen content to coast for much of Summer of 84 on a wave of 80’s nostalgia.
The ’80’s Are Really Hot Right Now
Have you heard of a Netflix show called Stranger Things? If the answer is ‘yes, then you may already know that popular culture currently loves the 1980’s. Indeed much of the charm that will keep audiences in their seats for the first half of Summer of 84 is the movie’s reverence all things ’80’s. Yet while Stranger Things has naturally embedded ’80’s vernacular along with story and film-making elements from the decade into a compelling narrative, Summer of 84 feels like its trying too hard to pull it off the same feat.
Even the film’s characters look and feel too much like the boys from Stranger Things.
Over the first hour or so, it began to feel like Summer of 84 was engaging in shameless reference dropping as opposed to telling a story. Even the film’s characters look and feel too much like the boys from Stranger Things. I admittedly had trouble remembering some of their names, and began referring to one of the characters as ‘Dustin 2.0’. This amounts to a big problem for a movie that’s in no rush to get where it’s going. Rather than developing believable characters, Summer of 84 can’t shake the feeling that it’s a movie populated by stock character types.
Can a Good Ending Save an Average Movie?
Fans of Summer of 84 have heralded its admittedly dark ending as the movie’s saving grace. Certainly, the RKSS team certainly swerve audiences and lead them along a much darker path than what you may anticipate. Does it elevate Summer of 84 from a good movie to a great movie? Not really. The climax, while certainly shocking, feels very rushed. That is, it starts and ends much too quickly. Summer of 84 borders on almost two hours. With so much of this time feeling unused, you wish the filmmakers had given their big ending more time.
The profound insight that Summer of 84 also seems desperately intent on delivering also feels familiar. Its conceit that the ‘really evil shit’ happens in the suburbs is nothing new. David Lynch explored the same idea (back in the 1980’s no less) with Blue Velvet. If you’re looking for a more recent example of the same concept, I’d recommend Super Dark Times. Even the ‘killer next door’ theme has been recycled several times over in horror films and psychological thrillers. It’s all part of a consistent problem underlying Summer of 84 – an inability to carve out its own story separate from its influences.
It’s too bad because so much of Summer of 84 is top notch. All of the performances, including Rich Sommer’s (Mad Men) turn as the psychopathic Officer Mackey, are strong. For an independent film, Summer of 84 looks good, never betraying a low budget. There’s one camera shot at the end of the movie with a traumatized Davey sitting in front of a shelf of childhood games and toys. It’s a brilliant and understated moment. It captures a loss of innocence suggesting that Summer of 84 had the potential to find its own voice.
Summer of 84 Is A Victim of its Own Hype
I really wanted to love Summer of 84 and did in fact enjoy it. To some extent, I can’t help but feel that this is a movie that fell victim to its own hype. It’s a good movie that never comes close to hitting the heights claimed by some of its fans. On one hand, Summer of 84 is a well-crafted thriller that continues to promise good things from its creators. Yet it’s also a thriller that lacks both a sense of urgency and confidence in finding its own tone. If I had one message about the ’80’s to pass on to filmmakers it would be this – synth pop wasn’t the only type of music.