Few films or TV shows have had quite as much impact in the last few years as Stranger Things. Liberally borrowing/stealing/paying homage to the works of Stephen King, Netflix's smash hit has set up a model that feels like it will be overused in the next few years. There will be films where a group of teenage boys (and maybe a girl or two) will take it upon themselves to investigate a threat (inter-dimensional beings, demonic clowns, friendly neighbourhood serial killer), sneaking around behind their parents' backs to confront it. The film/TV show will always be set in the 80s, and will have a DNA constructed out of loving tributes to that era.
In this mould (following last year's hugely successful IT), we have the indie horror Summer of 84, best described as Stranger Things meets Rear Window. The film focuses on Davey, who lives a quiet, suburban life, and craves only two things: the attention of his former babysitter Nikki, and for something exciting to happen. He thinks he's found excitement in the form of the police officer who lives next door, whom he suspects is a serial killer. So, with his friends, he spend the summer sneaking around, searching for evidence to prove his suspicion.
From the creative unit RKSS (François Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell) who were behind cult hit Turbo Kid, Summer of 84 is expertly put together, with a killer soundtrack and a craft that wallows in 80s-era nostalgia. Its cast are uniformly strong, particularly its central grouping of Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery and Cory Gruter-Andrew. There is an easy chemistry to these performers, which helps to convince us of the stakes and threats that underpin the film. Tiera Skovbye, as the love/lust interest Nikki, manages to overcome the somewhat sexist gaze placed upon her character by our teenage heroes, and she certainly makes an impact, with a more rounded character then initially presented. The film helps enhance these characters by giving snapshots into their unhappy lives, with the parent figures shown to be varying degrees of broken and ineffective. This means the threat feels that much more dangerous, with the absence of an adult alternative. Rich Sommer is cast nicely against type, which is enough to almost make you question whether his character could be a serial killer. Sommer is great here, and I'd love to see him take on some darker roles because of this film.
For all the easily mocked ripping off of a rip off, there is more to Summer of 84 than first expected. While the film, for the most part, is happy to amble along, wallowing in the crass humour of its central friendship group, it does build a queasy tension that at first feels hypoactive on the filmmakers' part. But then the curtain drops and they reveal what they've been working towards. And it leads to an ending where the jokes dry up and the film kicks viewers hard. The final act knocked me for six and left me a bit broken as I walked out of the cinema. To reveal where the film goes would ruin it. But your patience will be rewarded by Summer of 84.
Thanks to its ending, Summer of 84 feels like the kind of horror film that needs to be seen. It certainly can seem guilty of wallowing too much in 80s stereotypes, but this feels more to lull audiences into a false sense of security. Its mix of Hitchcock and John Hughes is particularly effective, and makes it one of the strongest of the recent batches of Stephen King-appreciating fares.
This is a Fright Fest Film Festival preview and Summer of 84 will be released at a later date.