Color me emotionally scarred for life by “Summer of ’84,” the unforgettable dark and twisted retro horror thriller from directing trio François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell and screenwriters Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith. This coming of age tale is a prime example of why you don’t need a big budget to make a lasting emotional impact.
Do yourself a favor and avoid all reviews (except spoiler-free ones like this) before you watch this film; you’ll thank me in the long run. The unanticipated twists and turns the story takes are what’s so great about it, and don’t let anyone ruin that for you.
It’s summertime and teenage best friends Davey (Graham Verchere), Tommy (Judah Lewis), Dale (Caleb Emery), and Curtis (Cory Gruter-Andrew) are doing what 15 year old boys do best: riding their bikes, dreaming of sexual conquests, and leering at hidden Playboy magazines in their treehouse. Their sleepy Oregon town is the kind of place where everyone knows their neighbors and nobody locks their front doors. After news reports surface about a string of kids abducted by a serial murderer dubbed the Cape May Killer, their small town becomes gripped with fear. Worried about their own safety, the boys begin to suspect their quiet police officer neighbor (Rich Sommer) is the culprit and they vow to spend their summer spying on him to prove his guilt (or innocence). But as they gradually uncover the truth as to the identity of the real killer, their lives become endangered and it’s no longer a game.
Sommer, most well known for his role as Harry Crane on “Mad Men,” creates a truly mesmerizing “is he or isn’t he?” could-be villain in this classic whodunit. The story is effective at blurring the lines between what’s a real threat and what is simply Davey’s overactive imagination. The film is super intense and scary, and that’s mostly due to some chilly dialogue and the throwback thumping, synth-heavy original score.
You’ll be transported back to the Eighties in a way that feels completely organic and relevant to the story instead of a boilerplate device to instill a false sense of nostalgia. Comparisons to other pop culture media set in the Regan era are inevitable; I like to think of it as “The Goonies” meets “Stranger Things,” but with more blood and sex jokes.
The story is believable and the dialogue feels authentic, with the boys acting and talking like real teens. The film’s credible (and at first lively and light) tone makes it all the more horrifying when the story goes to some very dark places. Too bad there’s an unnecessary reliance on cheap jump scares that plagues much of the film.
Co-writers Leslie and Smith turn the genre on its head by flipping the script on audience expectations of what a classic horror movie should be. This little indie gem is full of unexpected surprises and refuses to rely on the same old clichés that ruin many modern day thrillers, and it’s one of the most memorable entries to come out of Sundance this year.
Comparisons to “Stranger Things” and “It” are inevitable, but any assertion that “Summer of ’84” is an attempt to cash in on the current wave of 80’s nostalgia would be dead wrong. And trust me, there will be critics that assert just that. This is a gem of a horror movie – the type of film that is invigoratingly different.
Davey (Graham Verchere), Tommy (Judah Lewis), Dale (Caleb Emery), and Curtis (Cory Gruter-Andrew) are teenage boys growing up in a small town in Oregon during the 1980s. When the community is rocked by a string of child murders, conspiracy theorist Davey becomes certain that Mr. Mackey, the smiling policeman who lives across the street (Rich Sommer), is the killer. As the quartet spends their summer gathering evidence against him, the stakes continue to rise and the boys have to take bigger and bigger risks to prove that Mackey is a serial murderer. Or is he?
“Summer of ’84” is excitingly different because it subverts expectations. While it uses familiar genre tropes, the movie refuses to meet audience expectations. Constantly surprising, the film’s revelations build on one another as the boys learn the truth about Mackey and the serial killer. Even after the big reveal the surprises keep coming, leaving the audience with some truly nightmarish thoughts to fuel their dreams.
“Summer of ’84” is proof that skilled horror filmmakers can shock, scare, and surprise audiences even when working with the familiar.