By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Graham Vercere, Rich Sommer, Tiera Skovbye
Directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
Written by Matt Leslie, Stephen J. Smith
Produced by Brightlight Pictures, Gunpowder & Sky
When times are tough it’s easy to retreat to the idea of a simpler time, to create a fictional utopic past far removed from modern day conflicts and struggles. Hence the 80’s revival that is currently permeating modern horror, a trend that’s inspired both nostalgic love and vitriolic hate. I have nothing against films that invoke the 80’s, so long as they do it in a way that’s smart instead of just checking off boxes to gain some sort of nostalgic appeal (looking at you, Skeletons in the Closet. My head STILL hurts.). SUMMER OF 84 is a film that takes it a step even further than that and deconstructs the 80’s horror revival, a brutal, nihilistic coming of age film that rips the Band-Aid off and tells us we will never be free from evil.
SUMMER OF 84 follows Davey (Graham Vercere), a 15-year-old kid who is way too obsessed with conspiracy theories, as he attempts to prove that his neighbor, a kindly police officer named Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), is a serial killer. He doesn’t want it to be true, of course, but as he tells us in the opening shot of the film, “inside any house, even the one next door, anything could be happening and you’d never know.” Children from his neighborhood and from nearby towns have been going missing, the victims of a serial killer dubbed the Cape May Slayer. And Mackey has been up to some shady stuff: getting hundreds of pounds of dirt every week for his tiny backyard garden, going on late night walks and locking himself in a storage unit for hours, cleaning bloody shirts with bleach. Naturally, Davey decides to pull a Fright Night and enlists the help of all of his friends to investigate Mackey in a wacky summertime adventure that in no way ends badly for anyone at any point. Nope. Nothing dark to see here.
“In SUMMER OF 84, the whole idea of the 80’s being a simpler, more wholesome time is slowly peeled apart, mocked and lampooned.”
Let’s get this out of the way: SUMMER OF 84 is primarily (and occasionally too bluntly) concerned with dealing with the picture-perfect image of suburbia as just that—a veneer, a fabrication that covers up and hides all kinds of bad shit. Putting aside the main conflict of the film, the question of whether Davey’s kindly neighbor is actually a serial killer, characters struggle with abuse behind closed doors, marriages that fall apart with the slightest whisper of conflict, and communication issues between family members that threaten to tear the unit apart. In this sense, the film is a little less than original; plenty of horror films have taken potshots at suburbia, or in the case of films like Vivarium, have delivered soliloquies about why suburban life only serves to suffocate. Where this film is unique, I think, is in it’s inversion of and or critique of the 80’s nostalgia trend that has permeated modern horror. The 80’s isn’t mythologized here, isn’t presented as something intended to invoke nostalgia; if anything, the whole idea of the 80’s being a simpler, more wholesome time is slowly peeled apart, mocked and lampooned by the directions the film takes in its latter half. The image of the 80’s that has been marketed to us, a fantasyland we can escape to when real life horrors get just a bit too real, has no correlation to the 80’s as it was; this film is concerned with deconstructing that image, and showing us that the real world is, was, and always will be dark and full of terrors.
SUMMER OF 84 is a bit of a slow burn, with most of the truly disturbing stuff happening in the last 30 minutes or so. The film takes it’s time playing with the viewer, making you question if Officer Mackey is really capable of the crimes Davey is accusing him of or if Davey has just listened to too many episodes of “The Last Podcast on the Left.” The film does a good job of keeping it ambiguous, and I found myself wondering at many points if Mackey was truly the guy, if there was a third party involved. The characters are all generally likeable, though some may find one or two them shallow initially (don’t worry, the film develops them later), and they have great group chemistry that may even draw comparisons to “Stranger Things.” On the flipside, there’s a possibility that the characters may rub some viewers the wrong way; for the first half of the film, they do come off more as caricatures of adolescent boys than actual characters. Most impressive is Rich Sommer’s performance as Mackey, who somehow manages to perfectly capture the ambiguousness of the character: is the look he’s giving Davey one of nostalgia, like “I remember when I was that young,” or is it somehow… hungry? You won’t know either, believe me. The ending is not quite as dark as I think the film could have gone, but it also stops short of giving viewers the kind of resolution they would probably want; as a result, it sits like a pit in your stomach as the credits roll, and the ugliness of the film’s thesis is perfectly laid bare.
If you’re tired of the 80’s nostalgia trend, if you want to see the kind of film that serves as Lev Grossman’s treatment of “Stranger Things,” SUMMER OF 84 is for you. It’s a solid coming of age film, and its deconstruction of one of modern horror’s most divisive trends makes it worth viewing as a matter of principle. I’m giving SUMMER OF 84 a 7 out of 10 just because it gives the 80’s the “Death of God” treatment, and I think that’s exactly the kind of self-evaluation the genre needs. Check it out.