Turbo Kid was one of the coolest horror movies of recent years, not least because it burst out of absolutely nowhere. Sweet, good-natured, stylistically exciting, and yet gory as all hell, it was a breath of fresh air nobody was expecting. Now, the film-making trio known collectively as RKSS (AKA Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell) are back with something completely different in the form of Summer of 84.
As its title suggests, this is yet another eighties throwback. However, the group of kids (all boys) at its core are nastier than their Stranger Things counterparts, their rude language and adult discussions making the Hawkins inhabitants look like toddlers in comparison. And, although the serial killer terrorising their hometown isn’t a paranormal entity like Pennywise, he’s a formidable foe in other, often more horrifying ways.
Our hero is Davey (Graham Verchere, of TV’s Fargo and The Good Doctor), a regular kid with regular parents and regular ambitions to be the next Spielberg. He’s introduced peddling around the neighbourhood on a paper route, his earnest voice-over intoning that all serial killers live next door to somebody (a great line echoed in much of the marketing material). The old school vibe is immediately set with the inclusion of something many kids won’t even recognise as a real summer job.
Davey’s a bit of a conspiracy nut, his bedroom walls covered with the kind of stories Alex Jones and his ilk take much too seriously. When a local news piece about a serial killer, who has murdered at least 13 people in the area, starts gaining traction his curiosity is piqued. Soon, he and his buddies’ nighttime assassin games start to revolve around kindly neighbour, and local police officer, Mr. Mackey (The Devil Wears Prada‘s Rich Sommer), whom they finger as their prime suspect.
Summer of 84 takes its time establishing the area in which the kids live, from their beloved tree-house, to the local library, to the little cul de sac Davey calls home. As such, RKSS create that childish feeling of claustrophobia, that itching to get out there, combined with the inescapable knowledge the wider world is waiting just outside city lines. Davey and his buddies know this place like the backs of their hands, making it even more terrifying that a killer might have infiltrated their little bubble.
The languid pace may be too much for those who prefer to get their kicks quick and get out, but it’s worth remembering that last year’s IT was two glorious hours in length, not a minute of it wasted. In the case of Summer of 84, an inferior film in comparison but strong in its own right, there’s an argument to be made for the extra quarter hour it cheekily tacks onto the standard 90-minute horror movie template.
RKSS utilize the time to set the scene and make the many throwbacks (Star Wars references, period-appropriate punk clothing) feel real rather than like set dressing. More importantly, though, there is greater care taken to establish the central mystery. Throughout the movie, they play with audience expectations of how a villain should behave, dropping clues and revelations but never making it too obvious either way.
As Mackey, Sommer, whose most high profile role to date was as Anne Hathaway’s effeminate friend in The Devil Wears Prada, walks a fine line between menacing maybe-killer and overly friendly do-gooder. He’s got a soft, doughy frame and a boyish face, making him appear as an ally at certain moments and a wolf in sheep’s clothing at others. Is Mackey really trustworthy, or is he just luring unsuspecting kids to their doom?
For much of its first two acts, Summer of 84 is tense rather than scary, playing off the blurred lines of Mackey’s character. Once it starts advancing stealthily towards its conclusion, however, the horror ramps up considerably. There are a couple late sequences, particularly one house-bound reveal, that are genuinely bloodcurdling. The film never gets as gory or wild as Turbo Kid, nor does it need to. The RKSS vision is more subdued here, but this is an entirely different beast to their previous work.
Whether that works for you will be based on your predilection for the likes of Stranger Things, IT, et al. It’s worth noting, however, that this is an assuredly adult take on the super-popular eighties throwback, from the kids themselves to the fuck-up adults and the harshness of the crimes at its centre. Le Matos’ eerie synth score further ensures it feels more It Follows than IT, making even the film’s lighter moments seem dark.
There are no tie-ins to popular current properties either, aside from the appearance of Tiera Skovbye’s Nikki. Most will recognise the Canadian actress as Polly Cooper from Riverdale but here, as the only female character, she gets to flex her bad gal muscles in short shorts. Infuriatingly, she is given little else to do besides be an object of lust for the boys (I actually thought she was involved in the murders at one point — no such luck).
Sure, maybe RKSS are trying to really throw it back to classic adventure and kids’ horror movies, where girls rarely got a look in, but IT, Stranger Things, hell, even Goosebumps, allowed female characters to get in on the action. It’s particularly disappointing after the scene-stealing Apple. Still, there’s so much to love here that the lack of female representation can be forgiven somewhat.
It might not be rewriting the rule-book but thanks to its defiantly dark subject matter, a well-defined period setting, that terrific performance from Sommer, and significantly more scares than expected, Summer of 84 is up there with the best eighties throwbacks.
WICKED RATING: (8 / 10)
Director(s): Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
Writer(s): Matt Leslie, Stephen J. Smith
Stars: Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Cory Gruter-Andrew, Tiera Skovbye, Rich Sommer
Release date: August 10, 2018 (theatrical), August 24 (DVD, Digital HD)
Studio/ Production Co: Gunpowder and Sky
Length: 106 minutes