Released Aug. 10, 2018
Unrated (equal to R rating for violence and language) – 1hr 45min
Directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, & Yoann-Karl Whissell
Starring Graham Verchere, Caleb Emery, Tiera Skovbye, Rich Sommer
As the title clearly explains, it’s the summer of 1984, and a serial killer is on the loose in the fictional suburb of Ipswich, Oregon. A teenage boy comes to suspect his police officer neighbor of the grisly crimes and enlists the help of his buddies to find the evidence to prove it.
Summer of 84 wants to be a realistic, non-fantastical iteration of Stranger Things. It’s a coming-of-age drama, a rumination of the existential ennui of suburban life, an 80s youth adventure complete with numerous nostalgic callbacks, and a serial killer suspense thriller. That’s a lot of things to be when it’s also 105 minutes long.
Summer of 84, along with a number of other horror films released this year, is trying to be a lot of things at once. I’m inclined to believe that it is the influence of television – reinvented and reinvigorated by the growing prominence of the streaming format – that is being absorbed by ambitious filmmakers. No longer bogged down by advertising, broadcast schedules, or runtime concerns, these long-form presentations – when they’re good – can more easily capture a richness of story, setting, and character than a single feature film simply by having more time to devote to exposition. However, it’s easy to understand why filmmakers would be eager to replicate that experience in their work, but the result is often something that is just too narratively busy for its own good.
This movie, for at least an hour, was threatening to go the same way. It has so many elements scattered on the table that it’s seemingly suffering from an identity crisis, doing more to establish supporting characters and background themes than push the main story forward. Then, Summer of 84 pulls off something of a miracle, and brings it all together for a terrific final act (well, brings enough of it together, anyway.) That isn’t to say that everything is resolved in a nice and neat ending, but that almost all the disparate pieces prove to be worthwhile in a tale that’s as much an Americana tragedy as it is a horror/mystery.
The direction is solid throughout – more workmanlike than stylish, yet surprisingly cohesive for a three-person effort. The acting is likewise believable – no shoddy performances or flat line reads here, but the low-key mood throughout doesn’t demand any tour de forces either. Out of the gate, the four boys at the center of the story come across as somewhat obnoxious, but that’s cleverly subverted as the movie progresses to provide some unexpected depth to the roles. The same could be said about the whole ’80s premise – things start out as a quintessential throwback to the era only to be purposefully derailed by the cold hard truth of reality. The wise-cracking one comes from a broken home, the requisite hot chick is a complicated human being, and adventures can be tragic.
In show business, it’s said to be a success if you leave the audience wanting more, and that’s how Summer of 84 left me. My cynicism peaked about halfway through, but by the time the end credits rolled, I was very invested in these characters, immersed in this story, and demanding to spend more time in the gloomy burg of Ipswich. That 180 change is not only rare, but it’s seemingly by design, which is even more impressive.