A film review by Craig J. Koban September 11, 2018

SUMMER OF '84 jjj

2018, R, 105 mins.


Graham Verchere as Davey Armstrong  /  Judah Lewis as Tommy 'Eats' Eaton  /  Caleb Emery as Dale 'Woody' Woodworth  /  Cory Gruter-Andrew as Curtis Farraday  /  Tiera Skovbye as Nikki Kaszuba  /  Rich Sommer as Wayne Mackey  /  Jason Gray-Stanford as Randall Armstrong  /  Patrick Lubczyk as Teenage boy

Directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell  /  Written by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith



The nostalgically titled SUMMER OF '84 conjures up memories for me of walking to the local video store during my teen years and cruising through the B-grade horror section and seeing a lot of box art that echoes this film's poster.  

And I mean that as a sincere compliment.   

This Canadian/American production concerns a group of four suburban teens that are amateur sleuths and believe - in their heart of hearts - that one of their kindly neighbors is indeed a vile serial killer of children.  You could make the argument that SUMMER OF '84 doesn't score points for originality (it liberally borrows the tone and vibe of films like REAR WINDOW, DISTURBIA , and FRIGHT NIGHT, not to mention that its neon hued decade horror setting will have many audience members screaming STRANGER THINGS at the screen).  Yet, SUMMER OF '84 makes up for its regurgitated elements with its finely assembled group of young actors and the manner that it all slowly and methodically builds to an ultra dark and unnerving climax that will stay with me for an awfully long time.

The fact that this film harkens back to the decade of my own childhood shouldn't surprise me, seeing as the directors - Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell, collectively known as RKSS - previously made the low budget and infectiously schlocky TURBO KID, a joyous love ballad to 1980's comic books, video games, and outrageously violent post-apocalyptic sci-fi films.  That film purely existed as a piece of unbridled retro brilliance that I simply couldn't get enough of, and SUMMER OF '84 thankfully retains TURBO KID's enthusiastic embracing of 80's pop culture, but in a way it's a smaller scaled and more intimate film that's not nearly as cheeky with the underlining material.  Even better, SUMMER OF '84 captures the whole ethereal aura of 80's youth culture with impeccable strokes and seems genuinely interested in developing its young protagonists as they all hurtle down a very oppressive rabbit hole during their Hardy Boys-like detective spree.  Even when the film takes some odd narrative detours and perhaps suffers from some sluggish pacing, I nevertheless appreciated how authentically grounded these characters felt.



The film begins with an ominous voiceover narration from its main hero Davey Armstrong (a well cast Graham Verchere), who tells us that "Even serial killers live next door to someone."  Living in a small Oregon town circa 1984, Davey spends most of his summer days preoccupied with his paper route when he's not crushing big time on his older neighbor in Nikki (Tiera Skovby).  Most of the time, though, he hangs out with his besties, including Eats (Judah Lewis), Curtis (Cory Gruter-Andrew), and Woody (Caleb Emery), and a majority of their nights involves playing board and video games, watching movies, and engaging in mild neighborhood gossip.  Life seems both ideal and normal in this town for the lads, that is until the Cape May Slayer descends and makes a ghastly reputation for kidnapping local children and murdering them. 

Seeing as Davey is pretty heavy into all things conspiracy related, the case of this mad killer becomes a daily obsession for him, which, through constant and close observation, has him lining up his accusatory crosshairs on a new local neighbor, Office Wayne (Rich Sommer), who's outwardly considerate and well meaning, but for some reason Davey's Spider-sense begins to tingle while around him.  He thinks that there's something just not right about this guy, and he even begins to take his constant congeniality to be creepy and becomes absolutely convinced that this police officer is the murderer of 13 kids that his own police force is after.  Predictably, Davey lacks sufficient evidence to support his claim and also leads to his friends thinking he's the one nuttier than a fruit cake.  Yet, after some persistent nudging, Davey convinces his pals to assist him with his dire plan to infiltrate Wayne's home to discover whether or not it harbors any dreary secrets that he has kept away from the public.

One of the finer aspects of SUMMER OF '84 is that it wholeheartedly feels like it's a part of its decade in question without aggressively and annoyingly bombarding us with pop culture referencing, which would have proved distracting.  Most certainly, the young characters do for sure have their own geektastic conversations about Gremlins, Ewoks, and games of Manhunt, but it rarely feels suffocating; these boys feel like real era specific boys, and RKSS does a splendid job of capturing the day-to-day nonchalance of their care-free summer days.  The period decor as well never becomes ostentatious, which is tricky to not fall victim to in 80's themes films, seeing as the fashion and style trends tend to be on the garish side.  More importantly, the smallness of the town becomes a character in its own right in SUMMER OF '84; the smaller scale of the boys' surroundings makes the possible presence of a child killer in their midst all the more frightening to them.  It's hard to be a kid and revel in childhood pursuits in the comfort of your treehouse when you think there's an adult out there that wants to add you to his kill list.

One area that RKSS really succeed in is with their acute ability to not make SUMMER OF '84 overly cutesy with its characters and premise.  This isn't kid friendly GOONIES fare, nor is it a savage and omnipotently gory slasher horror film.  RKSS finds this nice middle ground approach that inherently works for their material, which is positively accentuated by the fact that the story is a slow burn affair that's not trying to hurtle viewers to the next obligatory jump scare (even though the filmmakers are a tad guilty of engaging in such practices throughout the film).  The narrative builds a compelling undercurrent of twisted mystery regarding Wayne and whether or not this nice looking chap could actually be capable of perpetrating real evil in the world.  This is assisted by McKay's thanklessly tricky performance, seeing as too much camera mugging would tip off the guilt of his character, whereas too much of being too sweet and sincere would also contribute to our suspicions.  The young cast around him are terrific as well, especially Verchere, who has the difficult task of relaying a young teen with possible paranoid delusions that just might be grounded in reality.  He's flanked nicely by Skovby as Nikki, who's object of every boy's desire one note character is actually afforded more depth and nuance than what's typically afforded female characters in these types of genre films.

All of the film's protracted scripting (which, to be fair, both helps and hurts the film at times) all triumphantly builds towards its chilling to the bone third act, during which time we all finally learn the identity of the killer, but it also helps erode any semblance of carefree innocence that the film had leading into it.  The ultimate finale is anything but rosy in terms of kicking viewers in the gut with an hauntingly ambiguous conclusion that will have long-term psychological ripple affects for Davey and company.  Most horror thrillers have some semblance of closure, but SUMMER OF '84 doesn't engage in such obligatory parlor tricks and instead wants its finale to be unendingly menacing and subversive.  RKSS engage in a fairly risky bit of bait and switch here, but SUMMER OF '84 is all the better because of it.  They balance the film's comedic and horror troupes rather well and with reasonable fluidity while embracing the inherent trashiness of its throwback plotting.  I didn't find SUMEMR OF '84 to be as euphorically endearing and entertaining as TURBO KID, but as a follow-up entry RKSS have delivered a different type of retro film of uniquely rad pleasures.

  H O M E