If you were to look out your window right now, could you see your neighbors? Maybe your neighbor is the old man who sits on his lawn yelling at kids. Or maybe you have the hot girl or guy next door living by you. Whoever they are, ask yourself, how well do you really know them? The truth is, we never really know who anyone is. As the new film Summer of 84 reminds us, “even serial killers live next door to somebody”…
…Directed by the team that brought you Turbo Kid (Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell) and written by Matt Leslie & Stephen J. Smith, Summer of 84 tells the story of Davey (Graham Verchere), who comes to believe that the cop next door, Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer), is a serial killer. Not just any serial killer either. A killer of young boys the same age as Davey. With the help of his friends Tommy, Dale, and Curtis (Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, and Cory Gruter-Andrew, respectively) and Davey’s babysitter, Nikki (Tiera Skovbye), the group sets out to prove that Mackey isn’t the friendly neighborhood cop everyone thinks he is.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out about Summer of 84 is that this film IS NOT Turbo Kid. I love Turbo Kid. If you have eyeballs and ears, you probably love Turbo Kid. It was a fantastic, over the top, nostalgia soaked, visual ecstasy that could not have been a better debut for the directors. But I repeat, Summer of 84 IS NOT at all like Turbo Kid, and that’s OKAY. Why do I say that? Sometimes, we as fans latch onto the style and techniques of a director’s (or in this case, team’s), debut film, expecting more of the same for years to come. For some directors, that’s the case. Tarantino, for example, is often pretty consistent with his tone. But others express talent by flexing their muscles with all kinds of different movies that feel nothing like each other, and that’s the case here.
Other than the incredible, eerie 80’s era soundtrack composed by Jean-Philippe Bernier, Jean-Nicolas Leupi & Le Matos (all of whom worked on Turbo Kid), Summer of 84 gets rid of the over-the-top nature of the directing team’s previous film and instead focuses on a story set in a much more believable reality. Summer of 84 is surprisingly restrained, a slow burn that evolves into a Goonies type murder mystery with a Stranger Things vibe. While the trailer seemed to advertise a film that was a love letter to 80s slashers, Summer of 84 is actually quite the opposite, taking a more modern approach with only the slight reference here and there, like a kid being stalked through overly foggy streets, for example. But there is no cheesy dialogue, or outrageous kills, or masked killers. Summer of 84 wants you to feel that what you are seeing is as real as possible, so that it can stab you in the gut when you’re not looking and just starting to feel safe.
The film is able to do this through a cast of characters that are relatable, all of them well performed by the kid actors. Kid-lead horror can be hit or miss, usually leaning towards the miss side, but everyone in Summer of 84, especially Verchere, has a charming innocence. They feel like the friends you had, or the boys you knew in school. The script does an excellent job of bringing these people to life, and presenting their friendships as REAL, something which a lot of films fail to do. The kids are sarcastic with each other, but never cruel, and there is a genuine love between each of them, a bond which cannot be broken no matter what. Their friendship is so natural and unquestionable, that there is real tension and tragedy to Summer of 84 once the horror takes off. Skovbye, who acts as a sort of love interest to Davey, resembles the purest form of childhood crushes, an older, attractive person who not only appreciates your crush, but feels the same. Sure it’s a little unrealistic, and I’d probably have to question the intentions of my teenage babysitters if they were into 12yr old me, but it’s the fantasy that works so well. Because what Summer of 84 does best is relish in the fantasies of childhood and the excitement of danger. Watching Summer of 84 brings back so many feelings of being a kid again that it’s like an extra sweet peanut butter and jelly sandwich and chocolate milk after a summer day of adventure outside.
Despite the performances of the kids, the real star of the show is Rich Sommer as Mr. Mackey. Sommer is perfect in the role. There is something childish about Sommer, regardless of his intimidating stature. He looks and acts exactly like the town sees him as, a friendly, lonely guy who loves kids and wouldn’t hurt a fly. But isn’t that how a killer would act in public? Summer of 84 and Sommer’s often calm demeanor manipulate the audience frequently, going as far as to make us begin to question whether or not the kids are overreacting just as much as their parents say they are. We go from believing Mackey’s the killer, to not believing it, to having no idea, and round and round we go, until the final, utterly terrifying reveal that proves who the real killer is.
My one gripe with the characters is that, while we feel sympathetic to their friendships, none of the relationships, including Davey and babysitter Nikki, is fully developed, mostly as a result of the events which occur throughout the film. In fact, its arguable that Davey and his relationship with Mr. Mackey is the most developed, as they are the only two characters who have a solid, complete story. But Davey has very little conflict with his friends, and in that sense, his development with them feels incomplete. There isn’t much of a point A to B, and with the way the film ends, we don’t get to see a lot of the relationships come to full fruition, one way or the other. Whether or not this is intentional on the filmmaker’s part is debatable, but its rather disappointing, never the less.
What isn’t disappointing, however, is the horror which is carefully laid throughout Summer of 84. Yes, the film is a slow burn. Yes, a majority of the film focuses on the characters and the fun of just being a kid and having the excuse to do something dangerous like spy on your neighbor. But once the horror takes off, holy shit does it take the fuck off. Some will say it comes a little too late, and I’ve got one leg in that boat, but when all the questions are finally answered and the confrontations with the killer are allowed to play out, Summer of 84 is relentless in its terror. It may look like a kid’s horror film on the surface, and in many ways, it is, but it is not what I would deem kid’s horror because it is just so damn dark. We’re not talking about Monster Squad here. Remember when I said the film resembles the vibe of Stranger Things? That's true, but it's more like what Stranger Things would be like if it watched its parents get chainsawed in half after catching them screwing like rabbits. You just don't walk away from that without some issues. After all, the plot revolves around a child killer, and kids are by no means safe in Summer of 84. Not to mention, the gore, while minimal, is effective, disturbing, and absolutely grotesque. The directors clearly have an understanding of how to effectively create tension and the ultimate payoff, so it’s just unfortunate that most of the true horror doesn’t come until the final twenty minutes or so, all of it leading to an anti-climactic, albeit chilling, ending that will leave your jaw hanging.
Summer of 84 may not satisfy on every level, and it certainly has its flaws, but overall is a fun horror film with a strong nostalgic factor that should put a smile on any 80s-kid’s face. The filmmaking team is one that I expect will continue to impress with their twists on standard genre tropes, just as they’ve done with Summer of 84. Just be prepared to spend the next few days being suspicious of your neighbor and their habit of buying lawn gnomes for their yard, or whatever weird crap they do. I mean, what are they trying to hide with all those creepy little gnomes, anyway…?
Summer of 84 is out now on VOD.
By Matt Konopka