Released: 10th August
Seen: 28th November
One of the fascinating things about pop-culture, particularly the impact nostalgia plays on it, is something known as the 30-year cycle. To get a good explanation of this you need to look at Lindsay Ellis’ video essay Stranger Things, IT and the Upside Down of Nostalgia but basically, this cycle is why we’re seeing so many 80’s style content in pop culture recently. Not only is it why shows and movies like, well, Stranger Things and It are getting such buzz and are hitting something special in the audience, it also explains things like the stylistic choices of Thor: Ragnarok or the throwback nature of Mandy. The nature of the 30-year cycle lends itself really well to the horror genre, especially now since that 30-year cycle means we’re seeing echoes of one of the golden ages in horror. Summer of 84 capitalises on that and its echoes of a distant cinematic past are loud, vibrant and engaging.
Summer of 84 follows a bunch of teenage friends. There’s the nerdy Farraday (Cory Grüter-Andrew), the bad boy Eats (Judah Lewis), the fat kid Woody (Caleb Emery) and the conspiracy theorist and leader Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) who are all just having a regular summer break that all teens had in the 80s. You know, the kind of break where you all look at dirty magazines and drink whiskey you stole from your dads cupboard and play a game called manhunt where you hide on other people’s property and wait for your friends to find you… oh, also they might have stumbled upon a serial killer when Davey notices that Officer Mackey (Rich Sommer) is a little weirder than he expects an adult to be and so now their innocent summer of looking at boobs and downing booze is replaced with trying to solve a real-life crime.
To call this film a Stephen King homage would be putting it mildly. From the storyline to the visuals to the setting, everything feels lifted right out of the pages of one of Stephen King’s 525600 books down to the gloriously snarky dialogue between the friends. It’s very clear the kind of film they were going for but they pepper the movie with enough nods to create something that’s distinctively a homage and not just a ripoff, a key distinction. This film certainly focuses it’s homage on King adaptations like the original It or Stand By Me, but it also throws in other little nods to Friday the 13th, Poltergeist, Rear Window and a bunch of other horror classics that help it from just being a direct copy of the most recent horror hit. This blend works to make the movie feel familiar enough that you get that hit of nostalgia, but not so familiar that you can call everything before it starts. In fact, to be honest, I was calling things wrong the entire time because the movie plays with your expectations and either surprises you with a reveal, or it holds back to do something a little later than you expect in order to build the tension.
One of the key elements of this film that really helps it is how well it builds tension, helped by an amazing score that is just pure 80s cheese in the best way possible. Every single shot just oozes with tension, built slowly and released just right with an effective jump scare that never feels cheap. There is exactly one time when a jump scare is a character jumping out and yelling boo, and they’re a kid so it’s absolutely acceptable. Every scene just slowly ratchets up the question “Is Davey onto something or is he just making things up again” and it genuinely feels like it could go either way, and both potential outcomes are fascinating to consider. They really make it clear that it could just be his hyperactive imagination, which would be understandable since his wall is covered in cheap magazines that talk about every conspiracy known to man.
All this is made so much better by a fantastic cast. This kind of horror film lives and dies by the kids who are cast in the leads. They have to not only be likable enough for us to care about what happens to them but they also have to be good enough actors that we’re not distracted and all of these kids are incredible, delivering charming and funny performances until they’re called on to give us an emotional gut-punch. They layer their characters well, while these characters are slight cliches (Welcome to 80s horror, where EVERYONE is a cliche and it’s absolutely fine) they also show us hints of their home lives and the pain they’re trying to cover around their friends. Little moments like one of the kids wanting to sleep over just so he doesn’t have to be around his alcoholic mom is a sweet moment that makes these kids feel real and makes you root for them.
I do kind of wish we had a little more time during the ending though, the climax of this film almost feels like it was added last minute and while it’s still a great scene, I kind of wish that it went a little further than it did. I also really would’ve liked more scenes with the female friend Nikki (Tiera Skovbye) who was a really fun character that they didn’t use more, I kinda felt like she was the Beverly Marsh of this movie except Beverly was much more involved throughout and Nikki just pops in and out when it’s convenient.
For what it’s worth, Summer of 84 is a fun little horror film that knows exactly what it wants to be. It wants to be up on the shelf beside It and Stranger Things and feel like it belongs up there, and it definitely achieved that. It’s a fun thrilling ride that will have you on the edge of your seat, smiling as the nostalgia blinds you and makes you enjoy every single wonderfully thought out frame. A pure delight that you need to see if you’re a fan of classic horror films.
What did you think about Summer of 84? What’s your favourite 80s horror film? Let me know in the comments below.