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Summer of ’84 is the grisly little brother of Stranger Things

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

There’s a world in which Stranger Things doesn’t exist and the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s It didn’t just become a huge horror movie success. In that alternate timeline, the emergence of a film set in 1984 about a group of four high school kids trying to solve a local murder mystery — replete with burbling synthesizer score and pop-culture references — would likely be seen as a clever, inventive piece of retro nostalgia.

Unfortunately for Summer of ‘84, which recently had its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, we live in this world, not that one. The film is a well-intentioned throwback that ably captures the cheesy-meets-scary vibe of movies like The Monster Squad, and it’s even able to pack in real surprises by subverting key genre expectations. But that can’t stop the movie from feeling like a rehash of a rehash, a story covering ground that’s already been reimagined in a much more effective way.

What’s the genre?

Eighties teen adventure, mashed up with slasher-movie instincts. Imagine The ‘Burbs, but instead of Tom Hanks as the hero, it’s the kids from The Monster Squad, and you’ve got the idea.

What’s it about?

It’s (surprise!) the summer of 1984, and Davey (Graham Verchere) and his band of friends are bored. The group is a collective of familiar archetypes: Davey is the leader and a science-fiction conspiracy-theory nut. There’s Eats (Judah Lewis), the would-be punk-rock kid whose parents fight all the time; Woody (Caleb Emery), the goodhearted, slightly overweight kid; and Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), the bespectacled nerd. As Davey intones in an opening voiceover, “the suburbs are where the craziest shit happens.” So after a serial killer contacts the local newspaper, Davey becomes convinced that he knows who the murderer is: his neighbor, a cop named Wayne Mackey (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer).

Davey doesn’t have much evidence to support his theory, but he nonetheless ropes his friends into helping him investigate the police officer so they can blow the case wide open. Mackey has plenty of idiosyncratic habits — he takes mysterious runs at night, and has been buying up massive amounts of dirt and digging supplies that could help with body disposal — but every breadcrumb they find ends up having a plausible explanation. Eventually, it seems Davey’s instincts were wrong and they’ve hit a dead end… or have they?

What’s it really about?

Good question. Screenwriters Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith pack a lot into their script, but it’s mostly tropes and shout-outs. Where Stranger Things is a master class in how to evoke the feel of an era rather than simply name-checking it, Summer of ‘84 does its damndest to be the counterpoint, shoving as many references into its characters’ mouths as it can. But when you boil it all down, the movie is about disillusionment with the Reagan-era suburban ideal.

There’s certainly material to mine there. Problem is, many of those same original ‘80s movies have already mined it. Summer of ‘84 doesn’t modify that formula for modern resonance, either. Audiences may walk in with their own feelings that the suburban America of 2018 is not the suburban America that was once promised, but the film itself doesn’t do anything to advance that statement.

Is it good?

If this movie had come out three years ago, it probably would have been embraced as a fun time. Nostalgia is enjoyable, and the movie does nod to some classic horror-comedies. But unfortunately, we do live in a post-Stranger Things world, and given the striking similarities — in setting, conceit, aesthetic, and score — it’s impossible to avoid comparing the two works. (In fact, during a post-screening Q&A, the filmmakers suggested that the success of the Netflix show was what helped their project get green-lit in the first place.) Summer of ‘84 simply does not stack up to the Duffer brothers’ series, particularly in terms of writing and character work. Where Stranger Things goes for subtle, Summer goes for on-the-nose. Where the Netflix show offers nuanced, empathetic characters, this film gives us cardboard cutouts with performances to match. (Verchere and Emery are the two big exceptions.)

Directors François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell — known collectively as RKSS — previously brought their feature Turbo Kid to Sundance. That movie combined kids’ movies, adventure films, and a post-apocalyptic setting to create a gleeful, gory Sam Raimi-esque mash-up. In Summer of ‘84, it’s clear that the directors still know exactly how to remix their own childhood favorites. And while the stylistic and visual references are unmissable — my particular favorite was a shot that seemed to evoke the original Nightmare on Elm Street — the whole concoction is missing any sense of joy. Whatever kind of sheen RKSS are able to bring to the project is unfortunately undercut by the failings of the characters and the screenplay. When the setup for Davey’s hunt is so thin, and the main characters so hard to invest in, it doesn’t matter how clever the references are, or how willingly the movie embraces full-on gory horror toward the end. The fundamentals just aren’t there, which is hard to miss when Stranger Things got so much out of these same elements.

What should it be rated?

This is an R. Trust me.

How can I actually watch it?

There’s no release date in place, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it probably won’t end up on Netflix at any point.


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