A comparison to Stranger Things simply can’t be avoided. Whether by design or by shared intuition, Summer of 84 taps into that same surging wave of 1980s-era nostalgia that propelled Netflix’s megahit horror/sci-fi series into the forefront of popular consciousness. They share pages from the same playbook: Steven Spielberg allusions, Easter Eggs aplenty, a throbbing retro synth soundtrack, a commitment to historical accuracy, and references that only those of us who actually lived through the 1980s will recognize. But Stanger Things didn’t invent theses tropes; series masterminds Matt and Ross Duffer simply excelled at pushing all the right buttons in an undeniably pleasing combination.
And now horror-centric and mainstream entertainment-seekers alike are hooked on that syrupy sweet concoction, illustrated by the success of 2017’s IT, which was updated to take place in the 1980s. Now, a recognizable trend has studios seeing dollar signs, and Summer of 84 will no doubt benefit from our shared fantasies of the good-old Regan/Bush years. Unlike Stranger Things, however, Summer of 84 is a horror movie; not horror/sci-fi, not a thriller, not a PG-13 rated romp that ends at the Winter Ball: A straight up horror movie. Keep this in mind when the unimaginative attempt to sum up the film as simply “Stranger Things meets Rear Window“. Which brings us to the next inevitable comparison.
First, here’s the film’s synopsis:
“After suspecting that their police officer neighbor is a serial killer, a group of teenage friends spend their summer spying on him and gathering evidence, but as they get closer to discovering the truth, things get dangerous.”
In terms of story arch and plot motivators, Summer of 84 can rightly be called a spiritual successor to Alfred Hitchcock’s nerve shredding classic Rear Window and, as such, we’re venturing into somewhat familiar territory. But this is part of the film’s appeal; in addition to utilizing a recognizable era-specific aesthetic (the posters, outfits, hairstyles, accessories) Summer of 84 gives us a storyline we’ve seen before, even if it’s been a while. We know this can (basically) only end 2 ways: Either the neighbor really is a sadistic murderer or it’s all just a big misunderstanding. So, like the young protagonists, we’re immediately on the case, looking for clues. We don’t mind treading familiar pathways when they’re tried and true, and the nostalgia-soaked ambiance makes Summer of 84 almost irresistible.
The best part is, the film still manages to feel fresh and compelling throughout; even though the final “twist” isn’t difficult to guess, the intensity of the climax is objectively shocking. The references to Poltergeist, Gremlins, and Polybius will have you smiling, but the fun (like the innocent days of youth) can’t last forever. And like I said before, Summer of 84 isn’t Stranger Things; not all the kids will make it back from this “Upside Down” experience because the monster they face is real. I’m not trying to freak you out; we’re not talking Martyrs level depravity or anything. Still, Summer of 84 has teeth and claws, and the wounds they inflict will fester and itch, reminding us of the film’s most arresting moments long after the credits roll.
The specificity of the film’s title parallels a unique time in a teenager’s life: It represent that nebulous period of days, weeks, or months when adolescence gets serious and the magical sheen of youthful irresponsibility fades forever. It’s that turbulent stretch when we finally dare to sample the forbidden fruits of adulthood only to have our fig-leaves prematurely snatched away, leaving us cold and vulnerable. It’s that moment we first realize that the world is so vast and dangerous, our parents can’t possibly protect us from its perils, no matter how many times they might try to assure us otherwise. In Act 1, the idea of a serial killer operating close to home is “exciting” for the young protagonists to ponder; by Act 3, the realities of life, death, and violence have permanently reframed their perspective. There’s also an immediate echo of Bryan Addams’ 80s’ anthem Summer of 69 (coincidentally, released in the summer of 1984) and, for the main characters, these are the best days of their lives-right up until they become the worst, and “nothing will ever be the same again.” (Yeah, it’s a quote from the movie.)
Plot aside, Summer of 84 is about life in the suburbs, specifically the secrets hidden behind closed curtains. The film opens and closes with a similar monolog that hammer this point home (although it resonates much differently the second time around). It articulates the same subtexts David Lynch communicated wordlessly in the opening sequence of Blue Velvet (released in 1986): That beneath the beautifully manicured lawns, behind the pastel wall, a palpable evil is manifesting. And it’s not simply the idea of evil infiltrating suburbia that’s most terrifying; it’s the realization that suburbia and the value it places on privacy and neighborly protocols is an effective subterfuge for a particularly nasty breed of human monsters.
In the opening scene, one young protagonist is assured that “15 is the perfect age”; it’s a sentiment only an adult could believe, as you’d be hard-pressed to find a teenager who’s too young to drink or drive who agrees. It really is one of the most difficult periods of adolescence. But for some reason, it’s a paradise in our memories, and Summer of 84 uses this neurological Achille’s heel to its advantage and our devastation. It’s a film that aptly transports viewers into a wonderland of blissful nostalgia, but it brings you all the way home at the end, reminding us how fleeting life can be, and how quickly horror can rear its ugly head.
I loved it! Summer of 84 is directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell from a script penned by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith. The film’s 4 young leads all deserve applause, so cheers to Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Cory Gruter-Andrew, Caleb Emery; Emery is the standout for his immediate authenticity and sizeable emotive spectrum.