And that’s the thing about this place: It all might seem normal and routine, but the truth is, the suburbs are where the craziest shit happens… Even serial killers live next door to somebody.
I was scrolling through my Prime video one day and first came across this film as just a visual in the form of the cover art/poster. I thought the image was cool enough, a milk carton atop a pool of blood with the image of a skull-clad child on the side under the heading “Missing.” Even the title font evoked a very retro, 80’s horror vibe. Then my wife, the real horror nerd in the house, informed me that it was from the same filmmakers behind Turbo Kid. Well, then it all made sense.
The French-Canadian creative trio, now more commonly referred to by just the letters RKSS, are known for their distinct, yet obvious, 1980’s visual aesthetic in all their works to date. Being a huge fan of Turbo Kid the moment I viewed it, Summer of 84 immediately jumped onto my “must view soon” list.
So, I settled in one night once it became a Shudder exclusive as my wife walked in and said, “Yeah, I think you’ll like it, it’s kind of like Goonies meets a slasher film.” About a half hour into it, I asked her if she had ever seen the 80’s Tom Hanks dark comedy, The Burbs. Because, in my opinion, that’s where this film really takes its inspiration. A young teenager named Davey spends his summer break spying on his neighbor who is exhibiting suspicious behavior to which our hero draws his own conclusion that he must be the infamous “Cape May Slayer” that has been suspected of the recent disappearance of several local children. To complicate matters, Davey’s dubious neighbor and prime suspect, Mr. Mackey, is a hero cop known throughout the little town.
The fun starts innocently enough one night when Davey and his buddies are out playing a game of Manhunt in their cul-de-sac and while hiding, Davey peeps a glance inside Mackey’s home and spots the bachelor, who lives alone, entertaining a teenager in his living room. The visual seems innocent enough to the neighborhood kid who knows Mackey is the type to exhibit friendly and kind behavior.
But things take a turn when the local news station breaks a report that they have received a letter from the Cape May Slayer who officially takes responsibility for the recent slew of missing children and promises more to come. You see, Davey is quite the conspiracy theorist; complete with the stereotypical news clippings form the tabloids postered across his walls. Davey’s mind starts to work, putting together the vague description from the news report as well as a recent visit to Mackey’s basement in which he saw a pad- locked door, and immediately assumes that he must be the killer. His friends think he’s crazy and dismiss the accusation. That is, until a week or two later when Davey drinks from a milk carton and sees the image of the teen he saw in Mackey’s living room the night of the Manhunt game plastered aside the container.
Davey and his crew launch their own investigation seeing if they can lock down some evidence to prove their suspicions. With each new discovery, the teens believe what they suspect more and more and start to become even further committed to proving their case. Interspersed within the crew’s search is a cute love story between Davey and his old babysitter, who is a few years his senior. It makes for some lighter moments, but the relationship never really pays off in the story except to give Davey someone whom he can confide all his fears and suspicions to.
Eventually, the gang mounts enough evidence to finally approach Davey’s parents with their findings. And of course, the parents think their active imaginations have gotten the best of them and Davey’s dad forces the teens to apologize to Mr. Mackey, who conveniently has an explanation for each of their pieces of evidence. Forced to abandon the search, Davey is then grounded indefinitely. Until an encounter with Mackey days later fires up his suspicions again and he sneaks out to meet with the gang to propose his new theory. Deflated themselves, the gang is skeptical of rejoining the hunt, but once Davey promises he’ll do all the legwork, they just need to be lookouts, the motley crew agree. To formula, this is when Davey, accompanied by his best buddy, Woody, break into that pad-locked basement door from earlier and gather their most incriminating evidence yet, captured smartly on his dad’s camcorder. Cut to the sheriff’s station and a room full of parents, cops, and our heroes.
This is about when we experience our soft ending: Davey and Woody looking out Davey’s bedroom window across the street to a horde of cops and crime scene tape in front of Mackey’s house. They exchange high fives and congratulate themselves, although the suspect hasn’t been found yet. We’re treated to a long fade to black as if the credits were about to roll. But instead, we see a digital clock in Davey’s room show it’s just after midnight and the two boys are asleep in bed. The camera slowly pans to the hallway and this is when the film’s most chilling, “Oh shit!” moment occurs, to which I’ll spare the details, but we then cut to Woody and Davey gagged and tied in the backseat of Mackey’s police cruiser in the middle of the woods somewhere. Some of the movie’s creepiest and most disturbing moments occur in the following chase scene and resulting conclusion, which you know I try never to divulge so that you can discover them on your own. But the ending is pretty messed up, in a few unique ways.
Upon completion It’s easy to draw similarities almost immediately to Netflix’s Stranger Things, but in all honesty the only thing they have in common is the time period and that the story follows a group of kids, in the case of Summer, mid teenagers. If you didn’t grow up in the 80’s or aren’t familiar with the catalog of the decade, then you wouldn't know that this was actually the de facto recipe for most big films of the era. Yeah, sure, Goonies is the biggie, but E.T., Monster Squad, and Stand By Me, are also relevant examples. So, it’s not so much a rip-off of Stranger Things as it is emblematic of the decade itself. Not to mention wearing your influences from a bygone era on your sleeve is not a new concept either, especially in recent years. But the decade perfect salute doesn’t end there. Summer of 84 is chock full of 80’s retro goodness. Even Davey’s buddies are textbook John Hughes stereotypes: The nerd, the big boned doofus, and the cool kid complete with leather jacket. Banananrama’s “Cruel Summer” (get it ;) ) plays throughout a bowling alley scene while our heroes play arcade games and pinball. So 80’s!
But unlike Turbo Kid, which was almost kitschy in its use of 80’s nostalgic imagery and content, Summer of 84 is a little more subdued in its usage. This is a textbook thriller that just happens to take place in a specific time period. The period accurate cars, props and music could have been just as easily left out and the story could still have just taken place today in the twenty first century. Summer of 84 did decent on the indie and genre festival circuit, but isn’t as highly praised on user-generated sites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, but I loved this movie and watching it a second time in preparation for this write-up, I noticed so many other little clues and details I didn’t see before. I think you’ll dig it too.
I’d like to end on a bit about the music. The score was provided by the brilliant French-Canadian synthwave duo, Le Matos, who also provided the score to RKSS’s Turbo Kid and yes, I own both albums. Le Matos are just another in the long line of synthwave, OutRun, retro wave, new retro (or whatever you wanna call it) acts to have cropped up in the last decade or so. These artists are known for gathering their influences from late 1970’s and 1980’s film, video game, and pop culture. So, for me, they just take me back and fill me with musical and even visual nostalgia. In the case of Le Matos, their haunting synth pads and modulating keyboards fit so perfectly into the worlds that RKSS establish so well. I pitched an idea to the boss lady when I came aboard that entails doing a monthly or quarterly spotlight on horror themed music and/or artists who are influenced by that sound or imagery since so much of my life revolves around music and audio. I promise you that Le Matos is on that list. If you have any other ideas of what you’d like to see me cover as a part of this ongoing series, sound off in the comments below or
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Written by Dan
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