‘Summer of 84’ (2018) Review

“Even serial killers live next door to somebody.”

If you live long enough, you will be cursed to see your childhood turned into a sub-genre of entertainment for the cultural zeitgeist. Yes, even you, Zoomers. I can’t wait to hear you complaining about how in your day you had SCREENS and not just direct stimulation of the visual cortex.

Anyway, I grew up in the 1980’s and the nostalgia for that time period is strong, and not just for me – Stranger Things, Stephen King’s It, Super 8 and Tales from the Loop all trade on a love for and presentation of a certain idealized 80’s. Mostly it’s about latchkey kids on bikes confronting the darkening of America – with that ‘darkening’ usually being symbolized by some fantastic threat.

This kind of thing seems cyclical to me, with the 50’s receiving it’s fair share of idealization in popular culture – with the first Back to the Future movie and Stephen King’s original It novel, where “modern day” is the 80’s and the kids running around town fighting evil clowns are all in 1957. The 60’s had a brief resurgence, as did the 70’s. I think the 90’s is probably due their turn – with films like Super Dark Times setting the stage.

I lived through the 80’s and parts of it sucked. Sucked a lot. And yet the nostalgic representation on our screens draws me too. It’s a version of reality that feels familiar, if only from how the decade represented itself. Hell, there are movies that came out back then, like The Monster Squad and The Gate that could easily be mistaken for modern-day cash-ins on the 80’s nostalgia trend.

So, even though I’m always that Gen-Xer with the cynical eyebrow raised, I still find myself suckered in by the siren call of the synthesizer soundtrack and the whirring noise of bike tires on asphalt.

The Medium
I watched Summer of 84 on Shudder. It’s also available for subs on Hoopla and Kanopy and can be rented or purchased from any number of online vendors. There’s also a reasonably priced Blu-ray release, with a couple of commentary tracks, a blooper reel and still gallery.

The Movie
Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) is coasting into his fifteenth summer on his bike, delivering newspapers and playing Manhunt at night with his friends. There’s a real danger lurking out in the orange sodium light and suburban Oregon streets, however. Teenage boys have been disappearing in the area. Davey thinks it’s a serial killer. And he has a pretty good idea who it is. He just needs some help from his friends to prove it.

Summer of 84 plays with nostalgic 80’s tones on the soundtrack, by synthwave duo Le Matos. It isn’t too intrusive – setting the mood without drawing too much attention to itself. In a way, the whole movie is like that. It feels like an 80’s “kids on bikes” movie, but it doesn’t lean to heavily into the nostalgia. You won’t see anyone dressing up like Ghostbusters or listening to Madonna. The early 80’s is the setting, not the point, and if you’re after an 80’s easter egg hunt you’ll probably be disappointed.

Filmmakers François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell are also known as RKSS – the filmmaking team that brought us Turbo Kid – which is the kind of movie the characters in Summer of 84 only wish they could rent at the local video store. They’re much more restrained here, almost too restrained. The initial scenes with Davey trying to convince his friends – wannabe bad boy Eats (Judah Lewis), fat kid with the hot mom Woody (Caleb Emery) and requisite nerd Faraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) – that his neighbor, Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer) is a serial killer are too long, with too little happening.

Once they’re on board and they start their “investigation” things begin to get a little faster, but the pace never really goes above the 55 mile an hour speed limit. On the one hand it gives us time to get to know the boys and Nikki (Riverdale’s Tiera Skovbye), the obligatory “hot neighbor girl whose bedroom just so happens to face that of our hero.” Their interactions even as they break into houses, dig up gardens and follow Mackey – who happens to be a cop – are generally pretty good and believable. Less believable is the idea that popular older girl Nikki would have no one to talk to but the geeky kid she used to baby sit, but it provides some fun moments, so I let it slide.

There’s very little horror or even suspense in much of Summer of 84. In some ways it plays out like an 80’s kids version of the Hardy Boys, with our intrepid crew trying to catch a murderer that may or may not exist in ways that include the use of walkie talkies and stealing Woody’s mom’s car. It’s really a setup, though, for the ending third when things get darker quicky. And then get even darker than that.

The Bottom Line
As far as 80’s nostalgia goes, Summer of 84 is only a middling success. While it has some fair fidelity to the time and setting, and it sports a decent soundtrack, there’s no real reason for it to be set in the 80’s. It also requires you to ignore some logic jumps – like how the kids are still fairly free to run about even though there’s a serial killer on the loose that specifically targets kids their age and sex. In addition, the ending, while interesting and ratcheting up the stakes in a way that was suspenseful and gruesome, may be unsatisfying to some (like me). Unless there’s a sequel. I might just be up for that.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.