Sometimes it feels as if eighties-styled genre tributes are becoming as prolific a cinema exercise as superhero films. Even the wildly successful IT remake swapped out the novel’s sixties setting for that era of BMX-straddling and Pac-Man-binging. Summer of 84 – a coming-of-age thriller whose very name conjures up the type of obvious nostalgia fest we’ve come accustomed to of late – is able to subvert expectations due to the care and attention the makers have taken to ensure it isn’t just another predictable pastiche. The film’s only real sticking point is the weak denouement which can’t match the dark thrills and foreboding atmosphere with preludes it.
Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) is an Oregon teenager passing the time during the long hot summer holidays delivering newspapers and hanging with his close-knit circle of friends. His parents are concerned that Davey doesn’t end up on the side of a milk carton, as a serial killer dubbed the ‘Cape May Slayer’ has been picking off kids over a number of years in the county. One evening, Davey spies his single policeman neighbour Wayne Mackey (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) entertaining a young boy in his living-room. The suspicious teen then turns voyeur and sleuth, dragging his reluctant buddies into his investigation of Mackey, whom he suspects to be the enigmatic killer.
Summer of 84’s examination of that hidden darkness lurking under a prosaic suburban veneer is hardly uncharted cinematic territory. It was even explored in films from the decade in question here, be it in a bizarre and transgressive guise (Blue Velvet) or more of a lighter, satirical swipe (The ‘Burbs). What stops that pervading sense déjà vu from engulfing Summer of 84 is the emphasis placed on character and mood by the directing triumvirate of François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell (who occasionally style themselves as the more palatable RKSS). Like their previous retro-tinged effort – the dippy and bloody dystopian flick Turbo Kid – this film succeeds because it has bags of heart and is ultimately unconcerned with slapping the viewer in the face with homage after homage until they’re left with a Walkman-shaped welt – something the similarly-fashioned Stranger Things is undeniably guilty of.
Sommer is fantastic as the benevolent law enforcer, who may are may not be harbouring a truly wicked secret. The actor sells that lingering uncertainty which follows the audience through much of the film’s duration. The score by Le Matos – who previously composed the joyous Day-Glo music for Turbo Kid – is absolutely fantastic and easily up there with the best Tangerine Dream soundtracks of the eighties.
And yet despite all these positive attributes – even overlooking the sometimes gaping plot holes which crop up – the film is sadly stymied by a cop out of an ending which feels like the makers were scrambling around to try and reach a satisfying conclusion. It makes for a frustrating experience overall, as this is a film which rarely put a foot wrong otherwise. Perhaps on second viewing it might not prove to be as problematic, and while it certainly isn’t enough to sink what has come before, it holds Summer of 84 slightly back from achieving the kind of greatness it strives for.