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Summer of '84 (2018): Review

Directed by François Simard, and Anouk and Yoann-Karl Whissell, Summer of '84 is a wonderfully misleading horror film, one that spells itself out in familiar patterns. The narrator practically sighs during the opening shots. The voice belongs to Davey, the film's hero. We see him cheerfully deliver newspapers on his bicycle. However, the narrator of a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) or similar formula is usually an older, wiser version of the same character, and Davey's older self sounds solemn and detached. This alone should warn that trouble is not simply afoot, but already come to pass. Over footage of present events, Davey speaks plainly about everyday tendencies to overlook evil in our own lives. He seems to discuss things backward—in hindsight, just like the little girls in Alex Proyas' The Crow (1994) or Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978).


Summer of '84 is horror pastiche, much like Andrés Muschietti's It (2017); they operate in recognition of older genre exercises that were, themselves, fully aware of the conventions they had to work within, but also respond to. Muschietti's predecessor, Steven King, often waxes nostalgic about his own childhood. However, he does it by discarding the magical, rose-tinted glasses of 1950s Americana, penning stories notoriously unsterilized. I also recognized several deliberate nods to Joe Dante's The 'Burbs (1989); that movie, too, reflects on monsters in everyday settings. In that film, the nosy and bumbling Art produces a book of evil and superstition, utterly convinced that Walter, the geriatric neighbor, is being offered up as a demonic sacrifice by the new neighbors: the evil Klopecks ("Is that Slavic?"). Meanwhile, Ray stays up all night watching horror movies until the characters onscreen invade his dreams. At that point, and for most of the film, he cannot tell what is real or false about his own bland home. In turn, his sluggish calls for action have disastrous consequences. Davey, by comparison, takes the lead; he can tell the difference, but few believe him. His quest, like Ray's, earns him numerous injuries; inadvertently he turns his own world, and that of his friends, upside down, to expose the killer and save the town. By doing so, has he done more harm than good? 

Summer of '84 examines the past. King did, of the 1950s, while Muschietti moved King's childhood goalpost forward a generation. The angle is potentially retrospection, but that of classic works. Such media can be as invested in dissecting the uncertain present, versus any sort of exhumed past. For example, Spielberg's films are rife with product placement, to distract us from Big Government. In doing so, Spielberg appealed to public anxieties about actual crises that were ongoing in the here and now. The truth, for him, can be alien or monstrous, but not always malign: E.T. is a good alien; those in Close Encounters (1977) are ambiguous, but also good. J. J. Abrams' Super 8 (2011) channels those movies, but with an alien that is dangerous. However, it isn't evil; it is merely trapped on Earth.

The reason I mention these non-horror films is how they are such a strong part of the 1980s evoked by Simard and company. Their now-classic status cements them as time capsules, the objects inside infused with a monstrous pathos. This pathos is what the directors of Summer of '84 toy around with, akin to what the Duffer brothers are doing with Stranger Things (2016-present). They wreathe their scenes with objects of the past that they might recreate arrangements of the monstrous in "normal," childhood environments. Viewed in the present, the feeling of disquiet survives amid the shifting material. In other words, Summer of '84 refers to a past that once existed by creating one that never did. The nods to consumer culture are copious, here; these boys know all there is to know about horror movies. This is to be expected; there is little to do in small towns except watch movies (or have sex). Being teenagers, much of their spontaneous quipping is drenched with innuendo. It contributes to much of the laughs, though admittedly from a male point of view (this material, once upon a time, would have been marketed exclusively to boys). Real or not, their fabricated world is uncannily similar to our own; like the media they glut themselves on, our entertainment serves multiple roles: to teach, distract and warn. 

This is important; Davey's home might seem bland and innocuous, but is actually dangerous, on par with Laurie Strode's, Jay Height's or Charlie Brewster's. When the movie starts, Davey rides around on his bike, enjoying the pastoral scene. The people around him smile; one flips him the bird. His older self, the narrator, sees through the subterfuge of collective personas. Younger Davey grows up fast, though; by the end of the scene, and for the rest of the film, he becomes increasingly convinced that his neighbor, Wayne Mackey, is a serial killer. We might doubt his conviction. Indeed, the older man is kind to him; he smiles when confronted. Plus, he's a cop. All the same, he watches the neighborhood boys with rapt attention, his expression less-than-friendly at times. Le Matos' excellent music is perhaps the biggest clue—that something is off, and that the movie, as self-conscious entertainment, promises harsh lessons amid the raucous laughter.


Davey recruits the other boys; they play along. To them, it's a game, but Davey isn't playing. At home, he reads The Hardy Boys; at school, he pores over microfilm with eager and steely determination. Perhaps Nikki, the girl next door, sneaks into his house with this knowledge: he won't drool over her the way the other lads do, because he has more on his mind than just sex. Yes, she caught him looking through her bedroom window. However, there are hints she wanted him to ("Your view of my window is better than I thought..."). Despite his obsession about serial killers, she gleefully follows him into danger.

When push comes to shove, the other boys chicken out, but their cowardice is a harsh reality in and of itself. No longer a game, they convince themselves of a more "logical" explanation. For example, Wayne buys dirt in unusual quantities (on par with Dracula's crates of grave-like earth). Later, we're told, the soil is for a gardening event unveiled at the annual town fair, and one where the capture of the "killer" is announced in timely fashion. How convenient. Curtis, one of the other boys, all but leaps on this excuse. Yes, he saw red stains on Wayne's clothing when peering through the guy's window. Stranger still, Wayne, at the time, was hauling cleaning supplies that have nothing to do with gardens. This includes hydrogen peroxide, a cleaning agent that dissolves human tissue... But never mind; dirt is for gardens!

Curtis is clearly the timid sort, but also self-absorbed. For example, he doesn't want to get kicked out of the library when the other boys are being too loud. This kind of modest reluctance gently foreshadows his retraction, later on. Nonchalant to the last, the film provides subtle clues like these; it does so while distracting us with stock humor we're clearly meant to recognize, from older works like The Monster Squad (1987) or Stand By Me (1986). One of the great pleasures of Summer of '84 is its awareness of the repurposed, parent material—itself the continuous reflection of an ongoing predicament. Consider the fact that serial killers are actual people: "Every serial killer lives next to someone."

This revelation was true before the '80s and after. Yet, even when serial killers were first acknowledged as real, a tendency remained: to not point the finger at one's neighbor. On one hand, this avoids persecution mania; on the other, it denies the possibility of a troubled neighborhood. Who wants to live in a murderer's den? Given the option, Curtis ignores anomalous facts that contradict his own, select hypothesis. For him, a fox in the hen house becomes absurd—in part, to survive: ignore the killer and he'll attack someone else.

Summer of '84 is littered with artifacts used to comfort the anxious: movies, and cinematic paraphernalia. It begs the question, is it "just a movie" or are such people real? Davey dares expose a real killer none of them have ever "met." Or so they think. The reality is, the boys have met Wayne many times. The ending is rather bleak, a far cry from the initial banter of a healthy group of friends. Long before the film ends, Wayne is exposed and forced into hiding. Davey and another boy, Dale, fall asleep—unnerved, but confident they are safe. In the dead of night, Wayne descends from the attic to silence them. He spirits them away to a dark forest, where the bodies of past, dissolved victims stick out of the ground. Like a hunter, he frees his prey to let it run.

Here, any similarities to older films end. Unlike The Monster Squad or Fright Night, the two boys are alone and trapped, no match for the perennial slayer. I hoped Dale would survive; he was a true friend, one that never left Davey's side. I felt dismay in seeing him killed, a reality so many genre films spoof, or play off as mere entertainment. It's a brave move, but also a brutal one, by the directors, here. Davey is powerless to stop his friend's death. Afterward, the killer "marks" him to spend the rest of his days looking over his shoulder—to endure the ignominy of such left-handed mercy. "Why couldn't you just leave me alone?" Wayne snarls. In other words, "You brought this on yourself." I wasn't convinced; the photos on Wayne's wall were of past and potential victims, and Davey was amongst them. He wasn't safe; Wayne was grooming him, and would have killed him, eventually.


Don't tell that to the other boys, however. The sheriff calls Davey a hero, but they won't forgive him for shattering their view of the world (even though they were never the target). It's simply easier to scapegoat and ignore evidence. Sadder still, Curtis and the others would laughed about Davey's death, so long as their own lives remain unaffected. In a perverse turn of events, they attack the victim; the fellowship breaks, and the movie ends much how it began. Except now our view of the world has changed; we look on these same characters and see what they're made of, a scrolling tableaux of disingenuous cowards. Only Davey has had his eyes open the entire time. He was never fooled, nor complicit in the killer's deeds; he looked at the facts, despite what his parents, Wayne, or the other boys said. Maybe that's why Nikki liked him so much. She knows better, too, and when her parents pull away she places her hand on the glass, unable to be with this brave, foolhardy boy.

With Summer of '84, old pieces are taken and toyed with. It skillfully recreates the easy delights of small town summers. However, its own replica is then pitted, by the directors, against a real killer one might spy in the media—the sort the characters onscreen are so well-versed in (as is the audience). The knife is dragged across Dale's throat; one is expected to squirm. Worse, a moment of relish arises from a musical promise: there is more to come (the score is marvelous). Make no mistake: Summer of '84 is in on the joke, but the punchline is cautionary in the truest sense. It draws our attraction to death in tight focus, that we might look beyond the curtain and scream. But imagine our own surprise at delighting in it, and asking for seconds.

***

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