Director: François Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell
Writer: Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith
Producer: Shawn Williamson, Jameson Parker, Matt Leslie, Van Toffler, and Cody Zwieg
Cinematographer: Jean-Philippe Bernie
by Jon Cvack
Stranger Things and other 80s period or inspired films focused on kids have essentially been operating as Nostalgic Retro Porn: a combination of colors, music, tropes, and pop culture icons that any great period piece can enhance. When I was growing up in the 90s, there was an endless array of the same types of stories set in the 50s - My Girl (1991), Now and Then (1995), Stand by Me (1986), and Barry Levinson’s 50s Quadrilogy, they too possessing iconic images and sounds.
Summer of ‘84 changes up the movement by scaling it back; foregoing the neon RGB colors and extravagant set pieces and instead providing a low budget indie period piece. It serves as part Stand by Me, part Fright Night, and two parts Rear Window. It’s limited budget and occasional uninspired dialogue and poor acting prevents the story from ever achieving greatness, but it also more firmly aligns the film with its 80s ancestors. If this feels cheap, so too would have comparable films from the period. It allows the film the freedom to wobble at places, but overall, the story is effective.
It opens up in Cape May, Oregon where over thirteen boys have gone missing. We meet the tweenish Dave Armstrong (Graham Vercher ) as he finishes his paper route; ending up at his neighbor and police officer Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer) might be the one responsible. Mackey is awkward and dopey, about as close as it gets to a stereotypical serial killer living in the suburbs. He’s friendly, though creepy and after Dave mentions that he’s behind on the paper delivery payments, Mackey invites him inside to get the money and show him his new photography dark room.
Dave has an obsession for conspiracy theories and the supernatural. His room is covered in newspaper clipping about the missing boys, UFOs, and more. When Dave sees a boy his age over at Mackeys one night, who later looks like a missing kid on the back of a milk carton, he voices his concern to his best friends Dale "Woody" Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), and Tommy "Eats" Eaton (Judah Lewis) who all express their reservations, though soon agree to launch into a scout mission to document Mackey’s day to day life.
Cut between all this are nightly games of hide and seek throughout the neighborhood and Dave crushing hard on his former babysitter Nikki Kaszub (Tiera Skovbye) who’s parents have recently divorced. When she catches him spying on her, invites herself over and suggests enough interest to drive Dave love crazy.
In one sequence, straight with 80s snap-zooms and cheesy flash cutting and the necessary use of large walkie talkies, the boys soon discover that Mackey leaves his house daily to buy over 100 pounds of dirt and sodium hydroxide. Needing hard evidence, the four sneak into the yard, finding freshly laid dirt in the flower beds, and then breaking into the shed and finding one of the local boy's t-shirts with blood all over. Dave decides to tell his parents, making his father furious and who forces the boys over to Mackey’s the next day to apologize. Mackey acts as though he doesn’t care, with Rich Sommer providing just enough gawkiness to make you wonder if it’s him. Before they leave, Dave asks about the boy he saw and Mackey says it was his nephew offering to call, but Dave’s father declines the offer.
The next day, in a thrilling scene, Dave is stuck home grounded and Mackey visits on his way to work in order to apologize and try and get him out of too much trouble. It’s here, although most precedent has proved me wrong, that I found myself doubting whether it was Mackey. It seemed too obvious, but that again is part of the 80s throwback; the likeliest answer tended to be the right one. Dave requests that Mackey call his nephew; grabbing a knife and handing Mackey the phone; maximally framed for tension as Dave’s body blocks the weapon. Mackey calls, but gets no answer and later leaves. Dave calls the operator and finds out that Mackey had just called his home; concluding that it was all a lie to his skeptical friends.
The next day, the police arrest a suspect, with Mackey getting the credit, all the more intriguing Dave’s parents who not just accused the wrong person, but a neighborhood hero. Dave remains undeterred, hoping to exploit the popular Cape May Festival by being left home alone where Curtis and Eats can keep an eye on Mackey while Dave and Woody head into Mackey’s basement. Dave grabs his dad’s news camera and they head over, with Nikki joining along.
Having just watched Rear Window (1954), the parallels were excelling; similar to our doubts about Lars Thorwald and whether he actually did it, we’re left wondering about the facts down to the very end. As creepy as the basement is, there’s no evidence of foul play, until Dave sees another door, opens it up and finds what looks like a living room; with pictures strewn on the walls. They continue onto the bathroom, pulling back the curtain and finding a decayed body in a tub full of sodium hydroxide. The missing local boy then grabs their feet.
It cuts out and the boys are hailed as heroes as they play the tape for the police and their parents. Mackey is still on the loose and with Woody’s mom working, he sleeps over at Dave’s. Later in the evening, Mackey descends from Dave’s exit and uses chloroform to knock the boys out and then takes them deep into the middle of the woods. In a shocking sequence, he slices open Woody’s throat and chases Dave down, though instead of killing him, Woody says he’s letting Dave go in order to keep him in indefinite fear. Dave returns back, experiencing severe trauma, though attempts to return to his normal life.
Aside from a few cheesy moments of dialogue and some subpar acting, it’s hard to find much wrong with the film. It could have used a polish, but it’s this rawness that makes the film feel unique. The mission of any coming of age story is to capture the essence of what it’s like to be with your childhood friends and have an adventure. Stand by Me and Now and Then operate under comparable settings; with death operating as a right of passage: moving from the distant and undefined to a direct experience. In the Summer of 84’s case, it gives direct enlightenment as to the kids' own mortality.
The bonds between friends, a first crush that leads to a first kiss, and the adventures that define youth - it checks all the boxes of a great coming of age story. Abandoning the bells and whistles of its competitors, and up against severe limitations, it doesn’t have the photographic quality of similar movies, but it does contain the spirit. My primary criticism are the wardrobes, in which all of the clothes look freshly purchased and worn for the first time. But compared to everything else, it’s an easy thing to forget. I’m confident that the movie will find horror fans soon enough.
BELOW: So low-key there's not even a clip on YouTube (other than the ending)
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