Super Dark Times marks the feature debut of the incredibly talented director Kevin Phillips, whose critically acclaimed short film Too Cool For School had critics raving after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. For his feature-length debut, Phillips peels back the layers of mid-90s American suburbia to examine teenage best friends Josh (Charlie Tahan) and Zach (Owen Campbell), whose friendship unravels after a fatal accident cuts through their world and forces them to keep a dark secret that changes each in different ways. The combination of stolen marijuana and a Samurai sword proves deadly, and the accidental killing of their friend plus the resulting cover-up strains the boys’ friendship. As each young man processes the tragedy in his own way, circumstances grow increasingly complex, eventually spiraling out of control.
Screening at Montreal’s Fantasia festival and seeing limited theatrical release on September 29, Super Dark Times dances a fine line between coming-of-age drama and indie horror, using the subject of murder to dig deep into the teenage psyche. What we have here is a fascinating – albeit downbeat – study of friendship, guilt, suspicion, psychosis, innocence, loyalty, and murder. The debut feature for both Phillips and writing duo Ben Collins and Lukas Piotrowski is a movie destined to find a cult following, and I imagine that in ten years time Super Dark Times will be remembered fondly as one of the best films of 2017. If Hitchcock was alive right now (and a teenage boy), Super Dark Times might be the sort of film he would direct. Trust me when I say that this movie is really that good!
From its riveting setup, which echoes the likes of River’s Edge and Stand by Me, Super Dark Times is one of the most chilling portraits of misguided youth put to film, and made all the more disturbing by Philips’ choice to set the film in a period just several years before Columbine, before the internet and before social media. Though Super Dark Times is set in the mid-1990s, first-time feature director Kevin Phillips doesn’t beat you over the head with nostalgia; the specific time frame is identifiable only by means of a televised Bill Clinton speech and the use of such props as a cassette Walkman or a cordless telephone. In fact, it could take you a while to figure out exactly when the events are set, since its depiction of high school behaviour feels timeless. Therein is where the film’s strength lies – its crackling intensity, sharp character insights, and an affinity for teenage protagonists who look and sound like real teens. In fact, the way the teenage cast interacts with each other is so spot on that you could be mistaken for believing they improvised every scene.
Super Dark Times is also breathtakingly shot. Being a cinematographer by trade, Phillips, along with his DP Eli Born, nails the atmosphere of this unidentified, cozy, suburban small town via lush atmospheric widescreen images. Shot on digital using 35mm lenses, the film is as beautiful as it is bleak. Meanwhile, composer Ben Frost’s well-modulated score and the high powered soundtrack help generate a considerable amount of tension and urgency throughout.
Super Dark Times definitely earns its title too! Transitioning effortlessly from a coming-of-age teen drama to true-to-life horror, the film is downright creepy, often shocking, and at times bloody. It doesn’t necessarily rely on a lot of onscreen gore, but when it does, it’s disturbing in a very real way – and never once does it come close to glorifying these acts of violence. Part of the reason that the film works is that you couldn’t imagine any of these kids capable of murder, much less covering it up, but as bodies slowly increase, Super Dark Times makes it clear that for these boys, the worst thing imaginable is not the crime they committed, but the idea of getting caught.
– Ricky D