What is it about the ’80s we find so appealing?
It’s safe to say that ’80s pop culture nostalgia is everywhere. Of course, this isn’t the first time that the ’80s have made a huge comeback in pop culture, particularly in film. Over the years we’ve seen a barrage of ’80s remakes, sequels, prequels, and era-inspired movies, but the difference is that most of those projects were continuations of existing 1980s properties. What makes the last few years standout is how more “original” properties are taking inspiration from the cultural influences, music, sound, and the general tone of the era. In the past few years, Hollywood has eagerly glued itself to the 80s bandwagon, and not since the actual 80s have there been as many TV shows and movies set in that decade. Deutschland 83, The Americans, Stranger Things, and Halt And Catch Fire are just a few of the hit shows that have put their own spin the decade, while It Follows, Stephen King’s It, Ready Player One and Atomic Blonde are just a few films doing the same in recent years that have all found success at the box office. Like it or not, the 80s are now a perennial fixture of retro culture, and this 80s revival doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. This year’s Fantasia Film Festival features several films that take place in the decade, including Summer of 84, a loving homage to the Amblin era of summer blockbusters. While it may not achieve the level of pop culture canonization as the 80s films it invokes, Summer of 84 should at least give adults a chance to relive the classic films that forged their love of sci-fi and horror.
Having won over genre fans with 2015’s Turbo Kid, the three-person team called RKSS (Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell) return with a retro thriller in which four suburban teens suspect their neighbor is a notorious serial killer, and decide to snoop around to look for clues. Their amateur detective work starts off as a fun adventure to escape their mundane suburban life, but it doesn’t take long before things take a dangerous turn. The second feature for the Montreal-based directorial trio hopes to ride on the heels of the success of both Stranger Things and It. The comparisons are inevitable, given that the film takes place in the same time period and showcases a similar set of teenage protagonists at its core. For the majority of the pic, Summer of ’84 follows Davey (Graham Verchere) as he spends the summer working as a paperboy, swooning over his former babysitter who lives next door and goofing around with his three best friends, Tommy (Judah Lewis), Woody (Caleb Emery), and Curtis (Cory Gruter-Andrew). Being the young conspiracist of the group, Davey suspects his neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), is responsible for a string of child abductions. After a set of clues leads Davey to Mackey, he convinces his friends that the friendly neighborhood cop may also be the Cape May Slayer, a murderer who preys mostly upon teenaged boys. As Davey puts it, “Even serial killers live next door to someone.”
Set in the picture-perfect fictitious town of Ipswich, Oregon, the filmmakers create a place that conceals its troubles behind closed doors. In terms of mystery, Summer of ’84 teases viewers with plenty of signs that suggest Mackey is indeed the dreaded child abductor, while also supporting a case for his innocence. As the boys go around spying on the man, trailing him around town and digging through his trash looking for clues, you’ll be left wondering if their wild imaginations are getting the best of them. Davey, after all, is a conspiracy nut, with a history of believing in urban legends and his bedroom walls covered with newspaper cutouts. Whether the evidence points to Mackey or not, it’s obvious that something isn’t right in their small town.
Much like other films of this ilk (Super 8, The Goonies), Summer of ’84 plays out like a detective story, with the group of young kids in the juicy role of high-school gumshoes on the trail of a local criminal. The deeper they get, the more increasingly dangerous their excursions become. And while Summer does have a noticeable Amblin vibe, it’s the callbacks to Alfred Hitchcock that stand out most. Davey spends a lot of time peering through his bedroom blinds with binoculars à la Jimmy Stewarts’ L.B. Jeffries, while Rich Sommer’s portrayal recalls Joseph Cotten ‘s Uncle Charlie — his nice-guy persona lends itself perfectly to someone who may or may not be capable of murder. Simply due to how the film unfolds, he should be guilty, but Sommer’s performance will consistently make you think otherwise.
Summer of 84 is a by-the-book exercise in paying homage to ’80s themed teen adventures
Unfortunately, without delving into spoiler territory, the film doesn’t do much in the way of offering red herrings, other suspects, or interesting subplots. The first half of Summer of ’84 shows great promise, but as the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that the screenwriters just didn’t have enough ideas to elevate this above just another 80s-inspired teen adventure. Either Mackey is a serial killer, or he isn’t — and if he is not guilty, you’re either left with an anticlimactic third act or a cheap twist that reveals an unknown character to be the killer in question.
It’s frustrating to say the least, since Summer of ’84 is extremely well made and anchored by a quartet of likable performances from the young stars whose shared chemistry is endearing. When a film of this magnitude has so many young characters front and center in the lead roles, so much depends on the casting. Thankfully the natural camaraderie between the young actors makes it easy to care for them, even if their characters aren’t exactly well-developed. But as good as they are, the film is riddled with clichés and subplots that go nowhere, and it’s hampered by a few scenes that desperately try to give a backstory to their families, but do little-to-nothing to make us care about these side characters who we barely see. (Take for instance Woody’s alcoholic mom who makes a brief appearance, and Eaton’s parents who are only heard arguing in the background.)
For a movie that runs well over two hours, Summer of ’84 could use one more pass in the editing room. What’s worse is that the clumsy subplot involving Davey and the pretty, older girl next door (Tiera Skovbye’s Nikki). Thankfully, the filmmakers do at least try something different in the final reel that takes the movie to surprisingly dark places.
In terms of tone and aesthetic, Summer of ’84 is a dramatic departure from the directorial trio’s prior film. Whereas Turbo Kid plays like an explosion at the Cannon Films factory, Summer of ’84 works as a love letter to family-friendly Hollywood adventures of yesteryear, before ‘blockbuster’ became a synonym for ‘franchise’ or ‘tent pole.’ As expected, Summer of ’84 features an 80s soundtrack, an 80s wardrobe, 80s props, 80s haircuts, and more. Those old enough to remember the decade will be instantly transported, and there’s even an ominous, pulsing synth score courtesy of Montreal’s Jean-Philippe Bernier, Jean-Nicolas Leupi, and Le Matos that pays homage to the films of the decade. And much like the characters in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, the boys here are movie buffs themselves, peppering their conversations with references to ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, CHUD, The Return of the Jedi and Gremlins.
There are some admirable things Summer of ’84 accomplishes, but it doesn’t quite have all the elements necessary to make it a true classic. If only the filmmaking team were less concerned with endless pop culture references as they were with creating a deeper mystery for their disturbing thriller, this may have been the sleeper hit of the summer. Minus the final reel (which is an admirable attempt to do something new), Summer of 84 is a by-the-book exercise in paying homage to ’80s themed teen adventures with little originality to it. Be that as it may, it also happens to be entertaining enough to recommend. If you are a fan of these 80s-themed retro movies, you’re going to love another trip to the Atari Age, but if you’re feeling over-saturated with the growing number of movies paying homage to the era, you’re probably going to want to skip it.