Have you ever wondered why the ‘80s serves as the setting to interdimensional horror like Stranger Things and magic clown-murder stories like It? It’s because, among all the great music and big hairstyles, new age American paranoia was taking root. That’s also why the decade serves as the perfect setting for Summer of ‘84, in which a group of kids try to incriminate their neighbor as the local serial killer.
“The beginning of the ‘80s was the end of the American Dream,” Canadian-born filmmaker François Simard tells Inverse, “Crime began to infiltrate even the suburbs. So the sense of fear and paranoia was more present. People started locking their door.”
By 1984, not only had serial killers emerged in suburban America, but the media began to foster fear and distrust by sensationalizing their existence. That’s why, of all time periods and places, RKSS collective made Summer of ‘84, a movie about a paranoid kid in the suburbs suspecting that his friendly neighbor might just be “The Cape May Strangler.”
Together with brother-sister duo Yoann-Karl and Anouk Whissell, Simard represents the RKSS collective, shorthand for Roadkill Superstarr. As a trio, they’ve written and directed more than 20 short films, with Summer of ‘84 due out in August.
A conversation with the three of them feels like a snapshot of their creative style, seamlessly thinking with some kind of otherworldly hive brain as they finish each others’ sentences without ever seeming to cut one another off.
“I find them fascinating and really terrifying,” said when asked about the group’s interest in real-life serial killers, prompting Anouk to chime in to note how the killers always seem to have impeccable social skills.
François remarked how the charming John Wayne Gacy almost became mayor of his town, and how the Ted Bundy had a family. All three talked about the serial killer Robert Pickton in their home country of Canada, who fed his victims to pigs.
When asked about the risks associated with making a film like Summer of ‘84, Yoann-Karl said, “To lose the audience.” They each voiced concerns about how Summer of ‘84 differs from their usual work. “We still love blood and gore,” François reassured me. “We just wanted more of an emotional reaction.”
Rest assured, Summer of ‘84 is indeed a huge departure from the style of their debut film, Turbo Kid, which is a gonzo, bloodsoaked dystopia á la the Mad Max series that drew a cult following when it debuted in 2015. On the other hand, Summer of ‘84 is slow, atmospheric, moody, firmly grounded in reality, and perhaps most striking, absent of almost any gore.
Here’s a trailer for Turbo Kid, in which a lovestruck kid in the apocalypse idolizes a comic book hero and has to murder his way through the wasteland to rescue the girl he loves:
Summer of ‘84 couldn’t be more different.
Davey Armstrong is a teenager obsessed with conspiracy theories in the suburbs of the fictional Ipswitch, Oregon. He’s a kindhearted newspaper delivery boy whose paranoia kicks into high gear when the “Cape Hill Strangler” serial killer is announced on the news, and he thinks his neighbor Officer Mackey is the killer. Is he really on to something? Or is he a kid with too much time on his hands?
His three best friends more or less fill stereotypical roles we often see in ‘80s nostalgia movies, especially when they ride around on bikes or organize meetings and games with walkie-talkies.
There’s even the beautiful girl next door that all the boys worship in a way that’s so characteristically ‘80s. She’s one of the many ways that Summer of ‘84 lulls the viewer into a feeling of complacency. You can’t help but assume that the film will follow the same well-worn plot paths we’ve seen from these types of movies in the past. For awhile it does.
Until it doesn’t anymore.
“I think we like to challenge ourselves,” Anouk Whissell said when asked about the drastic shift in genre between Turbo Kid and Summer of ‘84. François said, “It’s a movie that takes a huge risk and that’s why you will remember it.” The risk he’s talking about is with regards to the film’s ending, which we won’t spoil here, but rest assured it’s one that makes it memorable.
Summer of ‘84 debuted to sold out audiences at Sundance Film Festival in January and opens on a limited release on August 10. Younger audiences will probably call it a fusion between Stranger Things and perhaps Disturbia (2007), but RKSS’s horror influences extend far back into the ‘80s.
The vibe is reminiscent perhaps most closely with The ‘Burbs (1989), another paranoia-laden thriller set in suburban America starring Tom Hanks and Carrie Fisher. Anouk also rattled off a list of films that influenced them, and it included Stand by Me, The Goonies, The Birds, People Under the Stairs, Monster Squad, and Fright Night. But perhaps the greatest influence on this story is the organic paranoia of the very real serial killer craze that emerged right around 1984.
In a piece of opening narration during Summer of ‘84, protagonist Davey says, “It all might seem normal and routine, but the truth is, the suburbs are where the craziest shit happens.” RKSS is well-aware of statistics about how somewhere around 70 percent of all serial killers live in suburbs.
In an era where true crime podcasts and Netflix series have seen a meteoric rise in popularity alongside ‘80s nostalgia, Summer of ‘84 seemingly satisfies both camps. Despite looking and feeling like tons of similar pieces of ‘80s horror, Summer of ‘84 still manages to surprise the viewer and still feel more unsettling than true-to-life serial killer stories, even if the truth isn’t what you think.
Summer of ‘84 releases in select theaters on August 10 and on VOD and Digital HD on August 24.