'Summer of '84' Review: Stylish '80s Horror About Serial Killer Paranoia
All it takes is a heaping amount of paranoia.
The inherent premise to Summer of ‘84 is a truth that’s as unsettling as it is obvious: “Even serial killers live next door to somebody.” We hear this explicitly in the film’s opening minute as Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) pedals his way through a suburban neighborhood to deliver some papers. In suburban Oregon, paranoia is at an all-time high in 1984.
It would be all too easy to argue that Summer of ‘84 rides the success established by Stranger Things and It in recent memory. We’ve all seen the image of teenagers pedaling through suburban streets with binoculars and walkie-talkies time and time again. But while Summer of ‘84 does come with a hefty dose of idyllic ‘80s nostalgia, it’s a fictional story that could’ve happened in real life. So it’ll make viewers more paranoid about real-life killers than it will make them frightened of murder clowns or shadow monsters.
Summer of ‘84 follows the tabloid-obsessed teenager Davey in Ipswitch, Oregon. He’s a conspiracy theorist that believes his neighbor, Officer Mackey, is the serial killer branded as the “Cape May Strangler.” His three friends Woody (Caleb Emery), Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), and Eats (Judah Lewis) assume the role of chubby friend, brainiac, and delinquent. (The overall vibe here is totally Goonies meets The Breakfast Club.) There’s even the beautiful girl next door Nikki (Tiera Skovbye), who flirts with Davey and is somehow delighted at the prospect of boys several years her junior peeping into her window while she’s changing. Only in the ‘80s, amirite?
When it leans on these ‘80s movie tropes, Summer of ‘84 is totally predictable, but it still manages to build a lot of tension before descending into full-on nightmare horror for the film’s very short final act. And while many of the paths and tropes explored by the movie are well-worn by predictable retro genre films of yesteryear, the whole thing meshes together pretty well, especially in that shocking, unsettling finale.
Perhaps the best part of watching Summer of ‘84 is the never-ending soundtrack of ‘80s pop synth that carries every emotional beat, often manipulates the viewer by totally twisting the mood of a scene. Even during some innocuous scenes, the ‘80s-AF background music can turn things tense, or uplifting, all to suit the narrative.
Is it too heavyhanded for some viewers? Probably, especially if they don’t like the ‘80s. But that retro style retains a wide appeal with audiences.
The retro vibes are strangely timely, though, given the huge popularity of true crime documentaries and serial killer dramas these days. People binge-watch Making a Murderer or binge-listen to My Favorite Murder and all of this murder-focused media consumption fosters a simmering state of paranoia and suspicion. Summer of ‘84 wants to join in on the fun.
Summer of ‘84 offers tons of red flags to legitimize Davey’s suspicions, but in every scene we’ll also get a counterpoint that makes him look foolish. For awhile, several of Davey’s companions humor his hunch as if it’s all a game. Remember that this is the summer of 1984 and these suburban kids have nothing to do. So why not snoop around inside sheds and backyards looking for clues while using Walkie-Talkies and binoculars? It beats playing D&D like the nerds.
As far as murder-thriller movies go, Summer of ‘84 is surprisingly light on both the murder and the thrills. Most of it subsists in a state of simmering paranoia while events build to convince both Davey and the viewer that Mackey might be the killer, all the while evidence and testimony stacks towards Mackey’s innocence.
Summer of ‘84 could’ve done more to defy the viewer’s expectations. Instead, we get an ending that most viewers will see coming, but one with enough style and nuance to keep it interesting. It fulfills come common stereotypes for this kind of genre story while denying about half of them — like when Davey doesn’t actually get the girl in the end.
On some level, Summer of ‘84 succeeds by leaning into its own predictability and outthinking the viewer’s expectations at a few key turns, building to an overwhelmingly grisly, bleak ending that sits with you.
This is a film perhaps best viewed in a crowded living room with friends, where viewers like me can blatantly psychoanalyze Davey Armstrong’s paranoia and read it as potentially unfounded. Other viewers can whisper harsh counterpoints detailing all the evidence trying to convince us that Mr. Mackey is indeed the Cape May Strangler.
After all, if we watch and listen to enough stories about serial killers, we’ll all be able to recognize it when they’re living next door to us, right?
Summer of ‘84 is out on limited release August 10.