Recently, thanks to the tireless efforts of Jay Morang and the Back Alley Film Series crew (a subdivision of the Charlotte Film Society who consistently bring fantastic genre films to the area), I was able to catch a screening of the RKSS film Summer of ’84.
I’ll get to the film in a bit, but the experience was further heightened for me because the screening happened to be in the backroom of one of the last bastions of community-assisted home entertainment: a true-to-life brick and mortar video store!
This particular video store that hosted the screening is a local treasure called VisArt Video. I can’t emphasize enough how cool it is to amble among the carefully curated genre sections and discover some underappreciated gems. Browsing for movies among these aisles and consulting with the knowledgeable, movie-loving staff feels more organic and often fortuitous as you ultimately connect with a finely matched recommendation based on your expressed interests.
I’d much prefer this personal experience to being spoon fed a recommendation online. The knowledgeable staff is there to replace the impersonal algorithm that spits out a movie based on data points such as your previous browsing data and prior purchases or rentals.
Being able to see a film in this setting had its own sort of allure. It felt very underground— as if I’d stumbled upon a hidden club of individuals devoted to watching awesome films you can’t see anywhere else. I won’t call it a cult, although I certainly wouldn’t rule out watching cult classics in this milieu!
Again, kudos to individuals like Jay Morong who passionately try to bring these experiences to fans. You might have access to similar experiences if you’re lucky enough to live close to an Alama Drafthouse, but even in that setting, you’re arguably trading intimacy for a grander scale event.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I’d recommend that you research local film societies and give them some much-needed support. Anyway, onto the film…
Summer of ’84 was created by RKSS Films, a trio of genre filmmakers (François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell) best known for Turbo Kid, a nostalgic masterpiece of 80’s sensibilities that includes schlocky practical effects and fairly earnest performances amidst ridiculous circumstances, all set to a jammin’ synth-heavy score. Summer of 84‘s score was composed by synthwave maestros Le Matos whose atmospheric music is used to excellent effect once again.
As with Turbo Kid, the second feature film by RKSS Films borrows heavily from the decade of unfettered childhoods, when movies often centered on the adventurous spirit and heroic yearning of adolescence. In most fantasy and sci-fi films, this sense of wanderlust often led to comedic and memorable misadventures resulting in personal growth and maturity. In this film, however, there’s much more at stake than just transformative journeys and coming of age.
The premise of Summer of ’84 is succinctly encapsulated in its tagline:
It’s a chilling notion to think that, among the seemingly idyllic backdrop of 80’s suburbia there could be a nefarious killer who’s striking underneath the collective noses of the unsuspecting neighborhood. Kids are delivering papers, people are washing their cars, visiting hardware stores, and gardening and none are keyed into what evil lurks among them.
“In most fantasy and sci-fi films. this sense of wanderlust often led to comedic and memorable misadventures resulting in personal growth and maturity.”
Considering that there’s a group of 80’s adolescents leading the charge, the comparisons to Stranger Things are inevitable here, however, we’re not dealing with supernatural creeps, rather the frighteningly more realistic boogeyman who potentially lives down the block, across the street, or even right next door to us.
The awkward exchanges of the adolescent boys contrast with the sinister intentions of what they might be up against. Indeed the boys seem to be having a good time, treating this rash of missing person reports like a super risky but ultimately safe adventure – like any kid from the 80’s (or today) might.
A common lament from back in the day applies here: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” And indeed someone does get hurt – really close to their neighborhood. The viewer is left wondering whether the kid who’s driving the serial killer narrative (Davey Armstrong, aptly played by Canadian actor Graham Verchere) is being overly paranoid in his suspicions, or whether he’s onto something far more sinister and real.
Davey’s interest in UFO’s and related unexplained paranormal stories might suggest that he is somehow not very reliable because he’s into such fringe conspiratorial ideas. In fact, it’s hardly surprising that a common theme in suspenseful movies featuring children is that their perceptions are typically deemed overly fanciful and easily dismissed by the more rational and sensible adults who think they know better.
Who doesn’t remember at some point feeling frustrated that an adult brushed aside your story that you knew absolutely and with every fiber of your being to be true?
It really speaks to a latent fear that we all seem to share – that our perceptions may be summarily dismissed and somehow become fundamentally distorted to the point that we start to doubt what’s real and what’s simply a fabrication fueled by strong emotion.
This is what makes psychological (and supernatural) thrillers so effective – they really tap into this deep-seated, nagging sense of uncertainty and confusion. In the end, if you can’t trust your perceptions, then you start to feel unhinged or untethered from reality. You start to feel like you really have no firm footing in this world. A scary notion for sure, but so is the discovery that your suspicions, of murderous individual hiding in plain sight, may be absolutely correct!
“This is what makes psychological (and supernatural) thrillers so effective – they really tap into this deep-seated, nagging sense of uncertainty and confusion.”
That’s where the tension from the film arises – at that intersection between the confirmation and rejection of our worst fears. There’s even an homage of sorts to the Hitchcock classic thriller Rear Window, another film wherein the protagonist is certain that something evil is afoot while neighbors just go about their days.
Just as James Stewart voyeuristically learns about his neighbors’ activities from afar, so does Davey peer out his window with binoculars in the hopes of gathering data for his cause (or perhaps to catch a tantalizing glimpse of his crush). I won’t give away the ending (NO SPOILERS HERE), but ride this crazy train to the final stop and you’ll be glad that you did.