Every neighborhood has one. That neighbor who is intangibly unsettling. You don’t know why they unnerve you. You can’t put your finger on it, but you feel it deep in your bones, that warning to keep your distance. In the quiet suburb of Ipswich, Oregon, that neighbor seems friendly and warm. Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer) is a local cop who lives alone but always has a smile and a freezepop for the kids who play about the cozy cul-de-sac, feet away from his fastidiously attended garden. But when boys start turning up dead, local paperboy and amateur detective Davey (Graham Verchere) puts Mackey at the top of his list of suspects. With the help of his best friends, he sets out to find the truth and justice in Summer of 84.
Helmed by the directing trio known as RKSS (François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell), this horror-thriller plays like the love child of The ‘Burbs and Stand By Me. In premise, it’s like The ‘Burbs. Davey is a teen conspiracy theorist overeager to believe any tale that’ll make the lame life of suburbia more exciting. So, he’s quick to assume that the chipper and chubby cop next door is secretly the infamous Cape May Slayer. His buddies Eats (Judah Lewis), Woody (Caleb Emery), and Curtis (Cory Gruter-Andrew) are harder to convince. They’re more interested in snatched porn mags, hanging out in a treehouse they’re fast outgrowing, and playing Manhunt across the night-soaked yards of their seemingly wholesome neighborhood. But a familiar face on a milk carton quickly makes Davey’s investigation the boys’ exciting summer obsession. Using toy walkie-talkies, abusing their parent’s insufficient supervision, and potentially risking their own skins, these boys set out to prove a serial killer lurks right next door.
With a rich synth score and on-point production design, Summer of 84 is a solid homage to ’80s kid-centered adventures. Yet it rejects the offbeat whimsy of The Goonies or E.T., favoring the more somber tone of Stand By Me. On one level, this is about the boys’ hunt for a killer, which is treated with the earnest intensity you’d expect from obsessed teens. But like Stand By Me, the mission is a means of exploring the boys’ bonds of friendship. Amid sequences of suspense and stalking, RKSS gives us peeks into the boys’ troubled home lives and moments where their bravado melts away to vulnerability and compassion. There’s also humor. But less truffle shuffle shenanigans and more the kind of rude bro-on-bro barbs that make you go, “Ooooohhhhhh!”
Perhaps because so much of ’80s nostalgia relishes in the era’s excess and ridiculousness, I was surprised by the straight-up sincerity, seriousness, and suspense of Summer of 84. It suits the subject matter and gives support to solid performances from its child stars. Regrettably, this doggedly stern tone tangles with sluggish pacing, dragging down the story’s momentum ahead of its cluttered—but thrilling!—climax. At 1 hour and 45 minutes, it ultimately feels a bit bloated and gawky.
Clunkiness aside, Summer of 84 is a satisfyingly suspenseful adventure, with compelling characters, and a chilling murder mystery at its center. It feels like a throwback in the best way, relishing in the aesthetic of the era without winking at the audience. Its ’80s setting doesn’t feel like an opportunistic tool for easy nostalgia, but more a necessity to capture this confusing time of stranger danger, where kids were allowed to wander around unsupervised in the dark, yet were warned of a seeming epidemic of kidnappings. It was a time where we felt both free and paranoid, and Summer of 84 captures that paradox superbly.
Header Image Source: Gunpowder & Sky