In a society seemingly obsessed with nostalgia, the film and TV industry has latched onto our longing for less unstable times. Depictions of retro youth can be found in any cinema listing or Netflix search, with Stranger Things, Atomic Blonde and Sing Street feeding our current desire for 80s references.
Directing trio RKSS (Turbo Kid) have fully committed to the decade in their most recent film Summer of ’84, a youthful horror mystery that lends a hand from It and The Goonies to create a darker take on the classic plot of ‘young boys spend their summer uncovering a mystery, largely by way of bicycle’. In this case, the mystery is that of a serial killer known as the Cape May Slayer, who has been preying on teenage boys for over the last decade. Our central character Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), son of a journalist and avid conspiracy theorist, has reason to believe that the killer is his neighbour, Police Officer Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), after a boy he sees entering Mackey’s house winds up on the latest ‘Missing’ list.
With little to go off but one sighting and an avid need for something ‘cool’ to happen in his suburb, Davey enlists the rest of his stock character pals to help investigate: Woody (the funny one), Eats (the edgy one) and Curtis (the hopeful womanizer). What ensues is a slurry of detective scenes of the gang running around with flashlights, communicating via walkie talkie and spying on Mackey (and Davey’s hot neighbour Nikki) with binoculars with a scattering of 80s references from Gremlins to Star Wars, Reagan/Bush and enough synth music cues from composer Le Matos to make Kraftwerk jealous.
While RKSS spend a lot of time making sure you definitely know we’re in 1984, the constant barrage of references doesn’t leave a lot of time to connect with the boys or really create any strong interpersonal relationships between them, so when the stakes are raised there isn’t that strong bond to root for. However, a slight disconnect in characters to make way for some recognisable and cherished tropes does not lose sight of the striking mystery plot at the centre of the film. After all, this is not a Stand By Me-esque story where the boys learn more about each other at the end of it all, this is a murder mystery where the boys increasingly fear for their lives. The performance from Rich Sommer in the role of Mackey is a definite standout, his nice-guy shtick from his previous body of work is used to its fullest potential here as the well-respected cop who might have something to hide.
The choppy nature of the whodunit leads the audience down many a path as Davey and the boys question each other and their parents, constantly re-emerging and retreating with different leads and some fun set pieces with plenty of token one-liners that will surely please 80s and genre cinema fans alike. The film’s final conclusion is an ingeniously simplistic yet surprising affair that reflects a skill in the fundamentals of horror writing restraint from scriptwriters Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith.
Like most 80s throwback stories, Summer of ’84 doesn’t break new ground, but the RKSS trio’s ability to bulk up a simplistic story with enough mystery and intrigue to keep you guessing is an achievement for any piece of genre cinema. With a clear handle on style and tension, Summer of ’84 is an enjoyable and often shocking addition to the 80s nostalgia canon.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here