A gang of bicycle-riding teen boys try to track down a neighborhood serial killer in this suburban Gothic send up to 1980s horror.
Written by Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith and directed by a trio known for their 1980s-style films, casual viewers will undoubtedly accuse Summer of 84 (2018) of ripping off the Netflix series Stranger Things, but it is far more subtle in its nostalgia and grounded in reality. There are no supernatural elements here, only the real-life horror inflicted by unassuming suburban dwellers like John Wayne Gacy and William Bonin.
The year is 1984, and a serial killer stalks the fictional county of Cape May, Oregon. Fifteen-year-old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), an avid follower of conspiracy theories and reader of the Weekly World News, becomes convinced his neighbor, police officer Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), is the “Cape May Slayer” after seeing a photo on the back of a milk carton of a missing boy he previously noticed inside Mackey’s house.
He enlists the help of his skeptical friends, Dale “Woody” Woodworth (Caleb Emery), Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), and Tommy “Eats” Eaton (Judah Lewis) to spy on Mackey. They follow him on his nightly jog to a storage unit, where they find several suspicious items, including the missing boy’s bloodstained shirt. Davey presents their evidence to his parents (played by Jason Gray-Stanford and Shauna Johannesen), but his plan backfires when they become angry and force him to apologize to Mackey.
Davey’s friend and former babysitter, Nikki Kaszuba (Tiera Skovbye), also tries to convince Davey to abandon his pursuit, but after several strange interactions with Mackey, Davey convinces his friends to give him one last chance to prove Mackey is the killer. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is sickeningly real and terrifying. Summer of 84 pulls no punches when it comes to delivering an emotionally impactful climax.
Summer of 84‘s undercurrent of child abductions and neighborhood pedophiles is uncomfortably familiar to anyone who grew up during the 1980s. The only thing missing is a creepy white van and rumors of Satanic cults. High profile cases of missing kids in the late 1970s and early ’80s led to the “Stranger Danger” panic, and the use of milk cartons to spread photos of missing children. Before the Internet, a photo on a milk carton was the most assured way of reaching every home in America.
As suburban Gothic horror, however, Summer of 84 argues it is not strangers you have to fear, but familiar faces in your own neighborhood. Even serial killers have to live somewhere, after all. “Just past the manicured lawns and friendly waves, inside any house, even the one next door, anything could be happening, and you’d never know,” the narrator tells us. “…It may seem normal and routine, but the truth is, the suburbs are where the craziest shit happens.”
In the vein of films like The Goonies (1985), The Monster Squad (1987), and It (2017), Summer of 84 features a group of kids investigating mysterious circumstances in their neighborhood, while adults seem oblivious or in denial. However, Summer of 84 has much more in common with my favorite horror-comedy of all time, The ‘Burbs (1989). In both films, the protagonists work to expose a hidden threat in their otherwise tranquil and unassuming cul-de-sac.
This film borrows many elements from The ‘Burbs, including digging through a neighbor’s trash and backyard for clues, breaking into a neighbor’s house to investigate a possible disappearance, accidentally burying their walkie talkie in dirt so they can’t hear warnings the suspect is returning home, and so on. The protagonists in Summer of 84 could easily be adolescent versions of Ray, Mark, and Art in The ‘Burbs.
Summer of 84 received moderately favorable reviews from critics and audiences alike, with a 66% aggregate favorability among critics and 71% among audiences on RottenTomatoes. Unfortunately, this film had a severely limited theatrical release and suffered from market burnout. There have been an excess of films and popular series playing on ’80s nostalgia in recent years, and some people (wrongly) dismiss it as just another horror film trying to ride that wave. It won’t disappoint if given a chance.