Austin Wintory, automatic writing, best friends, cinema, Dark Summer, dramas, film reviews, films, flashbacks, Grace, Grace Phipps, hackers, horror, horror films, house arrest, Keir Gilchrist, Maestro Harrell, Mike Le, Movies, obsession, online stalking, Paul Solet, Peter Stormare, possession, seance, spells, stalkers, Stella Maeve, suicide, supernatural, teenagers, unrequited love, Zoran Popovic
David (Keir Gilchrist), a scrawny, unassuming 17-year-old, is under house arrest for the entire summer, a sentence eagerly enforced by ruthlessly eagle-eyed cop Stokes (Peter Stormare). His crime? Well, it seems that young David is much better at hacking online accounts than he is at talking to girls: as such, he’s been relentlessly stalking classmate Mona Wilson (Grace Phipps), harassment which has ended him up on the wrong side of the law.
Prohibited from using any computers or going online, drinking alcohol or hanging out with minors, David ends up in a prison that’s truly of his own making. Good thing his best buddies, Kevin (Maestro Harrell) and Abby (Stella Maeve), have as little regards for the rules as he does. Determined to keep their friend company, they bring over some booze, a little weed and, most importantly, a laptop.
Seems that the one thing Kevin couldn’t hack was Mona’s Cloud account, something that the unrepentant hacker still considers to be at the top of his “must-do” list. As David continues to try for complete access to Mona’s online life, he’s suddenly contacted by her via Skype: while David watches, in stunned silence, Mona kills herself, leaving him with the chilling statement that he will “feel what she feels.” As increasingly creepy things begin to happen around David, he can’t shake the feeling that the tables have turned: the watcher is now being watched…possibly from beyond the grave!
Paul Solet’s Dark Summer (2015) takes several disparate horror subgenres/themes (dead teens, social media, cyber-bullying, stalking, obsession, possession, haunted house films, ghosts, shut-ins, disbelieving authority figures) and manages to whip them into an effective, if fairly familiar, little chiller. While I won’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse of young horror fans, I could easily see the film striking a chord with them in the same way that something like It Follows (2014) or Unfriended (2014) might: think of Dark Summer as the iPod mash-up version of old “chestnuts” like Halloween (1978) or Black Christmas (1974).
As befits the filmmaker behind the visually-appealing undead baby drama Grace (2009), Dark Summer is endlessly stylish. Zoran Popovic, who also shot the aforementioned Grace, fills the screen with luxurious long takes and vibrant colors, making the most of a red and amber color palette that accentuates the deep shadows in the background of virtually every shot. There’s an inherent sense of claustrophobia to the film that’s only heightened by Popovic’s camerawork: it’s obvious that the pair make a good team.
The film is also full of solid acting, which becomes quite important given the extremely small cast and confined nature of the proceedings: for the most part, the entire film consists of Gilchrist, Harrell and Maeve hanging out, with Stormare and Phipps popping up to add spice to the dish, as needed. The scenes between the three friends have an easy sense of reality, similar to the aforementioned It Follows, and we get enough sense of Abby’s crush on David, organically, to avoid that plot point from seeming too contrived. For his part, Stormare is always a blast and adds both gravitas and a little smidgen of cynical cool to the proceedings.
For the most part, Dark Summer does everything it’s supposed to, hitting the required beats with efficiency, if something decidedly less than pure innovation. There are the requisite creep figures passing in front of the camera and behind the protagonists…the scene where the heroes uncover a creepy hidden room, full of occult weirdness (extra points for making the scene an homage to Hitchcock’s immortal Rear Window (1954) when it would have been much easier to just reference [REC] (2007))…the attempt to contact the offended spirit, via occult ceremony, that doesn’t turn out quite as expected…any and all of these beats can be found in any number of similar modern genre offerings, even though Solet does manage to incorporate all of them extremely smoothly.
If I have any real issues with Dark Summer, they come with the film’s ultimate resolution, a denouement that manages to completely absolve David of any wrongdoing, while turning Mona into the de facto villain. Suffice to say that some spoilers will follow, so discerning readers, please take note. It’s hard to deny that David, at least as portrayed by the extremely likable Gilchrist, is a very charismatic character: he’s soft-spoken, smart, sensitive, driven, inquisitive…pretty much the guy you want on your side, especially when supernatural shit starts to go down. Despite his inherent likability, however, we can’t forget that David is actually a stalker who may very well have been responsible for causing the object of his obsession to take her own life. No matter how you slice it, that’s a real shit cake, friends and neighbors, and certainly not something most of us would want a piece of.
Solet and writer Mike Le mitigate this unpleasantness by means of a late revelation that not only proves David is a “nice guy” but that Mona is mentally disturbed, dangerous and, quite possibly, a witch. Even before this twist, Kevin and Abby are firmly on David’s side (as does the film seem to be, as well), telling him that Mona was “weird” and a loner, implying that she kind of got what she deserved. While I’m not sure that Dark Summer necessarily qualifies as “victim-shaming,” there does seem to be a conscious effort to iron out any and all of David’s faults: by the final image, he’s not only the unmitigated hero but a tragic one, at that, which seems to increase the nature of Mona’s evil exponentially.
I can’t help but feel that removing any of David’s culpability also removes much of the film’s inherent power and any gut-punch that it might possess. A conflicted, tortured, far-from-perfect hero is a literary trope as old and reliable as the hills but there’s a reason for that: split the audience’s sympathies and it makes the drama stick in their craws that much more. By swinging David from “super creepy nice guy” to “total nice guy,” Solet automatically takes all of that potential conflict, drama and power off the table. Man Bites Dog (1992) is such a complete kick in the face because Ben is both a charismatic, effortlessly cool dude AND a terrifying, psychopathic serial killer: remove either one and the character just doesn’t have the same impact. The same, obviously, applies to David, even if he never gets so much as a foot on the bottom rung of the fetid ladder that Ben vaults up like a champion.
All in all, however, I enjoyed Dark Summer, even if I had issues with the ultimate presentation of Mona and David’s characters. The film always looked good, despite its obviously low-budget and minimal production, and there was a nice, measured pace that allowed chills to unspool as something more than amusement park jump scares: this is another film that handily earns its invitation to the New Wave of Atmospheric Horror (NWoAH) brunch, along with the rest of the usual suspects. The acting was always solid and Gilchrist, who was also prominently featured in It Follows, is rapidly turning into a modern genre star: he’s consistently good here. If the film is, ultimately, not quite the equal of its predecessor, well…that’s to be expected: it’s kind of hard to trump a dead, vampiric baby, after all. I have a feeling that Paul Solet will keep trying, however, which is really all that horror fans can ask for.