When Summer of 84 opens with a chippy line like “every serial killer lives next door to someone,” it captures all of its interests in a one-liner. This is Stranger Things: A Few Years Later, for all intents and purposes. It has a cast right on the cusp of early adulthood, fumbling their way around women and a potential murder mystery to boot. It’s a great shame it spends so much time wading in its pedestrian, also-ran ‘80s supplements for the first three quarters, because Summer of 84’s final act takes a devastatingly good turn toward subversive horror.
Significant props are due for Rich Sommer of Mad Men fame. When local area boys disappear from their homes and reappear on milk cartons, he is the man with a suspicion. It works right into the format that he plays the local cop also. He holds this role with a great duality of purpose. This is what tremendous acting feels like, when someone can present two opposing ideas at once and have you believe they are both true. Yes, he’s the trusty neighborhood cop… and the serial killer next door. You will believe both of these things about him from moment to moment.
However, I wish the young actors were slightly more game. Maybe it is their script. They spend a significant amount of time dawdling over women, talking to their imagined conquests and how good it’ll feel when it really takes with a girl. Summer of 84 isn’t so sure on its feet here, as it introduces a girl next door who falls needlessly for the main boy, whose redeeming qualities are that he’s the least of a jerkoff between his troupe. That she’s enjoyed him spying on her is such an unlikely turn. It all ends up being slightly aggravating, producing a feeling like they’re a touch too old for their situations and beliefs.
The throwbacks are as shameless as they come. When the kids ramble on about watching Close Encounters again, we know it’s a ploy at our childhood. Those feel straight-faced here, obvious call-outs to things we know, and we know what they’re there for. The thing is I feel there’s a missed potential here. The complacency of going in on everything that’s trendy about ‘80s throwbacks—and throwbacks in general—should set us up for the phenomenal twist, that says, let’s put away our nostalgia and subvert it into something grotesque and new. It is a cynical mis-pairing of parts then, as it evokes Rear Window and your comfortable childhood one moment and twists the knife the next.
Summer of 84 is still enjoyable. None of this is to suggest it’s not worth your time. Because Sommer truly shows up in fine form here. And it almost makes the most of an effective out-of-left-field ending. It’s too bad that failing all this, it’s a by the numbers horror you’ve seen before, and when it does something new it’s almost difficult to register just how good it gets.