We've already entered the phase of Stranger Things' cultural ubiquity where filmmakers are starting to churn out cheap knock-offs in the hope of riding the Netflix zeitgeist-grabbing series' coattails to make a quick buck. Much like the craze that was spawned during the era the Duffer Bros’ YA sensation yearns for – the '80s slasher boom – audiences have received very similar-feeling tales in the wake of Eleven and her gang of misfits, riffing on groups of kids living in the suburbs, riding bikes, listening to era-appropriate music (when the Carpenter-esque synthesizer score isn't blaring), before getting themselves wrapped up with some rather nefarious dealings in their otherwise sleepy hamlets. It's a phenomenon that's existed since cinema was commercialized: pure, unbridled exploitation.
Summer of '84 is essentially the Canuxploitation iteration of Stranger Things, to the point that – were the movie actually crafted during the epoch it's aping – it probably would've been produced by Ivan Reitman. You've got your group of misfits – the shy Davey (Graham Verchere), chubby Woody (Caleb Emery), nerdy Curtis (Cory Gruter-Andrew), and scrappy punk Eats (Judah Lewis) – who spend their nights playing "manhunt" and reading porno mags in a tree house like a bunch of fucking dweebs. Davey peeps on his next door neighbor (and former babysitter) Nikki (Tiera Skovbye), who's a little older and dealing with her parents' divorce. One night, during a routine game, the budding voyeur thinks he sees something odd through the window of suburban cop Wayne Mackey's (Mad Men alum Rich Sommer) perfectly manicured home. It's a kid, whose face ends up on a milk carton a few days later. Could Officer Mackey actually be their area's fabled child killer, the infamous Cape May Slayer?
To be fair, the creators of Summer '84 definitely adhere to one of the finest idioms in the history of moviemaking: "if you're gonna steal, steal from the best." No, not the Duffers, but rather Tom Holland, whose seminal '80s horror riff Fright Night owns a premise rather similar to this story of death in the most idyllic places (and was released at the tail end of summer a year after this tale takes place). Only instead of Jerry Dandridge, the suave vampire next door, Mackey's a lumpy, lonely serial killer, stealing kids away from the streets during his 11 PM jogs and then burying the bodies in the garden behind his home. Or is he? Of course, there's some questions regarding the man's guilt, as Davey's television cameraman dad (Jason Gray-Stanford) becomes incensed when he finds out his boy is going Full Hardy, and puts an end to it immediately. Yet we all know this maple syrup slathered take on Mystery Inc. won't stop until the truth is uncovered.
Summer of '84 displays plenty of lo-fi moxie in the production design department, as Turbo Kid retro auteurs François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell (otherwise known as RKSS) adapt Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith's freshman screenplay with no-budget flair. Jean-Philippe Bernier's slick widescreen cinematography captures all the rather nifty, MTV generation flourishes, which surprisingly never go overboard and consume whole scenes (like their hugely popular streaming service forefather). The score by Le Matos evokes the same thumping pulse of Survive, while distinguishing itself with distinct electro stabs and a rather killer end theme. In short, the elements here are certainly recognizable, yet tweaked just enough to be operating on their own terms.
Nevertheless, there isn't a whole lot new being offered up here, so those looking for any sort of grand deviation from or subversion of the current “nostalgia porn” wave are going to leave their seats gravely disappointed. One clever element Leslie and Smith's script weaves into the fabric of this ratty Halloween sweatshirt is that this crazy summer investigation transforms into a metaphor for the kids' first brush with their own mortality. While marriages crumble and sleepovers are sought as refuge from the adults' nightly battles, these o-dropping mini-sleuths learn that their time on this planet is limited. Heartbreak and death could be waiting for them behind the curtains of any seemingly normal home. At least Summer of '84 had the gumption to give us that much in terms of thematic messaging (trite as it may still seem to some), as the whole endeavor could’ve simply ended up more empty, wistful window dressing.
Summer of '84 is available now in select theaters and on VOD.