Ginger Nuts of Horror
In Dark Summer, Keir Gilchrist plays Daniel; a teenager under house arrest. His probation officer, Stokes, is keeping an eye on him but so is something else – and it could either be a ghost or hallucinations brought on by the stress of his situation. His friends, Abby and Kevin, sneak in to visit him each day and become increasingly concerned as Daniel seems to be losing his mind, or is just hell-bent on his own self-destruction.
Dark Summer succeeds in taking a relatively simple concept and making the most of it for the first two acts of the film. A distinct style is employed contrasting intense, close-ups to slow tracking shots of the cast, familiar household items and everyday activities, which lends an uneasy tone to the suburban setting as we keep moving from macro- to micro-cosmic perspectives. A fly crawling along a bare arm is given as much attention as the knowing looks exchanged between friends. All of this is underscored by an ambient soundtrack that keeps you feeling that things are out-of-synch, something is not quite right here, but you can’t quite see it. In terms of creating the right atmosphere for what’s to come, it all fits together perfectly.
The performances of the cast are pitched just right with Keir Gilchrist’s Daniel coming across as a twitchy virginal innocent and an unsettling obsessive. Not all protagonists in horror films can convince from the opposing perspectives of being both victim and perpetrator, but Gilchrist pulls it off very effectively.
Stella Maeve and Maestro Harrell compliment this performance by being the lovelorn girl-who’s-just-a-friend and down-to-earth best friend respectively. Their concern for Daniel rings true and is conveyed via a chemistry that makes scenes between the three of them some of the most engaging in the film. There is an easy understatement to their interactions with one another that is not often seen in films centred around American teenagers.
Peter Stormare as Stokes adds the lone adult voice and hits the right balance between cynicism and empathy to avoid coming off as the cardboard cut-out he could have been.
Unfortunately, there is a but coming – and the but is the third act. After spending most of the film exercising a refreshing restraint and subtlety; things get out of hand in the third act as familiar horror tropes are introduced without much originality, and are pushed beyond the point of being convincing. The final twists and turns of the plot feel laboured and overdone, whereas the film was at its strongest when it was avoiding this excess and kept things implicit, just under the surface of the narrative flow.
Dark Summer is a film which, for me, succeeded through emphasising a carefully-structured style over the simplicity of its substance. It’s a shame that despite strong performances coupled with distinctive direction, cinematography and an effective soundtrack, it fell back onto cliché to wrap things up when it could have taken its own characters’ advice and reached for the unknown.