“I remember what it was like to be a boy in the summer,” one character says in the middle of Summer Of 84. “It’s hard to pass up an adventure.”
Nostalgia is a powerful impulse, as seductive as that narrow yet wide-eyed view of the world which we all have as children, and to whose memory, as though it were Linus’ security blanket, some of us cling long into our adulthoods. Right from its title, Summer Of 84 drips with nostalgia. Though set in the idealised and fictitious Ipswich, Oregon, it is made by the Montreal-based directing team of François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell (known collectively as RKSS), whose debut feature Turbo Kid (2015) came heavily inflected with the mannerisms and madness of a straight-to-VHS splat of Eighties post-apocalyptic schlock. Their latest feature also looks back to the Reagan era, as 15-year-old Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) has a hard coming-of-age in American suburbia.
Part of (the equally fictive) Cape May, Ipswich is a sunny middle-class neighbourhood, its child-filled streets and perfect lawns dappled in the rosy-tinted hues of adolescence. Yet as Davey hangs out with his friends Woody (Caleb Emery), Curtis (Cory Gruter-Andrew) and Eats (Judah Lewis), mooning over his one-time babysitter Nikki (Tiera Skovbye) who lives across the road, he has the insight (or is it just the boyish imagination?) to realise that “Even serial killers live next door to someone.” And so a string of extremely circumstantial clues leads Davey to infer that his neighbour, the policeman Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), might – indeed, must – be the Cape May Slayer, a murderer who preys mostly upon teenaged boys. Davey convinces his friends to help him spy on their friendly neighbourhood cop – an activity which they all undertake as an adventurous rite of passage, as if they were the kids from ET – The Extra-Terrestrial or the later The Goonies or Stand By Me.
Indeed, the nostalgic landscape of Summer Of 84 is littered with references to cinema past. Not only does it riff on the voyeuristic thrills of Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs, which itself looked back to 1954’s Rear Window (and forward to 2007’s Disturbia), but its characters are also expressly film fans themselves, peppering their conversation with references to ET, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Return Of The Jedi and Gremlins. Meanwhile, Ipswich’s tabloid headlines occupy the same imaginative territories as future Eighties films, with one about cannibals living in the sewers predicting CHUD (not released till the Summer of 84’s end), and another about Bigfoot living in the suburbs a clear prefiguring of Harry And The Hendersons. Davey, who openly aspires to becoming “the next Spielberg,” is mocked by Eats for once trying to claim “there was a demonic presence in his room because our houses were built on Indian burial grounds” – a scenario instantly recognisable as the plot of Poltergeist, co-written and produced by Spielberg.
All this creates a certain comfort zone – a familiar space from decades ago where childhood plays out a summer to be fondly remembered later, like a still treasured Eighties film being rewound for the umpteenth visit. Yet, very slyly, Summer Of 84 works to undermine its own sense of nostalgia. For it slowly reveals the picture-perfect community of Ipswich as a place that conceals its troubles (not just of the serial-killing variety) behind closed doors, that presents unhappy families with a happy face, and that is full of anxieties about the enemies at the gates. “The Cold War is never gonna end,” Davey is told by his dad Randall (Jason Gray-Stanford), to news on the television that Soviet states are boycotting the LA Olympics, “Your future is doomed, Davey.” Ironies abound here: the Iron Curtain would of course come down just before the decade was out, but as Russia continues today to invade its neighbours and interfere in foreign elections, Randall’s words prove as prescient as they are misguided. The past, and all its problems, are still with us – and as Davey says in his voiceover at the beginning of the film, “You never know what might be coming around the corner.” It is especially true if your eyes are cast firmly behind you.
So while Summer Of 84 certainly hits nostalgia’s sweet idyllic spot, its ultimate message is more subversive, showing that there can be a dark, toxic side to always looking back.
Summer of 84 was seen and reviewed at Fantasia 2018.