THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
If the plot of Dark Summer seems reminiscent of the Shia LaBeouf thriller Disturbia, you're not alone. The characters in the movie think so, too. In fact, they expressly state how similar it is. But this is not a winking horror-comedy like Scream, and that's the only self-referential moment to be found. Instead, Dark Summer is an intriguing, if flawed look at the nature of obsession. Scream Factory brings the film to Blu-Ray on July 9.
Keir Gilchrist (It Follows) plays 17-year-old Daniel. He's on house arrest over the summer for hacking into all the social media accounts of Mona Wilson (Grace Phipps), the fellow student with whom he was obsessed. Mona wasn't even the pretty, popular girl in school; she was something of an outcast. A probation officer (Peter Stormare) puts a monitor around Daniel's ankle and tells him to behave. The teen initially spends the summer lamenting his situation to his best friends, Abby (Stella Maeve) and Kevin (The Wire's Maestro Harrell). Then something strange happens. Mona contacts Daniel via computer and fatally shoots herself while he watches. Bizarre supernatural occurrences then begin taking place. Is she haunting him in retaliation for his stalking? It's hard to get answers when he's not allowed to leave the boundaries of his now-haunted property.
Dark Summer is a little artier than most films of its type. There are intentionally creepy moments, yet this isn't the kind of picture that only exists to serve up cheap scares. Director Paul Solet (Grace) uses carefully composed images to create atmosphere. Lighting effects are also employed to enhance the eerie tone. Solet even relies on some almost subliminal little tricks, such as frequently photographing Daniel behind slatted objects to remind us that his house arrest is a kind of jail. From start to finish, you can feel the care that went into making Dark Summer more than just a dumb teen horror movie.
Thematically, the story is weightier than you'd expect. Many teen-centric horror films take a generic stab at relevance by using some kind of identifiable social subject (such as cyber-bullying in Unfriended). Dark Summer, on the other hand, tells a story about full-fledged obsession. Daniel doesn't know why he was so drawn to Mona; he just was, and he couldn't control himself. That in itself is a spooky idea. The film takes it a step further with a terrific twist that highlights the at-all-costs nature of stalking.
Those strong qualities are slightly undone by the fact that Dark Summer's climax is filled with things that don't entirely make sense, such as how one of the teens is coincidentally revealed to be an expert in Latin at the precise moment the screenplay needs someone to read a Latin text. (Why was that dead language even needed? The story would have been no less effective had the text been in English.) A sequence of revelations in the final few minutes is delivered so rapidly that I had to rewind just to make sure I knew what was going on, too. One also can't help but wish that Abby and Kevin were more developed characters, given how much screen time they get.
As a theatrical release you have to pay full price for, I'm not sure I would have recommended Dark Summer; it would have been a close call. On Blu-Ray, though, it's definitely worth a look. If you're tried of stupid horror movies about dumb teens doing asinine things, this is at least one with some ambition to be intelligent and artful.
( 1/2 out of four)
Scream Factory's Blu-Ray comes with audio commentary from director Paul Solet, along with some other bonus goodies. Most are only a few minutes long, and they are dedicated to topics such as the film's atmosphere and style, the young cast members, the visual look of the movie, and the use of music. Solet is the subject of one feature, in which he discusses his approach to making this unconventional picture. Finally, there's a somewhat lengthy interview with Peter Stormare, who discusses his experiences working on Dark Summer.
While there's not a ton of supplementary material, what's here does do a fairly good job of representing the attempt to make a thriller that went beyond conventions. It's all well produced and fun to watch.
For more information on this title, please visit the Scream Factory website.
Dark Summer is unrated, but contains language, drug use, and bloody violence. The running time is 1 hour and 21 minutes.
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