I was 12 years old in 1984. It was the year of Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Terminator, Streets of Fire, This is Spinal Tap, C.H.U.D., The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Purple Rain, Gremlins, Night of the Comet and so many more cultural touchstones that will be endlessly watched again and again until humanity no longer has eyes.
Today’s culture — while offering endless platforms for experiencing it — is limited by comparison. Sure, you could argue that we’re living in a golden age of television and horror movies are finally hot at the box office again, but are there many things made in 2018 that you’ll feel like watching in 2052?
A major reason could be that we’re trapped in a loop of 1980’s nostalgia. It’s one thing to love the films of that era more than anything made today (I’m guilty of that), but it’s quite another to make new culture that endlessly refers backward to this past decade. I get it — when I was growing up, everyone wanted it to be the 1950’s again, thanks to Grease, Happy Days and Sha-Na-Na.
In defense of Summer of 84, this film was made before Stranger Things and the remake of It, so you can slightly forgive its reliance on the Spielbergian kids-on-bikes trope. The filmmakers even stated in an interview that they deleted a Dungeons & Dragons scene so people didn’t think they were ripping off the kids from Hawkins.
This entire movie reminds me of this John Mulaney quote: “I had no supervision when I was a kid. We were free to do what we wanted. But also, with that, no one cared about kids. I grew up before children were special. I did. Very early ’80s, right before children became special. Like, I remember when milk carton kids became a thing. When they were like, “Hey, we should start looking for some of these guys. I don’t think they’re just blowing off steam.””
Davey Armstrong is fifteen and starts the film by explaining how the bad stuff really happens in the suburbs. He should know — in the last decade, 13 boys have gone missing from his hometown of Ipswitch, Oregon.
Sure, Davey is a believer in urban legends and conspiracy theories — just a scan of the World Wide Journal headlines in his room read “Cannibal society in sewer system?” a reference to C.H.U.D., “2 years left before Haley’s Comey hits Earth” for Night of the Comet, “Cursed fog terrorizes small town!” for The Fog, as well as stories about Hitler clones, a conspiracy in the Vatican, a crying Virgin Mary and werewolves — but now he feels that Wayne Mackey, his police officer neighbor, is a serial killer.
He talks his friends Curtis Farraday, Dale “Woody” Woodworth and Tommy “Eats” Eaton into helping him uncover whether or not Mackey is the Cape May Slayer. My major gripe with the film is that these characters aren’t really people but instead archetypes of what we expect from a 1980’s teen cast. We have the nerdy Curtis, the rebellious John Bender clone Eats and Woody, the token chubby friend. Perhaps the lone surprise here is that Woody and Eats haven’t flip-flopped their names.
You can see Davey as any manner of 1980’s hero — he’s the boy yearning to be a man yet still full of innocence that is struggling to find the truth. You could also see him as a giallo archetype — thanks to puberty, he has become a stranger in a strange land, ill-equipped for the investigation that he is about to undertake, surrounded by ineffective cops and red herrings, while romancing a stylish and sexy woman — his next door neighbor Nikki — who he has a past history with. The only reason I don’t feel this is a giallo is that the kids drink MacReady’s Whiskey (a reference to Kurt Russell’s character in The Thing) instead of J&B Scotch Whiskey.
Speaking of inside jokes, there are plenty of them in Summer of 84, such as a Polybius machine (see our article on Sequence Break for more on that urban legend) in the arcade, G.I. Joe walkie-talkies and a MOBAT tank, a toybox contains a Turbo Kid figure (RKSS Films also made that throwback movie) and even the Bananarama song “Cruel Summer” is used with the exact same framing as Daniel-San riding his bike in 1984’s The Karate Kid. The kids even read Boudoir, the same fictional porn magazines from the beginning of The Goonies.
Even when Mackey finds the killer, Davey won’t give up. He’s come too far and reason won’t stop him now. After all, he’s found a bloody t-shirt that matches a boy he saw in his neighbor’s window. Who buys that much dirt and sodium hydroxide? And why would he have a hidden VW Bug, the same car that Ted Bundy drove?
Davey finally convinces Woody and Nikki to take his dad’s TV station camera into Mackey’s basement, where they find a room made to look like a childhood bedroom, a dead body and a still living kidnapped boy.
Here’s where this movie owes so much to the giallo, with perhaps the dumbest cops this side of Stagefright: after convincing his parents and the police, which leads to Mackey’s home being raided, no one places the boys in protective custody. Instead, they are easy prey for Mackey to abduct and bring to an isolated place where he hunts them down.
The boys have been playing a game called Manhunt their entire lives, but the real world is much more brutal than a child’s game. This is where Summer of 84 careens unsteadily from a junior giallo into a straight up slasher, with Woody’s throat graphically slit open and Davey cornered in the red Bava light. Instead of killing him, Mackey tells him that he’ll come back for him someday, a day that the fifteen-year-old may fear for the rest of his days. That’s honestly the best part of the film — a chilling reminder that adults are more messed up than the dreams of any kid.
As Davey returns to normalcy — or what passes for it — we retrace the paperboy route that started the film. But now, there are holes left behind — the abandoned home of one of the missing boys; his lost friendship with Curtis and Eats, who are cleaning the debris of another parental battle; and finally Mackey’s home, still covered with police tape. The final moment of horror comes with an act as simple as opening the newspaper to reveal the headline: the Cape May Slayer is still at large.
One of my best friends absolutely hated this movie, feeling that this was a story better told before, that there was nothing new here and no reason to care about the characters. My wife absolutely loved it, happy that a movie made in 2018 had an actual beginning, middle and end, as well as some surprises along the way. And I came out somewhere in the middle. I liked the look and feel of the film. And hey — it has a really nice logo.
Decide for yourself. It’s currently streaming exclusively on Shudder.