A claustrophobic modern ghost story, Dark Summer follows Daniel Williamson, a 17 year old under house arrest for the summer after cyberstalking a classmate. With his mother away on business, a horrifying incident occurs and Williamson soon experiences strange supernatural occurrences--which become increasingly more sinister and terrifying, with twists that will leave audiences reeling. Starring Peter Stormare (Fargo), Maestro Harrell (The Wire), Keir Gilchrist (It Follows, United States of Tara), Stella Maeve (The Runaways) and Grace Phipps (Fright Night), Dark Summer is a highly original twist on the supernatural summer season terror.
Sometimes I love independent horror movies, sometimes I hate their guts. If a filmmaker only has a small budget to work with that inhibits their story aspirations, often the horror genre is used as a crutch of sorts allowing them to put their creative foot forward before hobbling onto bigger and better material. However, there are some genuinely creative people out there who take advantage of the opportunities a small budget affords and fully embraces the genre. The results may not always be amazing, but every now and again something comes along that showcases true talent in front of and behind the camera. 'Dark Summer' is thankfully a movie that while fairly derivative at times at least attempts to provide solid scares and provides something of a new spin on an old story.
Daniel (Keir Gilchrist) is a messed up little dude. Recently convicted of cyber stalking a former high school classmate named Mona Wilson (Grace Phipps), he's been sentenced to house arrest and forced to wear an ankle tether. His parole officer is a gruff man named Stokes (Peter Stormare) who is quick to lay down the law while at the same time encouraging of young Daniel doing something positive with his time, just so long as he doesn't go anywhere near a device with internet access. Since his mother is out of town for business, Daniel's time at home quickly becomes monotonous. Soon he starts to get more than a little itchy from not being connected to the internet.
Thankfully, his longtime friends Abby (Stella Maeve) and Kevin (Maestro Harrell) are there to help. They score Kevin a working iPad that connects to a neighbor's wifi access point and therefor allows Daniel to get his gear connected online. Initially he's tempted to start up his old tricks and begin hacking Mona's cloud account - but his better nature takes hold. He never wanted to hurt the girl, he just wanted to get to know her better seeing as how she's a lot like him, she was a social outcast with few friends. While waiting for his mom to get onto Skype, Daniel gets a video call from Mona.
Only this isn't like any normal chat session. Instead Mona tells Daniel he'll "feel what she feels" and promptly commits suicide right in front of his eyes. Seeing as how he was violating his parole when the incident happened, he can't confess to being the last person to see Mona alive. Stokes has a hunch that Daniel saw the event in question, but since no digital trail was left behind, he doesn't have any evidence and he can't haul Daniel off to jail. Which is a shame since that very night, Daniel starts to see and hear strange things. His electronics go on the fritz and soon he starts seeing Mona with blood flowing from her eyes like tears. Desperate to know why she's haunting him and how to get her to stop, Daniel enlists the aid of Abby and Kevin to help him learn more about his curse and find out more information about Mona. As the three friends strive to solve the mystery, they end up uncovering something that puts all three of their lives in danger.
I'll be honest when I say that it is a bit difficult to call 'Dark Summer' a "good" movie. For a movie with just an 80 minute run time, this thing takes maybe a bit longer than it should to really get going making for several long scenes that drag out far longer than necessary. Thankfully, when things are moving, the movie actually has a place to go. Director Paul Solet, working from a script by Mike Le, does a fine job getting believable performances from his young cast. The material they're working from may be a tad thin at times and just a bit repetitive, but the film manages to take on the themes of obsession and spin them into a rather effective haunting flick.
One of the things I really appreciate about 'Dark Summer' is how it makes great use of a single location. Since Daniel can't leave the property, the film makes the most of the tight spaces the closed location offers. Also the film is nicely self aware enough to admit at the outset that it has some similarities to the Shia LaBeouf fronted 'Disturbia' but from then on aims to move in a different direction with the material.
While 'Dark Summer' works for the most part, there are some small script and pacing issues I wish had been worked out in the writing phase. For starters, the characters are a bit too thin. Daniel is at least fleshed out decently and gives Keir Gilchrist something to work with, but beyond some slight character beats we really never get to know Stella Maeve's Abby or Maestro Harrell's Kevin. They show up, offer some exposition for Daniel's character to play off of before the next fright moment and then leave. The same for Peter Stormare's Stokes; the movie goes for long stretches without giving the man a scene making it feel like he had but one day to shoot his material. I get it that he's supposed to be mysterious and you're not supposed to know exactly who he is, but something more would have been nice for this great actor to work with. I feel like if more time had been spent getting to know these people, we'd understand better why they're so eager to help out a messed up kid like Daniel and therefore we'd learn a little something about Mona and her motivations beyond the cursory glance we're given.
Taken as a whole, 'Dark Summer' is a pretty good little spook flick. It didn't blow my hair back by any stretch, but there are enough jumps and scares to make the film at least somewhat enjoyable. It may not have been a complete home run, but it knocks a solid double and gets on base more times than not. After 'It Follows' and now this film, Kier Gilchrist is starting to build a nice little resume of horror movies. He certainly has the "nerdy insecure guy" character down pat - if he appears in either the 'Friday The 13th' or 'Halloween' reboot movies about to go into production, he'll have truly made the big times! If you're a horror nut and don't mind a movie that takes its time to get going, give 'Dark Summer' a look. Also, make sure you stick through the end credits.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Dark Summer' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to IFC Midnight and Scream Factory. Pressed on a Region A locked BD50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard case with slip cover.
'Dark Summer' manages to get a strong and effective Blu-ray transfer for it's 1.78:1 1080p presentation. All around this film is a solid looking presentation benefiting from the better aspects of digital photography. Detail levels are lifelike and and offer excellent middles and close ups. Color has a golden hue to it evoking a warm summer feel throughout while also maintaining accurate color tones for the reds and blues. Green also gets a lot of play throughout this film as a nice little visual cue for when Mona shows up. Black levels are overall very strong leading to some nice inky shadows and a pleasant three dimensional vibe to the picture. There is an intensional haziness to some scenes so those can look a bit flat, but really there is little if anything to fault this picture for.
Given that 'Dark Summer' is a spooky haunted house movie, it really shouldn't come as any surprise that the DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track is as strong as it is. This is one of those quiet horror movies where small movements in fabric of foot falls on broken glass have a lot of presence and oomph to the sound design. Imagine is a lot of fun as there are a number of scenes offering creepy scratching sounds echoing around the room and buzzing insects needle the rear channels nicely. Range is overall pretty strong, sometime levels can peak a bit too high considering how quiet a lot of the film is and can make for some tough auditory transitions. A few times I had to adjust the volume to compensate. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 track is free of this issue, but at the same time it lacks the presence and power of the 5.1 track. If you're going to watch this movie, you're really going to want to have the 5.1 rolling. It's the stronger track all around.
Audio Commentary: Director Paul Solet runs the commentary solo - but is engaging and informative enough that the track never drags
The Art of Dark Summer: (HD 13:38) This is an interesting little featurette that offers a lot of insight into the artistic influences of the film.
The Music of Dark Summer: (HD 8:37) Composer Austin Wintory discusses his influences for the music and the tonal choices he made.
A Conversation With Peter Stormare: (HD 15:52) It's a nice feature that lets the actor talk at length about his character and motivations.
The Kids - Cast Interviews: This is a collection of short EPK style interviews that help expand some behind the scenes aspects, but get repetitive after a bit since they're really only in one and two minute bursts - they easily could have been reedited and put together as their own feature.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 1:58) does a decent job selling the movie without giving away the whole show.
While a number of filmmakers take a stab at the horror genre, few have the deft touch to do it right. 'Dark Summer' may not be the best of the best, or the "next big horror movie event," but it works for what it is. The cast is strong and the movie is genuinely creepy with a few solid jump scares. With a strong and effective A/V presentation and a slew of decent extras, I'm calling this one as being worth a look. It's not a perfect movie, but for those looking for some quick spooky entertainment, it gets the job done.