At first glance, it was pretty easy to think of Stranger Things when Summer of ‘84 appeared on the screen. The era is one reason, but also the stomach-churning, synth-driven score, the walkie talkies, and the child stars — Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), “Eats” (Judah Lewis), Woody (Caleb Emery), Faraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew), and of course the only teen girl, Nikki Kaszuba (Riverdale’s Tiera Skovbye). Similar? Maybe. However, what quickly differentiates the two is the storyline. Rather than dealing with the extraterrestrial upsidedown world, conspiracy theorist Armstrong’s main concern is the crazy-ass serial killer who’s been going around their town of Ipswich, Oregon killing young boys, earning them the name the Cape May Slayer.
Armstrong starts to believe early on that trusted town cop Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer) is the killer. That’s one thing that the movie played well — it didn’t waste time looking for potential suspects and instead, chose Mackey in the beginning and had the kids focus on him the whole way through. It made sense with his purchases of large amounts of soil, shovels, lingering around children for a little too long, and the late night jogs. However, there were also some things that didn’t quite add up, like how, despite knowing there was a killer on the loose, every front door was unlocked, the boys continued the late night games of manhunt, and their parents were virtually oblivious and unavailable.
It wasn’t until the later half of the film when Armstrong’s father Randall (Jason Gray-Stanford) — who had been unaware of his son throughout the entire duration of the film — suddenly realized that his son had been spying on their good neighbor and took him over to Mackey’s house to apologize face-to-face. This moment felt unnatural and forced, as most parents in real life probably wouldn’t react this way and instead, would feel embarrassed and quietly hide it (I know my parents would, at least). However the initially unrealistic situation paid off, making for an ironic and pretty hilarious moment — with Mackey actually being the murderer and Armstrong apologizing for suspecting it and then immediately after telling his friends that him apologizing doesn’t change anything. It created an interesting and spine-tingling dynamic, amping up the thrill and lighting a fire under the two to really blow the situation out of proportion.
Immediately after Mackey realizes Armstrong is suspicious, he conveniently finds the Cape May Slayer. It’s aired all over the news and everyone is suddenly at ease — including Armstrong’s friends who were difficult to sway from the beginning — but Armstrong isn’t quite satisfied. Perhaps this moment is a nod to the police brutality that has broken out in the news in recent years — an authoritative figure who is now looked at as a hero, but is really a monster hiding in plain sight.
While some things in the film could have been paid a little more attention, there are also a lot of little hidden gems that make Summer of ‘84 a sweet treat. Directed by the French-Canadian filmmaking collective RKSS, the end result is a movie made for both kids and adults, but with dark messages that might be hard to swallow. Throughout the entire film we get a very dark portrayal of the suburbs, and the unaware parents don’t help. But perhaps the darkest message of all is the end — the fact that no, Mackey didn’t kill Armstrong, but he threatened to come back for him, and now that is a fear Armstrong has to live with for the rest of his life.