Sunday, October 4, 2020

We Summon the Darkness

Director: Marc Meyers
Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville, Allison McAtee 
Running Time: 91 min.
Rating: R
 
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
 
We Summon the Darkness joins movies like The Hunt as one of the horror-thrillers released in the past year that's gained unexpected relevance and attention for how its subject matter mirrors recent cultural events. The latest from My Friend Dahmer director Marc Meyers, it kind of landed with a thud on VOD in April before eventually catching steam on Netflix to become one of the more frequently streamed genre titles of the summer. It isn't hard to see how, as what starts as a standard horror entry pulls off a twist that really does elevate the story and delivers a certain degree of scathing social commentary that makes it a trip worth taking. You could also say its blessed, or maybe even cursed, with almost improbable timing that lends this to a deeper analysis than it would have otherwise gotten. 

All these circumstances could have made it even harder for a script centering around a particular group attempting to force their beliefs on society through violence and murder, to resonate. Who wants to watch that now? That it's not a depressing dirge, and at points a lot of fun, speaks to the control Myers has over the material's tone. It isn't perfect and doesn't completely swing for the fences, but there's a feeling that had he done that, the results may not have been as effective. And it certainly wouldn't have been the escape from reality it turns out to be despite its disturbingly timely themes. So with some good performances, excellent pacing, and a villainous motivation from the film's antagonists that heighten the remainder of its run time, you could say it overdelivers.

It's July 1988 when Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) and her two friends, wild child Val (Maddie Hasson) and shy, reserved Bev (Amy Forsyth) are driving together to a heavy metal show in Indiana. On the way, they have a run-in with three guys who throw a milkshake on their windshield, discovering them at the venue's parking lot to be Ivan (Austin Swift--Taylor's brother), Kovacs (Logan Miller) and Mark (Keean Johnson), a fledgling metal band about to break-up as the latter prepares to move to Los Angeles. After some apologizing, the girls soon bond with them over their shared musical tastes, with the guys unsubtly letting it be known they're interested. Alexis takes the hint, inviting them to her father's empty mansion to drink and goads them all into playing a game of "Never Have I Ever."

This isn't a particularly wise time to be hanging around with complete strangers, as a string of Satanic killings are sweeping through the region, drawing the ire of pastor John Henry Butler (an almost unrecognizable Johnny Knoxville), an well-known evangelist preaching about the sins of heavy metal music all over local news programs. Early on, no secret is made of the fact that these girls are looking to lure the guys into a trap, as we're led to believe they're responsible for all the aforementioned carnage. That's only about half-true, as all parties prepare for a showdown, from which very few will walk out alive.  

Meyers takes the approach of pretty much making it an open secret that the girls are the predators right from the start, with Alexis serving as their ringleader. While they're the main characters and we're objectively following them from the first scene, it's clear something's amiss from the start. And when they meet the guys, that becomes painfully obvious, which is fine since the screenplay doesn't seem all too interested in suggesting otherwise. When the reveal does come about a quarter through, all the movie's adrenaline is generated from the "why" rather than "how," with these guys suddenly fighting for their lives against these female perpetrators with sick, if somewhat surprising, intentions. 

What Alan Trezza's script does best is give the girls three really distinctive personalities that are heavily showcased early on with their comedic banter, most of which really hits. As their mission escalates, this gradually gives way to this twisted power struggle that exists within the group, with Alexis establishing herself atop the food chain with loose canon Val as her sidekick. Both soon assert their control over a terrified, intimidated Bev, who quickly realizes this isn't her at all and she'll have to fake her way through the violence they're about to unleash, despite her obvious interest in one of their intended victims. 

With this dynamic in place, the film takes off with Alexandra Daddario's wildly unhinged performance as Alexis, which surpasses much of what she's done since first infamously breaking onto the scene with that memorable True Detective role that was supposed to put her on track to become a major star. While it's led to steady work since that's been hit-or-miss, that obviously didn't pan out. But this might be the first part since to at least fully exploit what's been her calling card. With giant, almost inhumanly blue eyes and distinctive look, someone finally decided to just go ahead and cast her as a raging psychopath, and she eats it up, stealing the movie along with Maddie Haddon, who's equally impressive as her out-of-control cohort, flipping a familar horror character on its head. Amy Forsyth has the least to do as Bev, mainly because she's just being dragged along for the ride until her inveitiable redemption, but she delivers what's needed nonetheless. 

As their motivations come to light along with some clever turns, what unfolds is a night of carnage that does eventually settle into a groove that resembles a more traditional horror entry, albeit a thoroughly entertaining one that explores some inriguing themes. Johnny Knoxville's small but somewhat pivotal role as a pastor is well-handled in that it's not only a reversal of expectations, but a chance to see him give a darker, more dramatic turn that veers heavily from his usual big screen schtick. That is once you get past the fact he's playing older than we're typically used to. Or rather, pushing 50, he actually is older, with this representing the kinds parts he should probably be taking more of. 

Despite being set in 1988, it may as well have been 1998 or 2008 or even present-day, since there aren't many period details in We Summon the Darkness that will invoke a ton of nostalgia, even for the most dedicated metalheads of the era, which is a debit. Even with a solid soundtrack and some witty dialogue centering around the music scene of the time that captures how these people would likely talk, it definitely isn't some kind of immersive 80's experience, with the only midly successful exploitation of the period coming in a late scene revolving around Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth." Stanger Things it's not, but luckily the story and action hold up well enough that this isn't a major issue that would detract from anyone's enjoyment or harm the experience. The only question is how many viewers will still be in the mood to watch this once they realize what it's actually about. It's definitely more fun than it looks, especially for a movie that seems superficially intended to just kill 90 minutes. This it does, and then some.

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