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Dark Summer. 2015. Directed by Paul Solet. Screenplay by Mike Le.
Starring Keir Gilchrist, Stella Maeve, Maestro Harrell, Grace Phipps, Dinora Walcott, and Peter Stormare. Campfire/ContentFilm International/Preferred Film & TV.
Not Rated. 81 minutes.
After the excellent little 2009 film Grace, I imagined director Paul Solet might go on to do other exciting things in the horror genre. There was a tender quality even to that nasty gem, which I found impressive. When a director can take a story that is truly horrifying and add in dashes of pure, raw emotion, it’s always a treat.
When I heard of Dark Summer, my first thought was Disturbia – the Shia LaBeouf film they actually reference early in this one. But quickly, after I got into the plot and the story started pulling me in the realization that Solet and writer Mike Le were doing something much different. Using a similar setup, with some changes of course, Le’s screenplay takes us into a much more supernatural and frightening space. Even while not everything is as good as it could be, this is a fairly solid indie horror-thriller. Particularly, I enjoy both Keir Gilchrist and Stella Maeve, who ultimately hold up a lot of the film. Add in an amazing score, the ever interesting Peter Stormare in a small supporting role, a few wild bits of horror, and Dark Summer is definitely worth a watch.
Daniel (Keir Gilchrist) has been sentenced to house arrest over the summer. The young man evidently cyber-stalked and harassed a girl named Mona Wilson (Grace Phipps). The terms of his arrest: no visits from unaccompanied minors, no computer access or internet, the last of which are monitored by the police. Parole officer Stoke (Peter Stormare) keeps an eye on Daniel and explains how the house arrest works.
However, Daniel’s closest friends Abby (Stella Maeve) and Kevin (Maestro Harrell) come by with a tablet so he can connect to a nearby internet source, and bring him a little weed, bit of Ambien. Later on when Daniel tries to call his mom – the reason for the tablet – Abby calls. And a minute later, Mona Wilson; with whom Daniel is not supposed to have any contact. In a terrible twist of fate, Mona shoots herself in the head on camera while Daniel watches.
As things become more and more sinister, Daniel becomes aware that perhaps his harassment of Mona was not entirely his fault. Once Abby, Kevin and Daniel dig deeper into the mystery, black magic works its way into the equation, and anything they believed before goes out the window.
Immediately I was aware of the incredible music in Dark Summer. The score swells into a pounding rhythm in certain scenes, which holds us in excitement and suspense at various points. Other moments contain a score that stays just below the exterior, pulsing with the slow and steady feel of a current taking us along for the ride. Composer Austin Wintory is prolific, even if he isn’t well known. His music spans short films, video games (including the 2012 Journey and most recently Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate), television, and of course, feature films; he worked on Solet’s previous film Grace, as well. I can’t speak for all his other titles, but the work he does with Solet is truly exceptional. If anything, you’ll enjoy the creepy, slow burning feel of his score in this movie because it perfectly compliments what Solet was attempting to do. Part of the film’s charm is, no doubt, the music; undeniable.
Some of what Solet did was frightening. For instance, the quieter and more subtle moments where Daniel wanders his empty, dark home are tense, and these contributed to that overall slow burn of the film. Not everything needs to be a jump out and scare you scene, or jump-scare imagery. Solet does include some of that. Mostly, though, he sticks with the creeping feeling of these low-key moments, and the majority of them work. The horror got better as time went by. Above all else, it’s the thriller aspect of Dark Summer which works. As we follow along with Abby, Daniel and Kevin sussing out the mystery of Mona’s suicide, there’s a lot of macabre excitement. Following along with all the steps of what we later figure out is an elaborate dark spell, this makes up for any of those brief points where Solet doesn’t hit the mark exactly with other aspects. Furthermore, I liked the makeup and special effects, as everything fit the tone and atmosphere Solet was striving to achieve.
As I mentioned, Gilchrist and Maeve each put in terrific performances, as did Stormare in his smaller role and also Harrell.
Gilchrist is a quiet type whose brooding nature comes across easily. He fits the bill of a young man who is withdrawn, not able to outright talk to girls and impress them. At the same time, he has an emotional side that is clear once we get to know the character of Daniel. I really enjoyed Gilchrist in It Follows, and here he impressed once more. The guy is a talented actor with range, which hopefully will get him more work as time goes on. He is certainly cut out for indie films with good talent and a unique sort of look; he isn’t weird looking, but has a look that sets him apart from so many other young male actors out there today.
I found Maeve did the best job of all in this film. She has a quiet disposition, which again fits her character well, too. She and Gilchrist have proper chemistry, and that helped on two fronts: the relationship of these two characters as friends, as well as Abby’s little crush on Daniel. There is an intensity to Maeve that comes across easily without her having to throw every bit of her acting arsenal at us constantly. Sometimes an actor can give the right looks, move the right way, and generally take on the right air of attitude, which Maeve does constantly here. Her caring nature helps to bring the character of Abby closer to Daniel, then as the film’s suspense and horror become more prevalent her performance goes with the flow accordingly, her character darkens and deepens. I’d love to see her do another horror, something even more solid than this, because there is a lot behind her eyes.
With a few missteps, I still give Paul Solet’s Dark Summer a 3.5 out of 5 star rating. There could’ve been more intense sequences, but many of them present still affect the viewer. In a few scenes, the horror jumps out at us and takes on a life of its own. Most importantly, the drama and thriller portions of the movie are incredibly solid. Within a dark story we find many moments of tenderness, either from Daniel or Abby, or both, and this makes some of the more disturbing, terrifying scenes less shocking; not that this is needed, but it puts an interesting spin on the other elements when a morbid plot has linings of beauty. Regardless, Dark Summer holds it own in enough places that I enjoyed it, and would likely watch it again down the road. I’m interested to see what Solet does in the future, as he’s already put in a segment called “The Weak and The Wicked” for Tales of Halloween this past year. He is a uniquely talented director who will, hopefully, go on to more exciting, frightening, wild projects soon enough. Check this out and if you like slow burn indie thrillers, you’ll probably find surprise in these 81 minutes.