While Dark Summer doesn’t exactly impress as a paranormal thriller, Mike Le’s story does manage to capture an awkward period in society where people would rather sit behind a computer screen and “research” personal facts about others, than strike a human relationship that requires conversation, interaction, and most importantly, a vulnerable connection. In a world of Tweeting, Instagramming, Tindering, and whatever controlling Apps my generation chooses over personal engagements, hacking into someone’s bank of cyber-information seems like a twisted romantic fantasy despite being an invasive breach of security. That’s the true horror of Dark Summer. Exploiting technology’s disillusioned grasp on a devolving society is what it does best. The film fails, however, to portray a convincing cyber-stalking scenario, which unfortunately turns into a lackluster haunted house story that struggles to build tension, spooky momentum, or suicidal scares.
The star of the movie, Daniel, is played by Keir Gilchrist, a post-teen placed under house arrest after hacking into the personal records of a fellow schoolmate, which results in him getting pressed with stalker charges. Sentenced to a summer without technological devices, his every move is monitored by an anklet that can read transmitted signals and track his every move (iPads/WIFI/ect). Of course, it doesn’t take long before Daniel’s two best friends (played by Stella Maeve and Maestro Harrell) subvert the system and grant their house arrested companion with a working internet connection. Hoping to contact his mother on Skype, Daniel instead receives a call from Mona Wilson (Grace Phipps) – the girl who labeled him a “creeper” – which ends up being her final message to anyone.
Dark Summer is constantly plagued by an inability to capitalize on any of the rather unsettling set-pieces created as Mona makes her ghostly presence known through deadpanned glares at the camera and shadowy passings by the camera lens. Grace Phipps embodies her inner specter through blood, demonic eyes, and a ghastly facial appearance, but director Paul Solet meekly translates the misunderstood teen’s paranormal form into a true force we fear based solely on appearance. Mona Wilson’s hauntings come with built-in intrigue, like unleashing pesky insects inside Daniel’s house, increasing in annoyance as the buzzing sound slowly becomes amplified. Yet, just when Mona finds herself poised to unleash a bone-chilling scare, Daniel simply runs away and the situation dissipates.
Solet and Le stage a slow-burn schoolhouse thriller that attempts to balance Daniel’s creeping paranoia with an ending chock-full of satanic horror, but the high-wire-act plods along at a pace that demands a good jolt every now and then (which we don’t get) before delivering a glorious final package. Dark Summer‘s entertainment value will be based solely on your ability to tolerate Daniel’s mix of hallucinogenic horrors and Mona’s questionable appearances, but everything’s over before you can even summon Cthulhu. With chilling scares keeping our pants wet until a thrilling conclusion, slow-burn horror can dance with the Devil, but Solet struggles to find such nightmare-fuel through buzzing flies and stalk-y dead chicks.
While Gilchrist leads as the film’s imprisoned victim, young Stella Maeve impresses most as Daniel’s starry-eyed best friend/not-so-secret admirer. Her infatuation with Daniel is introduced early on, which of course is heartlessly ignored by her muse, despite constantly being there for him and spending hours on origami presents. Still, Daniel’s cold ignorance towards Abby (Maeve) is a tad off-putting in the face of obvious emotions. Maeve’s ability to play a wounded fawn caught in an extremely vulnerable predicament captures both the heartbreak of young love, and the limitless bounds of actual compassion, continually rushing to Daniel’s side despite growing hesitations and a questionable psychotic breakdown. Maeve’s turn is sweet, tender (er, most of the time), and most importantly layered, something the other characters fail to achieve, including character actor Peter Stormare (who is criminally underutilized).
Dark Summer starts out on the forefront of horror’s techno-horror subgenre push, addressing the consequences of cyber-stalking your way into the heart of a crush, yet all of the 0’s and 1’s eventually translate into nothing but a droll paranormal spooker. There’s a promising start and an intriguing young cast, but Solet relies too heavily on a string of weak teases that never bring a level of enclosed fear inherently found in house-arrest-horror, despite a bloody, vile ending. Even with the anklet fastened tightly, Daniel is able to run away from his problems simply by going outside, destroying the convenient plot-enhancer that comes along with invisible walls – something 2014’s Housebound deals with on incomparable levels of success.
Dark Summer starts with the best of intentions, establishing a strong cyber-thriller background, but a sleepy ghost story sullies what intrigue director Paul Solet initially builds.