Many moons ago back in Jersey, I had a friend who was sentenced to house arrest for breaking into a house and stealing a BB gun. At first he was pretty chill about it all, then after a couple weeks he started to lose it. I came over one time and he was trying to dig a moat around his parent’s house. Once that cabin fever sets in people can go a little crazy.
Case in point: Paul Solet’s Dark Summer tracks the cracking psyche of a tech-savvy kid sentenced to house arrest for cyber-stalking a classmate. As the film starts, parole officer Peter Stomare is explaining to Daniel (Keir Gilchrist) the ins and outs of his sentence. It boils down to him not being allowed to have any unaccompanied minors over the house and for the love of god, stay the hell off the internet, you creep. Once Stormare leaves, Daniel’s friends Abby (Stella Maeve) and Kevin (Maestro Harrell) come right over and give him a laptop with which he can go online undetected. Some kids never learn.
Daniel’s fully prepared to continue cyber-stalking the girl of his dreams, Mona Wilson (Grace Phipps), but he’s a little nervous. As he hesitates, Mona is the one who contacts him via Skype, though for much more nefarious reasons than expressing her true feelings for him. From there, disturbing visions and other ghostly activities begin haunting Daniel. They’re all centered around a hooded specter who follows him in dreams and his waking life, turning the tables on Daniel the convicted stalker.
At first Abby and Kevin are willing to go along with Daniel’s bizarre rants about ghosts and haunted cereal. They do his best to help him until finally shit gets crazy enough that they too are convinced something supernatural is at play. At this point Dark Summer really kicks into gear. Before his friends join him, the film dips into tediousness a little bit. There’s a see-saw pattern of creepy stuff happening and Daniel trying to sway his friends to believe him. Finally they do and the ball really starts rolling. The second half truly excels as a chillingly atmospheric take on Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew investigating a haunted house. There are some great set pieces and moments that made me genuinely jump. More from surprise than actual scares, but still my ass left the seat. It’s effective stuff.
Solet, who wrote and direct the acclaimed pregnancy horror film Grace, is working here from an original script by Mike Le. It’s a slim bastard too, with little room for character backstory or development. For instance, Daniel lives with his mom, who is unaccounted for during the entire film. He must be at least 18 if he’s allowed to be on house arrest alone, right.? There’s not much explained about Daniel’s hacking endeavors online either, just that they were bad enough to slap on an ankle bracelet.
The lack of information helps the story in this case – adding to the spare, creepy atmosphere. There are several moments (particularly during the first half) where Solet attempts to maintain the suspense he’s built up, only to have it crumble under the tediousness. If they tried to beef up the story a bit it may have actually ruined the whole thing. Like I said, things thankfully pick up once Daniel’s joined in force by his two buddies. The film’s got some tricks up its sleeve too and manages to sneak in some real human drama behind the scares. With three solid leads and effective direction, Solet’s Dark Summer is ultimately a fine little creep fest.
Dark Summer is now available on a few VOD formats courtesy of IFC Midnight.