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Even its Strong Performances Can’t Save “Dark Summer”

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Paul Solet’s chilling film Grace (2009) was as assured a feature debut as any budding filmmaker (or fan) could hope. The somber horror tale explored the effects of postpartum depression and isolation on a grieving young mother (Jordan Ladd). The acclaimed film solidified Solet’s standing as an emerging talent in the genre. Surprisingly, Solet’s career went quiet over the next few years; he returns to the genre with Dark Summer (available on VOD), a modest story of obsession, computer technology, and occult terror.

Dark Summer is the story of Daniel (Kier Gilchrist), a teen on house arrest for hacking into the private Internet accounts of Mona Wilson (Grace Phipps), a crush he’s been cyberstalking because of a self-proclaimed inability to talk to girls. Court order bars Daniel from all social media, and he is closely monitored by Stokes (Peter Stormare), the officer assigned to keep tabs on him. Daniel’s ankle bracelet warns Stokes of any attempts by Daniel to communicate via the Internet, or leave the premises. Daniel experiences bizarre hallucinations after receiving a disturbing video message from Mona. He eventually succumbs to a downward spiral where nightmares and technology intertwine, dragging his friends Abby (Stella Maeve) and Kevin (Maestro Harrell) down with him.

After an auspicious start with Grace, it’s difficult to pinpoint why Dark Summer is such a disappointment. From a technical standpoint, the film is stylishly directed, creatively utilizing the limited locations. The performances are solid enough, anchored by Stormare who is surrounded by a talented group of young actors. These elements, normally the Achilles heel of independent productions, prevail here as the film’s strengths. Yet, one can’t help but feel underwhelmed by the final product.

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Where Dark Summer falters is Mike Le’s story. Le shoehorns relatively cliché supernatural elements into a fairly ordinary examination of contemporary teen culture. Solet and his cast and crew do their best with the material given, but there’s just not enough punch to hold the viewer’s attention. There are a few effective set pieces depicting ritualistic bloodshed, but those moments aren’t provocative enough to sustain any sort of lingering power. Most of it is forgettable, which is the film’s biggest sin.

Dark Summer might appeal to viewers for its portrayal of social media as a seductive force, embodied here as a malevolent presence that compels the protagonist to keep logging in. Daniel continues to dig for information regardless of the consequences to himself or his friends. No sooner is he placed on house arrest, than he’s opening up Skype on a stolen wireless network. The discussions wrought from the character’s behavior warrant a more interesting conversation than the supernatural aspects of the story. Unfortunately, the banal attempts at horror are a huge detriment to a film that’s supposed to be scary.

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Solet’s film is not necessarily a failure, and horror fans should be happy he’s had an opportunity to further hone his skills behind the camera. Hopefully Dark Summer leads to more opportunities for Solet to craft his own stories that measure up to the promise of Grace. Unfortunately, it may also set him adrift in a cinematic landscape where competent yet mundane productions are quickly forgotten; a talented artist like Solet deserves a much better fate.

Find out more at IFC Midnight

About Chris Hallock

Chris Hallock is a screenwriter and film programmer in the Boston area. He has contributed to VideoScope Magazine, The Boston Globe, Paracinema, Shadowland, ChiZine, and Planet Fury. He serves as a programmer for the Boston Underground Film Festival and the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival and is a former Co-Director of Programming for Etheria. He is currently writing a book on the horror genre for Midnight Marquee Press. His other passions are cats, drumming, and fiercely independent art.

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