Horror fans understand it better than any other fandom on the planet. Watching, reading, devouring any content that comes their way in search of that next diamond in the rough. Even now, fans are going back to the libraries of the sixties, seventies and eighties and scouring through, looking for any hidden gem that may have been missed. More horror movies are made a year than any other genre and they’re all seen by those same fans just searching for that cult classic in the making, that genre favorite. A few times a year, that movie surfaces that takes the genre by storm. You’re Next (2011), The Final Girls (2015), It Follows (2015), and The Witch (2016) are all recent examples of independent horror films that grab the fans by the throat and become harbingers of what’s to come. If you’re lucky, and if you’re smart, you’ll stumble across Super Dark Times (2017) and get a glimpse into the potential of greatness.
The premise is easy. Two friends, hanging out, in rural middle class America smack dab in the middle of the nineties. The discman is a standard accessory, the Nintendo 64 is the de facto gaming system, and the internet is still just a dial-up blip in the existence of being a teenager. This leads to a different form of entertainment, the relatable exercise of riding around on your bike and just looking for anything to do. Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) are lifetime best friends who are still figuring out who they are as people. They routinely hang out and do absolutely nothing but talk about everything while biking around their dreary hometown and acquiesce with two other boys, Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth), about sex, gross foods and other things that teenage kids with nothing else to do talk about. The first act of the movie is building this world, creating a nearly flawless and absolutely natural foundation, before introducing the event that spins the movie and the boys on their head and absolutely throw the viewer into a needling and gripping ride that builds tension with sharpshooter precision.
The crux of the movie is built around an incident that won’t be discussed but you’ll feel it coming. From the moment the movie starts, with an almost disconnected non sequitur sequence of a dead deer crashing it’s way into the high school cafeteria before being stomped to death under the heel of the local sheriff, an instant shade of dread is cast. However, it’s only a shadow, and it’s this shadow that casts itself over the veneer of the first act that digs itself into your brain and begs the question of “when.” Director Kevin Phillips, aided by the outstanding script from Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, is able to induce an unavoidable feeling of unease that doesn’t let up until the catalyst of the film occurs. Phillips performs a neat trick, though, where instead of easing off the pedal he continues at the same speed and nearly unnoticeably accelerates.
A lot needs to be celebrated with this film. Kevin Phillips, who has mostly worked as a cinematographer on indie flicks previously, proves that he has an incredibly deft hand from the director’s chair. Phillips is able to do what so many directors before him have tried and only a few have succeeded at: creating an accessible world of teenagers. Too often are we introduced into a world that teeters on the brink of tapping into that primordial urge to relive our youth to only pick apart at the inconsistencies and extremes that are being delivered. Phillips avoids all these issues by dangerously daring himself to cross the line into “too far.” The magical ingredients of Phillips with the screenwriters and actors he has at play allow him to create a darkly realistic look at suburban teen life even if it is upended by this normally beyond standard event.
The behind the camera crew of Super Dark Times is a roster of young talent that is brimming with potential. Eli Born, cinematographer, crafts an adventure that is able to bounce back and forth between the bleak and cold realism of the teenagers living their life and the lush and colorful surreal dream sequences that collide sexual blossoming and pure and utter terror. Lois Drabkin and Susan Shopmaker, the two casting directors, have been in the game for over a decade working on projects such as Salt (2010), Marcy Martha Marlene May (2011), and That Awkward Moment (2014). While a stack of their films are superbly casted, this may be a new high. While former movies are littered with renowned Hollywood talent, they tap fully into Stranger Things motif here and executed the best move possible. Bringing aboard real teens.
Writers Collins and Piotrowski are a team to be reckoned with. After submitting a solid entry into the horror genre with Siren (2016), a polarizing jaunt into action horror, the duo shows that like the world they helped shape in that film, they really can create the feeling of existing in the borders of the film. The viewer has had these conversations with their friends, they’ve been to that i party, they’ve had that one friend that is just too much sometimes. Working the story into the confines of a pragmatic group forced into a fantastical situation can be disastrous but the two prove that they handle it expertly.
The supporting cast of Super Dark Times is as essential to carrying the plot forward as the two central characters and while the entire ensemble performs above standard, the bombastic Max Talisman and meek Elizabeth Cappuccino are superb on polar opposite spectrums. Talisman, eventually hinging as the catalyst for the meat of the film, is oafish and loud. He’s a callback to every group of kids that has ever existed; he’s the friend who swears too loud, plays too hard, gets into everything he isn’t supposed to but never maliciously. It’s not an easy part to balance, it could easily stroll into raucously annoying but instead it preys on your empathy and creates a sympathy for the character. Cappuccino plays the love interest, Allison, who is instantly likeable. She manages to say a lot with a little and has a kiss scene that is so inelegant you’ll swear you’re a middle-schooler again.
Zach and Josh, played by Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan respectfully, have the distinct honor of present perhaps one of the greatest teenage performances captured in cinema. Campbell carries a strange bravado that feels more real than most roles, a timid bravery that is laced in fear but it’s his ultimate moral compass that pushes him forward, carries him forward. Tahan is terrifying as Josh. A young adult who is still a kid, he doesn’t know how to handle the step into adulthood so he does so fumblingly, the whole time wrapped in an almost impossible sense of dread and malice.
Super Dark Times had a mission and it succeeded. It wanted to provide a hyper realistic look at being a teenager in the center of something life changing. It’s dark but sprinkled with childish hope, it’s crushing but lifts viewers up with reminders of first kisses and after school hijinks. It’s not to be missed, seek it out, this is something dark, yes. But it’s also absolutely spectacular.