Director Marc Meyers (My Friend Dahmer) attempts to channel the spirit of 1988 with this amiable but overly familiar heavy-metal horror movie about a concert meet-cute between head-banging dudes and rocker chicks that turns bloody when the girls take the boys home for the evening. The screenplay by Alan Trezza draws on the so-called “Satanic panic” of the era, positing a scenario where predators trawl rock concerts for victims and a drunken game of “Never Have I Ever” is a teasing lead-in to devil worship and serial murder. The results are mildly entertaining, especially in the early going, though Trezza’s scenario exhausts itself way too quickly to fill 90 minutes of screen time.
The cast is anchored by a trio of female leads that includes dependable Alexandria Daddario as the self-assured Alexis, Maddie Hasson as hygiene-challenged blonde Val, and Amy Forsyth as the reserved, ambivalent Bev. They’re matched against three aspiring musicians — Mark (Keean Johnson), Kovacs (Logan Miller) and Ivan (Austin Swift, of the Taylor Swift Swifts) — who are following the band Soldiers of Satan around the country in a van. The two groups meet in the parking lot outside a concert, where they feel each other out by exchanging their metal bona fides as the boys evince maybe a little too much interest in the current nationwide cycle of serial killings. That conversation also reveals a bit of posturing, as we learn that Alexis doesn’t know anything about Randy Rhoads and Ivan is outed as a fan of KC and the Sunshine Band. What else isn’t as it seems?
It’s too bad the script runs out of juice after its big reveal, which comes just past the 30-minute mark. Trezza is necessarily writing for a low budget, which means the film is stranded for the duration on its one major location—an isolated house on a largish estate out in the countryside where no one can hear you scream—and Meyers simply can’t wring suspense from a scenario that ends up isolating the murderers from their murderees on either side of a locked door for a long, dull section of the film. Further, Meyers seems uninterested in the more problematic highlights of vintage 1980s horror, like semi-explicit sex scenes and gory kill scenes, so we’re left with duller genre tropes like Arrival of the Doomed Sheriff and Our Victims Will Never Escape from Light Bondage. (Sharp-eyed viewers can also play Spot the Sponge Cake, a visual game derived from an apparent product-placement deal the filmmakers made with the devil behind Twinkies, which are prominently featured in several shots.) Before deploying a couple of ironic musical cues, the filmmakers do spring for one classic heavy-metal needledrop (“Black Funeral” by Mercyful Fate), and a few more of those might have helped set a more hardcore mood.
Meyers is by no means a bad director. Together with cinematographer Tarin Anderson, he makes good use of the widescreen frame without being ostentatious about it, seeking out unexpected angles that help keep up the tempo. The interiors are sometimes too cleanly lit for this kind of exploitation throwback, but other scenes use color and shadow to fairly good effect. Moreover, the film’s essential thesis is correct: The supposed spate of ritualistic murders committed in the 1980s was, in fact, largely a fiction propagated by TV newscasters, evangelicals, politicians and others who stood to benefit from spreading paranoia among gullible, fearful Americans. Though the satire has resonance with today’s social climate, the specifics feel out of date now that the central grifters of this American era operate out of the White House rather than the megachurch. I’ll venture this cast is good enough that it might have been able to work better with a more straightforwardly comic scenario, and perhaps more biting satire, especially with Jackass icon Johnny Knoxville making an extended cameo late in the game as a corrupt televangelist. As it stands, We Summon the Darkness is a minor treat, at least, for Daddario fans. I’m not sure what the legions of 1980s genre adherents will make of it, but it’s not a great substitute for the real thing.