Davey, Tommy, Woody, and Curtis pursue the Cape May Slayer in the Summer of 84.
Lately there have been a number of films or television series that take us back to the 1980s either in a flashback/story setting like the popular Netflix series Stranger Things, or as a conceit for eighties nostalgia like Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Summer of 84 is in the first category, with the mystery centering around the identity of the Cape May Slayer, a serial killer in 1980s Oregon who over a decade has kidnapped and killed young adolescent boys like the heroes of this film. As is the norm with these mystery/adventure stories, there are a group of best friends who somehow get involved in the mystery usually due to their own natural curiosity about life and the world of adults. In Summer of 84 there are four boys living in the small town of Ipswich, Oregon led by Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere), the clever leader of the group, who becomes fixated on the idea that his neighbor Deputy Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer) is the Cape May Slayer. He eventually convinces his pals Tommy Eaton (Judah Lewis), Dale Woodworth (Caleb Emery), and Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) that they should spend the summer spying on Mackey, especially when he notices some suspicious looking things at Mackey’s large house and yard where he lives alone. Another typical element of this type of story is that each friend fits into a helpful niche as their investigation progresses. Woody, as Dale is nicknamed, is the large brawny kid who faithfully follows Davey in whatever he wants to do. Tommy is the “tough guy” kid, who dresses like a punk rocker and has the nickname “Eats” while Curtis is the bright kid who knows how to research microfilmed newspaper articles and what chemicals like sodium hydroxide can do.
Tommy, Davey, Woody and Curtis in their tree house.
As the film opens, we see Davey on his paper route around town, delivering the local paper on his bicycle while ruminating about the dark realities of life: “Even serial killers live next door to somebody. If I’ve learned anything it is that people hardly ever let you know who they really are.” These are quite serious thoughts for an emerging adolescent, but we learn that Davey has always had an interest in conspiracy theories and urban legends, sparked perhaps by his father who works for a local television station and was the person who broke the story of the Cape May Slayer. Next we are taken to the boys’ tree house where they are discussing more typical teen things like superhero controversies and local gossip, while insulting each other or planning daytime activities riding their bikes and nighttime games of “Manhunt”, where they chase each other with flashlights and walkie-talkies. And they express their emerging sexual desires which currently focus on their very attractive neighbor (and Davey’s former babysitter) Nikki Kaszuba (Tiera Skovbye). Things get moving in the story when Davey, who spends a fair amount of time spying on Nikki and the neighborhood notices a young boy inside Mackey’s home. This isn’t too significant until Davey sees that same boy’s picture on a milk carton several days later. Now he is able to motivate his friends to help him by turning their manhunt game into watching Wayne Mackey. On a whiteboard, they write down Mackey’s daily routine. Some of the more suspicious things they discover is that Mackey goes jogging late at night, buys copious amounts of garden soil and garden tools, and takes a duffel bag with him to work every day. They go through his garbage and dig through a pile of soil in his backyard. Woody and Curtis discover he has a second vehicle, a Volkswagen bug that he keeps in a storage building along with bags of sodium hydroxide (lye), a chemical used to dissolve tissue. Davey and Tommy discover a bloodstained t-shirt hidden in Mackey’s garden shed, which Davey believes belongs to the missing boy. Even Nikki gets involved with their searching, after seeking consolation from Davey after her parents announce that they are divorcing.
Davey and his mother watch the television news about the Cape May Slayer.
Knowing that he can’t bring his theory directly to the police, Davey and the others present their circumstantial findings to Davey’s parents. But instead of being supportive or even cautious about the possibilities of what they have discovered, Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong express anger at the boys, and insist that they apologize to Deputy Mackey for their “vandalism”. At his house, Mackey tells them that he hold no hard feelings, and that the boy Davey spotted was his nephew. Davey is grounded and although he later sneaks out with Nikki, she also tells him he should no longer continue his investigation. It seems that Davey has hit rock bottom. The next day Deputy Mackey comes over to see Davey who is alone at home. He again says he has no hard feelings toward Davey, and eventually agrees to call his nephew but there is no answer. After Mackey leaves, the ever suspicious Davey calls the operator to check on the number Mackey called. It turns out to be Mackey’s home telephone number. Later on the television news, it is announced that there is now a suspect in the Cape May murders, and Deputy Mackey was the arresting officer. Not believing in such a convenient solution, Davey is now totally suspicious of Mackey again. He is able to convince his friends to help him one more time, and makes plans to break into Deputy Mackey’s home while his parents and most of the community will be at the Fourth of July festival downtown. The resolution to this along with a number of surprise twists and turns make up the balance of the movie.
The four boys patrolling at night.
Summer of 84 is well cast, with Graham Verchere as the persistent kid detective and Rich Sommer quite convincing as the cop who could be a pillar of society or creepy sociopath. Graham Verchere, who we have also seen in the third season of Fargo, is very good in his role and has the charisma to carry the film as the leader of the four boys. There are some issues with the writing. We only have the briefest exposure to the other characters in Davey’s team, and there is not a lot of depth to them. Most of the film is more like a kid’s mystery story rather than a horror thriller, and often the dialogue delves into cliches. Without revealing the ending, there are some serious flaws in the story that don’t ring true about police procedures and some of the events. And how do people keep coming in and out of Davey’s window when his room is on the second floor of his house? But the film does keep you watching, mainly due to the excellent acting. It is definitely worth a look, even with the flaws.
Woody, Tommy, and Curtis mull over Davey’s last proposal.
Tommy digging in Officer Mackey’s backyard.
Judah Lewis in his role as Tommy “Eats” Eaton wears black high top chucks with black shoelaces throughout most of the film. We also see Tiera Skovbye wearing lemon yellow high top chucks in one brief scene with Davey. The cinemaphotography is not particularly chucks-friendly in this film, and much of the action occurs at night or in dark rooms. The best scene is where Tommy is digging in the backyard of Deputy Mackey’s house.
Nikki going up the stairs to Davey’s room.
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