The 1980s VHS nostalgia bandwagon trundles on with “Summer of ’84,” a retro thriller in which four suburban teens snoop around a neighbor they think might be a serial killer — amateur detective work that seems “fun” until, of course, it becomes downright dangerous.
Introduced biking around his innocuous cul-de-sac on a paper route, Davey (Graham Verchere) sees his bland personal universe as potentially fraught with hidden intrigue. His best buds — plus-sized softie Woody (Caleb Emery), bespectacled brainiac Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) and quasi-punk psuedo-delinquent Eats (Judah Lewis) — are willing to indulge his lurid imagination to an extent. But they, like his parents, are also inclined to dismiss Davey’s more paranoid fixations as the spawn of too much “Hardy Boys” and “National Enquirer” reading.
Nonetheless, they reluctantly go along with his insistence that the affable bachelor across the street, policeman Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer), might be the elusive Cape May Slayer who’s claimed responsibility for 13 murders in a region where numerous teenage boys have gone missing within recent months. The more the boys spy on this neighbor, the more suspicious his actions seem. But of course grown-ups, including Davey’s dad (Jason Gray-Stanford) and mom (Shauna Johannesen) scoff at mere kids accusing this friendly police officer of any fiendish deeds. One nearly grown-up ally is Nikki (Tiera Skovbye), Davey’s former babysitter and everyone’s crush object.
All this is good as far as it goes. But ultimately it doesn’t go very far, particularly for a film that’s almost half an hour longer than most of the direct-to-video B movies it evokes. The leisurely progress isn’t justified by any well-developed subplots, or by much suspense — there’s never a doubt who the perp is, and apart from a couple of false-flag jump scares, little real peril surfaces until quite late. The climactic action is OK, yet the film feels like it needed an additional twist or two to be memorable, while the overall boys’-own-adventure tone is too lightweight to support a grimly serious fadeout.
Performances are solid, especially those by Sommer and Skovbye. There’s neat if not quite witty attention paid to period specifics of suburban life and genre aesthetics, the most notable contributor being Le Matos’ uber-’80s synth score.
It’s not clear if co-scenarists Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith intended their tale to be played for satire, straight suspense, or a mixture of both. But as executed by the RKSS trio, “Summer of ’84” is only cute and competent enough to be diverting; it’s neither funny nor scary enough to leave a lasting impression.