“We Summon the Darkness” is a psycho thriller that pulls the bloody rug out from under you, and does it in a shivery sly way. The movie, set in 1988, opens with three young women driving to a heavy-metal show in their red Jeep Cherokee along a country highway; for a short spell, it feels like a thousand slasher movies made in the kids-in-the-wilderness mode of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Yet there’s something a dash more time specific, less generic, about this trio, even as their potty-mouthed snark points toward the girls-just-want-to-have-what-we-want-to-have vibe of our own era: the leader, Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), with her flashing eyes and reckless ‘tude and inverted crucifix jewelry; Val (Maddie Hasson), a hellion who seems to have styled herself after Madonna by way of Max Max; and Bev (Amy Forsyth), the “nice” quiet one, wayward and a little spooky, who only recently joined up with this drop-dead cool clique.
The three stop at a roadside convenience store to stock up on Jolt Cola and Twinkies, and on the TV we see Pastor John Henry Butler, a televangelist played by Johnny Knoxville, as he denounces the evils of heavy metal; two of the girls pick up a tabloid newspaper with the headline “Teens slain in newest satanic killing!” The ’80s-nostalgia trifecta of metal, murder, and morality is almost too obvious, and the stage seems set for some sort of Rob Zombie movie, with these three as lambs to the slaughter.
But then they land at a grimy rock club where the show by Soldiers of Satan is happening, and in the parking lot they meet the three roving metalheads who, earlier that day, had tossed a chocolate milkshake from their fire-decaled van onto the girls’ windshield. As the mood turns flirtatious, and we get to know Ivan (Austin Swift), the burly affable one, the goofhead Kovacs (Logan Miller), and Mark (Keean Johnson), the skinny Colin Farrell look-alike with a mullet, we can’t help but notice that all six characters seem to be interacting like actual human beings. It’s not just the spot-on banter (the exact right metal bands name-checked) or how their attempts to be badass are so much more innocent than today’s. “We Summon the Darkness” is an end-of-the-’80s movie (at one point the youngest of the girls asks, “Who’s Judd Nelson?”), and there are moments when it feels like it could be the first horror film directed by Richard Linklater.
The director, in this case, is Marc Meyers, who made “My Friend Dahmer” (2017), a drama about the high-school life of Jeffrey Dahmer that I thought was a perverse sensation, full of riveting psychology and detail. In “We Summon the Darkness,” Meyers refuses to treat the slasher movie as a cheeky debased genre. What happens going forward may be insane, but he stages it with a cunning visual-dramatic logic, allowing neither perpetrators nor victims to cut corners.
After the concert, the six head over to Alexis’ dad’s country estate to do some mad partying. The place is a very ’80s idea of luxe — it looks like a colonial manor-house restaurant that specializes in fondue. It’s sprawling and comfy, with hideous mod furniture, and the kids take it over, moving into the backyard for a drinking game of Never Have I Ever. At which point secrets are told. Accusations are hurled. And the movie demonstrates how the notion of “satanic heavy-metal murders” is, indeed, a corny concocted 1980s cliché that could also be, in its way, the tip of something real.
As the film’s trailer has already revealed, the lambs in this case aren’t going to the slaughter. Far from it. What we’re seeing in “We Summon the Darkness” mixes “Chain Saw” with a touch of Manson with a touch of Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” It’s like a good Blumhouse movie, told in elegantly framed images, and though the situation is extreme, the violent action is staged in a manner that one might describe as the understated version of over-the-top. There are stabbings, slashings, even a power tool (a rotary brush cutter), but there’s no unnecessary blood gush. Whenever someone new shows up (a county sheriff, a nosy stepmother), the suspense peaks, and Meyers makes sensational use of “Heaven” by Belinda Carlisle, which plays quietly, in another part of the house, as the mayhem is happening.
Once you adjust to the fact that you’re watching a booby-trapped house-party slaughter movie, the dark-side-of-girl-power sociology that revved up the first half starts to fade a bit. And when Knoxville’s pastor shows up for real, the actor should have been a wily hoot of decadence, but instead he’s used as a lugubrious Lurch whose presence calls up the standard movie didacticism about toxic Christian hypocrisy. That said, “We Summon the Darkness” is a horror ride worth taking, even if it may be the first film I’ve seen since the coronavirus hit that could totally have used a movie-theater audience. There are certain kinds of thrills that need to be crowd-sourced.