[Note: This review contains moderate spoilers.]
It’s challenging to write cogently about the flaws in Marc Meyers’ late-’80s-set horror-thriller We Summon the Darkness without spoiling the Big Twist that occurs at the end of the film’s first act. Indeed, the fact that Meyers (My Friend Dahmer) and writer Alan Trezza (Burying the Ex) front-load their feature with its most significant narrative swerve is part of the problem. It would be damn hard for any feature-length horror picture to recover when its most compelling plot point arrives with an hour of running time remaining. As We Summon the Darkness continues to grind along, it becomes dispiritingly apparent that the filmmakers have nothing else up their sleeve, save gory but banal survival-horror theatrics.
Not that said twist is hard to see coming: Anyone with even a passing familiarity with how snarky, low-budget horror-thrillers function in Year of Our Lord 2020 will eventually pick out the film’s big reveal as it draws closer. Still, there’s an agreeable frisson in everything that precedes it, a tingling sensation of looming but indefinite threat. The feature’s opening finds metalheads Alexis (Alexandra Daddrio), Val (Maddie Hasson), and Bev (Amy Forsyth) roaring down an anonymous rural Indiana highway on their way to a concert at a run-down, small-town venue. Bev is the odd woman out: The quiet orphan girl who is a bit intimidated by Alexis and Val’s voracious confidence, she seems to have been invited along partly out of pity.
The women are harassed en route by a passing van, but later get their revenge on the occupants when the two groups run into each other at the show. It turns out that the three fellows in the van – the high-strung Kovacs (Escape Room’s Logan Miller), teddy-bear lug Ivan (Austin Swift), and brooding bad boy Mark (Keean Johnson) – are equally enthusiastic metal freaks. (They also have a band of their own, because of course they do.) All is soon forgiven over brewskies, weed, and reminiscences about first concert experiences. After the show, the men propose they keep the party going, and so the six of them decamp to Alexis’ parents’ exurban mansion, which is pointedly vacant while her folks are out of town. More booze is consumed, sloppy flirting is attempted, and the drinking games eventually take an awkward, creepy turn.
By this point, the viewer has already been primed to expect a nefarious reveal. A recent spate of ritualistic murders in the region has dominated both the characters’ conversations and the local radio chatter. Evangelist John Henry Butler (Johnny Knoxville) has taken to the airwaves to blame these slayings on a horde of clandestine Satanists and to denounce modern, secular culture – especially (gasp) rock music – as the means by which these Luciferian cultists expand their corrupting influence.
When the Satanists finally show themselves to the partying metalheads, the twist is at least modestly subversive: The real threat is not fantasy devil worshippers lurking in the surrounding woods but the film’s erstwhile protagonists, Alexis, Val, and Bev. Unfortunately, the men only realize this after guzzling the drinks that the women have spiked with powerful sedatives. When they later awaken, bound to chairs in a sunroom decked out in candles, skulls, and pentagrams, Alexis rather recklessly drops a second bombshell. The women aren’t “real” Satanists at all, but fundamentalist Christian foot soldiers engaged in a homicidal false-flag operation, one aimed at creating new converts (and reaping new donations) through satanic panic.
What follows is essentially a boilerplate survival-horror scenario, with unexpected drop-ins from Alexis’ coke-addled stepmother (Allison McAtee) and a local sheriff’s deputy (Tanner Beard) escalating the situation into a grisly farce. Kovacs, Ivan, and Mark are boorish and dimwitted, but likeable enough, and abruptly recasting them as the film’s protagonists isn’t, strictly speaking, where We Summon the Darkness fumbles. By building the entire screenplay around this relatively early narrative flip-flop, however, Trezza sets up the film up for failure, given that he provides little else for the audience to sink its teeth into for the remaining hour of screen time.
He and director Meyers simply lean on the standard running, hiding, standoffs, escapes, and momentary power reversals that characterize most single-location thrillers, leavening it all with a blackly comic tone. None of this is outright bad, per se, and once the viewer attunes themselves to Alexis and Val’s odd blend of mall-hair vapidity and cackling villainy, the film is modestly enjoyable as bloody, self-aware camp. It’s when the filmmakers make a stab at earnestness – as in Mark’s sensitive-dude attempts to lure the more reluctant and conflicted Bev to their side – that We Summon the Darkness slips into periods of shallow, uninvolving monotony.
The film isn’t really scary, but what atmosphere it possesses is at least partly attributable to the film’s Heartland period setting. Discussions of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton’s death and the imminent release of the band’s strikingly political studio LP …. And Justice for All seem to peg the date to July 1988. This places the film’s events roughly at the apex of the satanic ritual abuse (SRA) panic that gripped the U.S. (and eventually the rest of the world) in the 1980s and ’90s. It turns out to be a fitting moment for a darkly comic horror film about spiritual paranoia in Reagan’s America. That said, We Summon the Darkness is less inspired by the specific details of the SRA panic than the nebulous, conspiratorial fear of the occult that attended a cluster of post-counterculture phenomena – heavy metal, Ouija boards, Dungeons & Dragons – in the imagination of millions of evangelical Christians.
To their credit, Meyers and Trezza evince an understanding of this era’s distinctive anxieties, as well as a low-key appreciation for the crass, scumbag pleasures of metal fandom and youthful rebellion. The filmmakers never sneer at Kovacs, Ivan, and Mark for their passion, and although the commodification of heavy-metal music and culture is acknowledged, We Summon the Darkness posits that metal’s often sneakily tolerant values make for a worthy takeaway. (Trezza even slips in a moment that pointedly undermines the false dichotomy – and covert racism and homophobia – of the lingering “Disco Sucks!” skirmishes of the 1970s, when Ivan declares that, actually, KC and Sunshine Band have some great songs.)
However, the filmmakers’ depiction of Christianity – and specifically of right-wing evangelical culture in the Midwest of the 1980s – feels distractingly phony in a way that isn’t entirely explained by the feature’s comically grotesque qualities. Meyers and Trezza paint Alexis and company as a pack of brazen hypocrites, their self-aware, cartoonish evil clashing with their allegedly puritanical values in a manner that betrays a weak understanding of the specifics of small-town evangelical life and its distinctive brand of blinkered, politically charged hatefulness. After dropping their metalhead guise, Alexis and Val don’t behave like fundamentalist Christian zealots; they turn into gleefully cruel Bond henchmen who talk like mean girls killing time at Hot Topic. That’s the tell that the filmmakers didn’t put much thought into what could have been a much more incisive (yet still funny) exploration of their story’s time and place, rather than a gruesome lark that peaks early and then peters out over its final 60 minutes.
We Summon the Darkness is now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.