NB: it’s impossible to write about this film properly without at least hinting at a reveal at the end of the first act – so maybe take my word it’s worth seeing, with reservations about its finale, then come back for the rest of the notes.
I’ll put some pictures in to edge the text off screen …
Okay, here we go.
For a film that’s mostly very good at evoking its 1988 setting, We Summon the Darkness irritatingly opens with a bum note – a dialogue exchange that so uses a fillip of speech that caught on much more recently. Then, it improves greatly. Long-time pals Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) and Val (Maddie Hasson) and relatively recent in-group adoptee Bev (Amy Forsyth) are on the road to a Soldiers of Satan heavy metal concert – we don’t really see or hear the band, which is odd – and dolled up in Satanic slut gear, though they’re also surprisingly light and chirrupy for their supposed sub-culture. On the road, they get dissed by a sinister van – a chocolate millkshake bomb blots their window – but at the concert they find their nemeses are actually three fairly decent if nakedly lecherous rock-type guys, Mark (Keean Johnson), Lovacs (Logan Miller) and Ivan (Austin Swift). The girls invite the guys back to a lush, isolated home owned by Alexis’ father for what everyone presumes will be an evening of unbridled debauchery, which of course turns into a nightmare scenario.
Like a few other recent films (Regression, Spiral, Satanic Panic), this draws on the tabloid Satanic cult paranoia of the 1970s and ‘80s. On television, pastor John-Henry Butler (Johnny Knoxville) is fulminating against the Devil’s music while the news carries stories of a series of ritual slayings. Things diverge from the expected hijinx in a game of ‘Never Have I Ever …’ which lets slip some clues – like why Bev can’t say ‘never have I ever spent a night in jail’ – that build on a few other odd wrongnesses – like why Alexis can’t remember what her first concert was – to set up an uh-oh moment with ‘never have I ever drugged someone’s drink’.
It has some thematic overlap with Green Room as a small group of characters make some wrong decisions and find themselves trapped with folk who have absurd reasons to kill them, but it also touches on a lot of other issues – including hypocritical evangelism, always a good target – and peer pressure. But it’s mostly a farcical romp with violence, showcasing seriously out-of-control performances – especially from Daddario, who has an eclectic genre CV (Texas Chainsaw 3D, True Detective Series One, San Andreas, We Have Always Lived at the Castle) and seems to be looking for roles that lift her out of the ‘pretty girl’ category. Screenwriter Alan Trezza also wrote Joe Dante’s Burying the Ex – a film I’m kind of uncomfortable with – and gave Daddario a plum role in that, but she really gets a workout here, and is matched by equally committed work from Maddie Hasson and Logan Miller in the extreme zone, allowing for more subtle, complicated work from Keean Johnson and Amy Forsyth as the token slightly sensitive members of the trios.
Late in the day, Knoxville shows up in person – along with a few too many other intruders, most of whom just serve to up the body count – and cannily underplays his easy-to-dislike character, but the film rather rushes through a tangle of plot, with one notably poor CGI effect spoiling a key character’s fate. Marc Meyers made the rather thoughtful My Friend Dahmer, and carries over some serious concerns into this more knockabout effort, which stumbles a little but has many outrageous comic/horrific moments and certainly allows Alexandra Daddario what ought to be a signature role.