Written by: Alan Trezza
Directed by: Marc Meyers
Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Maddie Hasson, and Amy Forsyth
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Let us prey.
We Summon the Darkness is the latest horror movie to invoke 80s Satanic Panic, specifically highlighting the eraís unsubtle irony: the loudest voices crusading against this phantom conspiracy often ignored the rot in their own ranks. As the religious right and the so-called moral majority launched a nationwide panic about alleged occult rings perpetrating child abuse, they failed to acknowledge (or just maliciously ignored) the fraud and scandals unfolding among evangelical churches, particularly the televangelists that would be brought to disgrace by decadeís end. The call was very much coming from inside the house. It might be a stretch to say that We Summon the Darkness intricately explores this hypocrisy; itís more accurate to say it exploits it to put a spin on a well-worn formula. But itís a small wrinkle that goes a long way in distinguishing Marc Meyersís film, which flips the script in more ways than one on its way towards treating its audience to some otherwise familiar blood-soaked theatrics.
Let me explain: itís 1988, and Alexis Butler (Alexandra Daddario) is on her way to a heavy metal concert with her friends Val (Maddie Hasson) and Beverly (Amy Forsyth). The concert is the subject of some controversy, as religious groups have protested its very existence, especially given the string of Satanic murders that has plagued the region. On their way to the concert, a radio broadcast announces that the body count is now up to 18, a number they shrug off. Theyíre young, invincible, and ready to party. When someone in a screeching, shady van bombs their windshield with a milkshake and sends them lurching to the side of the road, they laugh this off, too, especially when they arrive at the concert and discover the culprits are a trio of metalheads: Mark (Keean Johnson), Kovacs (Logan Miller), and Ivan (Austin Swift). Sure, their van is decked out with weird Satanic shit, and they seem to know a little bit too much about the murder spree, but theyíre also kinda cute, and Mark is definitely crushing on Bev. Whatís the worst that can happen?
We Summon the Darkness definitely expects viewers to ask this on the girlsí behalf. The long history of horror movies featuring predatory men preying upon unsuspecting women lingers here, leading the audience to assume that these girls are toast. But it turns out, itís the guys who should be more wary here when the gals invite them to a huge mansion after the show. The festivities quickly go south when Alexis and company drug their guestsí drinks and reveal they belong to the church responsible for the murder spree. Now, itís their turn to be officially initiated by offering the boys as sacrifice.
More details and motivations trickle in, but We Summon the Darkness mostly pivots to a stalk-and-slash survival movie for its last hour. Itís an especially well shot, sharply edited one at that, as Meyers craftily blocks scenes to give the audience a good sense of space and geography. The twist here makes it all naturally more interesting, too, especially because the script isnít content to just coast on it. Rather, the film almost becomes a black comedy of errors as unwanted guests descend on the house, unwittingly threatening to wreck the girlsí plans for ritual sacrifice. Things quickly spiral out of control, leaving the girls frantically trying to stick to the original plan and account for the fuck-ups that accumulate along the way. We Summon the Darkness is propulsive as hell as a result because youíre constantly wondering just how haywire itís going to get.
Itís also a lot of fun to watch how the girls react to the escalating situation. Meyers summons a hell of a cast and turns them loose, allowing them to harness the storyís offbeat energy to comedic effect. Daddario is the groupís ringleader, her too cool for school exterior hiding a crafty pragmatism about her grisly exploits. She rightfully plays Alexis as a sort of psycho-in-training: as long as sheís in control, she has a steely-eyed resolve. When she loses her grip, she has to resort to the doe-eyed daddyís girl routine, and itís delightful to watch her squirm once she realizes her entitled little ass just canít talk her way out of things.
On the other end of the spectrum is Maddie Hasson as Val, the bouncy, unrepentant lunatic of the group who seems to take pleasure in the chaos that ensues. Her manic, infectious energy steals the show, especially once you know what the girls are up to. From the outset, itís obvious that Bev is the shy one of the bunch, hesitant to partake in both the normal festivities and the diabolical ones. She emerges as the storyís wild card, and Forsyth depicts her divided loyalties and motivations as a genuine struggle, giving viewers something a little palpable to latch onto outside of all of the carnage.
Likewise, the guys are just decent enough, so We Summon the Darkness does feel like a harrowing survival movie and not just an hour of watching someone lead lambs to the slaughter. The brief attempt to convince us that these guys are Satanic butchers gives way to the realization that theyíre just knuckleheads, recognizable to anyone who was (or ever encountered) metal dudes with aspirations of starting their own band (and not much else in the way of aspiration, of course). Thereís some nice banter between them and the girls before the mayhem unfolds, most of it ringing true. Iím not sure that people were referring to albums ďdroppingĒ back in 1988, but there is a killer joke about everyone looking forward to hearing how Jason Newsted will replace Cliff Burton on the newest Metallica record. I like to imagine that Larsís smug punk-ass would get a kick out of that if he ever watches We Summon the Darkness.
And he should! This one is easily recommendable, mostly because it adheres to a particular indie-horror checklist thatís worked so well lately. Youíve got your 80s period setting, Satanic panic, heavy metal nostalgia, an ironic needle-drop, some stunt casting (Johnny Knoxville wanders in as a sinister televangelist), and a tongue-in-cheek mentality that lets you know itís here to party. It perhaps doesnít party hard enough down the stretch, though, because there's a nagging sense that We Summon the Darkness doesnít hit that final gear to unleash a satisfactory amount of mayhem. Donít get me wrong: itís plenty violent, but the effects leave a little to be desired (as always, CGI fire needs to die in a fire), and it seems to be missing an over-the-top gag that would provide a nice, gory crescendo. Put it this way: one character spends the climax stalking the house, brandishing a dislodged boat motor, only to use the blunt end instead of skewering somebodyís face with it. I believe Chekhov would insist that the propeller be firmly lodged in someoneís skull.
Other than that, We Summon the Darkness is a nice addition to this canon, especially for the persecuted metalhead crowd thatís exerted so much energy destigmatizing their obsessions. Just because youíre decked out in pentagrams and worship the Dark One doesnít mean youíre going to commit ritual murder. Leave that to the ones wearing crosses, it insists, joining the likes of Deathgasm and Hesher in providing vindication and justice for all the disaffected metal kids out there.
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