Dark Summer director Paul Solet became an overnight sensation in the horror world with the release of his film debut, zombie-baby shocker Grace. A film that wasn't fated to survive its own hype, it certainly presented a bold new vision from a filmmaker willing to undertake dark projects with taboo subject matter. Generally in situations like this, filmmakers waste no time in announcing their next project, whether it be solicited or unsolicited. Lucky McKee, for instance, went from May to The Woods. Brad Anderson jumped from Session 9 to The Machinist. But for whatever reason, it wasn't the same story for Grace's director. Six long years would go by before his next feature length project, this being the technology-haunting ghost thriller Dark Summer. Sadly, had it even been made just one year later, it still wouldn't have been worth the wait.
Dark Summer's biggest failure is its lack of originality; it's an amalgamation of other horror/thriller films, and it seems to know it. The most obvious comparison is Disturbia, D.J. Caruso's surprisingly solid teenage rendition of Rear Window, which also featured a troubled adolescent on house arrest after having made a very bad, emotionally-driven choice. In Dark Summer, one of its characters stares at the electronic bracelet on Daniel's ankle and remarks, "This is just like that Shia Lebeouf movie!" - as if by doing so, the film is calling itself out before the audience can. From the buzzing of flies to waking nightmares to spells of enchantment to spirited blowjobs lifted out of Ghostbusters, Dark Summer coasts as much as it can on preordained horror tropes before finally setting sail on its own merits, which, ironically, aren't strong enough to support it while remaining engaging for its rather short running time.
Dark Summer wants it both ways: it wants to present an old-school atmosphere and approach to paranormal horror, right down to the late '80s/early '90s hazy interiors, but add into the mix an almost nauseating dependency on and references to every modern Internet destination and social media site. Google, Facebook, Skype, "The Cloud" - all here, all accounted for, and all serving to handicap the story instead of servicing it. Try as filmmakers might, social media as a threat simply doesn't make for good horror-based conflict. Romero tried it with Diary of the Dead. Underground runaway hit Antisocial nearly achieved success, but became confused by its own rules. That these tools of instant communication are actually somewhat hindering our natural-given abilities for direct communication is certainly ripe for satirical reimagining, but Dark Summer doesn't do anything with it. The technological/social media aspect is presented just long enough to propel the conflict into being and then remains a background player until the third act, when the kids then begin literally Googling how to get rid of ghosts.
Though our young cast does solid work, our lead comes off whiney and unlikeable, whereas one of his ghost-hunting friends, who remains a primary character through to the end, never even has his name spoken aloud, leaving us to wonder who he is. Peter Stormare is both completely miscast and entirely wasted as Daniel's parole officer, as well the worst police detective in probably the entire world: watch as he forbids Daniel from having contact with any of his friends, who then stay at Daniel's house day in and day out and come/go as they please...without him noticing; watch as these same two kids sneak out of an abandoned house's closet directly behind him...without him noticing. The only bright spot to Dark Summer is Stella Maeve as Abby, who's able to convey her character's inner workings and motivations with just the nuances of her face and her longing glances. If there was only one character the audience would come away having cared about, it would be Abby. Sadly, the film saw fit to focus elsewhere.
If you've never seen a haunted house movie in your life, and if you think Twitter is #terrifying, Dark Summer just might be for you. But for the more seasoned horror crowd, its groan-inducing twist and its shock ending that for some reason resorts to black comedy at the very last second -- and this having followed eighty minutes of which there was none -- Dark Summer will feel both like familiar territory and a missed opportunity.
Thankfully, Dark Summer feels more like a stumble from a filmmaker who is capable of better rather than a sign of things to come from a one-hit wonder director. Just don't tweet about it, or adorable goth girl ghosts will haunt you.