Stephen King’s stories of childhood terror and wonder continue to resonate so strongly with audiences today—including via Andrés Muschietti’s adaptation of It, and the Duffer Brothers’ spiritual homage Stranger Things—because they paint an authentic warts-and-all portrait of male adolescence. In his best work, King pinpoints how boys develop camaraderie, and a mature sense of self, through time spent discussing stupid stuff—and talking shit to each other. It’s the way they figure out who they are, how they come to learn about the adult world, and how they get themselves into (and out of) unholy trouble. Not to mention, it’s their primary outlet for confronting their twin fixations: sex and violence.
Super Dark Times, the feature directorial debut of Kevin Phillips, isn’t based on a particular King tale, but it’s hard not to draw parallels between it and the author’s 1982 novella The Body (i.e. Stand by Me)—both because of its focus on the believably profane, tight-knit dynamic shared by young best friends, and because its narrative involves a corpse lying in the middle of a wooded nowhere. Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, and in theaters this Friday, September 29, it’s a mounting-dread thriller expertly designed to provide a fix for suspense-hungry retro genre fans. What truly distinguishes it from the rest of the kids-on-bikes pack, however, is its pitch-perfect evocation of boys coming of age under extreme duress, as well as its bleak outlook on the viability of emerging from that tumultuous process unscathed.
Phillips sets a mood of traumatic calamity from the outset, his camera slowly moving from sunset-dappled mountain ranges to menacing lines of trees to a broken school window and blood splotches demarcating a path through hallways—all of it culminating in the discovery of a gasping-for-final-breaths deer that seems to have unwisely broken into the building. Whispered conversation between faculty members and cops soon follows. As Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) and her classmates are ushered out of the room, one police officer grabs ahold of the wounded creature’s head while the other—a look of revulsion-yet-resolve on his face—brutally brings his foot down, twice, on the animal, putting it out of its misery. The message is clear: no safe spaces here.
Super Dark Times cuts from that horrible scene of violation and viciousness to fuzzy tracking-impaired images from a VHS porno, in front of which Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Ozark’s Charlie Tahan) sit, flipping through their yearbook and pointing out which females they’d most like to screw. It’s typically crass 16-year-old guy’s-guy chitchat, and it doesn’t subside once they head out—on their E.T.-ish bikes, naturally—to meet up with heavyset Daryl (Max Talisman) and his from-another-high-school pal Charlie (Sawyer Barth). They’re an immature foursome blabbing about comic book superheroes, cursing up a storm while discussing the grossness of dried squid (which they all try), bragging about how they’re immortal (“like Highlander”) and, in Daryl’s case, announcing that he jerked off “two-and-a-half times” to True Lies’ striptease scene. It’s foul-mouthed blather of an idiotic order. Yet as it continues—both at a closed bridge they visit, and then the next day in the bedroom of Josh’s older Marine brother, where they discover weed and a samurai sword—it also becomes clear that their dirty insults and boasts are their means of asserting their manliness, testing their mates, and also fishing for information on things they’ve heard about but don’t quite understand.
It’s a subtle impression, but one that immediately bolsters Super Dark Times’ characterizations, which are further developed during run-ins with local bullies and anecdotes such as Josh recounting (and us seeing, in one of many deft flashback snippets) how he watched a glue bottle explode all over Allison’s hands, and “It was the most erotic moment of my life”—a comment he then has to follow up by explaining to Josh, “You know, the glue’s like sperm.” In essence, they’re good-hearted know-nothings, as naïve as they are reckless. It’s the latter part of that equation that soon comes into focus when, while out in a field throwing milk cartons into the air and slicing them to pieces with the aforementioned samurai sword, a fight leads to a tragedy. And then, a panicked cover-up, agreed upon by those who haven’t been hurt, and who now must band together in order to maintain their secret.
Like so much genre fare, Super Dark Times operates best when one doesn’t know what’s around the bend. Yet it’s spoiler-safe to say that what emerges is less a traditional horror film than a character study in which remorse, rage and desire uneasily comingle—as epitomized by a school PA announcement about missing children that’s juxtaposed with a girl moaning as she clicks her pen, its tip going in and out, in and out. Such conflicting emotions all reside within Zach, who wrestles with what he and his friends have done while simultaneously coping with the affection of his crush, Allison, whose advances he finds too overwhelming to handle. As the story proceeds, director Phillips reveals that the time frame for this nightmare seems to be Christmas circa the mid-1990s, thanks to a brief Bill Clinton appearance on TV, and a soundtrack that includes PM Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.” Such details, though, are less crucial than the overarching air of dreamy menace that hangs over the proceedings, especially once Zach begins suffering from guilt-ridden slow-mo nightmares, even in the middle of class.
There are shades of not only Stephen King in Super Dark Times, but also Spielberg, River’s Edge and Donnie Darko. Phillips filters his material through a disarming aesthetic (ominous tracking shots, haunting silhouettes-at-dusk imagery, swoon-worthy and cacophonous music) that only occasionally feels like it’s trying too hard to announce its director’s stylistic skills. Nonetheless, aside from its superb lead performances, the strongest connection it shares with its predecessors remains a deep, genuine understanding of male teenagerdom—a phase that’s volatile, gross, sweet and stupid (the number of Crime 101 no-no’s committed here is astounding). The director and his screenwriters comprehend that high school is a period of often-calamitous internal and external upheaval, and in their finale (and its murderous revelations), they argue that the hearts of teen boys can be so dark as to be unknowable. More chilling still, they recognize that all it takes to tip such individuals over into outright nihilism is a single, random, accidental act.