Making a grand entrance into the world of directing, Billy Bryk and Finn Wolfhard present their feature debut, Hell of a Summer. With the vibes reminiscent of Friday the 13th and Sleep Away Camp, this film delivers nostalgia that captures the essence of the golden age of horror slasher cinema. Each character checks off the 1980s horror trope boxes, ensuring that every campy moment feels both authentic and delightfully over the top. Bryk and Wolfhard also star.
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Starts with John and Cathy, owners of Pineway Summer Camp sitting around a campfire drinking beer and playing guitar. When one of them leaves to grab more alcohol, things end very badly for the two of them. Cut to Jason (Fred Hechinger) in the passenger seat while his mom drives him to work as a camp counselor at Pineway for $115 a week. The arrival of the other counselors presents a colorful array of typical horror trope personalities including Mike the jock (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai,), his girlfriend Demi (Paradis Saremi), best friends Bobby (Bryk) and Chris (Wolfhard), Chris’ love interest Shannon (Krista Nazaire), goth girl Noelle (Julia Lalonde), vegan-obsessed Miley (Julia Doyle), Timothée Chalamet look-alike Ezra (Matthew Finlan), theater kid Ari (Daniel Gravelle), and Claire (Abby Quinn), the avid loner. They arrive early to train and wait for the kids to arrive.
Jason is the lovable weirdo whose heart is in the right place. He’s worried because John and Cathy aren’t there yet when they are usually the first ones at camp. Jason is trying his best to bond with the others, but it’s not working because they don’t take him seriously. But with a killer starts offing folks, he finds the courage to become the leader he’s always wanted to be.
Wolfhard, known for playing Mike Wheeler on Stranger Things, showcases the accrued wealth of experience he’s gained from the popular Netflix series. Together with Bryk, they craft a distinct cinematic piece that is both a tribute to and a reinvention of the slasher genre. Considering that this is their first venture into directing, and given their tender age, Hell of a Summer is an outstanding debut. However, there are still some things to learn as lighting is an issue. Some scenes that dip into the darkness of the nighttime camp setting are so dimly lit, in addition to what looks like a dark blue filter to make it even darker, that I found myself squinting quite a bit. But this murky choice also can work in the film’s favor, nudging the viewer into an even deeper state of suspense and uncertainty.
Hell of a Summer doesn’t just rely on its aesthetic for thrills. The film’s plot boasts a series of clever setups and payoffs that are utilized to great effect. These, combined with some of the subversive twists and turns, ensure that even the most seasoned horror aficionados might be caught a little off-guard. There’s also a sprinkle of social commentary as the killer’s motives reveal the nonsensical nature of the antagonist’s rationale and offers a cheeky nod to our culture’s – particularly Gen Z’s – obsession with fame and the lengths some might go for a taste of notoriety, even in the most ludicrous of circumstances.
Hell of a Summer is a delightful mix that strikes the right balance of ’80s horror nostalgia and fresh, modern creativity. While it occasionally stumbles in its visual execution, the clever narrative and sharp societal insights ensure it’s a movie worth watching. With a cast that shines and two budding directors showcasing immense promise, this is one flick that’s bound to leave the audience with a smile on their face and a knife in their back.
Title: Hell of a Summer
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Directors-screenwriters: Finn Wolfhard, Billy Bryk
Cast: Fred Hechinger, Abby Quinn, Billy Bryk, Finn Wolfhard, Pardis Saremi, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Rosebud Baker, Adam Pally, Krista Nazaire, Matthew Finlan, Julia Lalonde, Daniel Gravelle, Julia Doyle, Susan Coyne
Running time: 1 hr 28 mins
Sales agent: Altitude Film Sales
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