Super Dark Times

Studio: The Orchard
Directed by Kevin Phillips

Sep 26, 2017 Web Exclusive
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As more millennials hit their thirties, the standing obsession with Eighties culture has been subsumed by nostalgia for the Nineties. Although an organizing cultural principle for that decade is more elusive than others, it’s easy to see why the Nineties might become a romanticized era in years to come. The Cold War was over and the War on Terror was still years away. The internet and cellular phones were in their infancy, providing teens with new means of connectivity but not yet dominating their daily lives. Super Dark Times, the feature debut of writer/director Kevin Phillips, harkens back to those years with an honest eye and a bloody mind.

Comparisons to Stand By Me and Donnie Darko have already been made, but the film in which Super Dark Times footsteps seems to be following is It Follows. Although It Follows kept its time period purposefully vague - Super Dark Times seems to land somewhere around 1996 - both films view the suburbs of decades past through a dreamy, twilight lens that focuses into a waking nightmare. The narrative of Super Dark Times never becomes overtly supernatural, but it presents its horrific elements with a surrealism that reads as such. The film stars Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan as Zach and Josh, two fifteen-year old best friends whiling away their youth in a quiet Hudson Valley town. Following a horrific accident, their attempts to cover up their involvement leads them down a path of paranoia, fear and violence that threatens to destroy their friendship.

Despite an opening sequence featuring a dead deer that telegraphs its sinister intentions, the first act of Super Dark Times plays like a low-key character study, building a minor world of autumnal suburbia with care and detail. The sharp script and natural performances paint an accurate picture of teen boys, complete with their stupid hypothetical tangents and performative one-upmanship interactions. The plot appearing like an intruder in the film itself seems by design, but the slice of life story Phillips is telling up to that point is engaging enough to support an entire film of its own. The instincts he displays during the early scenes - sharp edits and sudden soundtrack cues contrasted against lingering shots of landscapes or characters simply conversing - continue to serve him well once the film takes its turn. The soundtrack transforms into single piercing notes and repurposed sound effects, and the sharp cuts communicate uncertainty and fear rather than teenage exuberance. He’s also aware of how powerful autumn itself is when invoking both nostalgia and dread. The sun is low and cold in the sky in the background of many shots and the presence of rotting pumpkins on stoops and early-bird Christmas decorations capture the season in a way that’s both alluring and off-putting.

If there’s any points to be docked from Super Dark Times, they come from the final twenty minutes, which hit the gas a little too hard and muddles whatever message the film is attempting to impart. As an exercise in escalating drama and thrills, however, the film works beautifully. Perhaps above all else, Phillips deserves credit for crafting a work that pinpoints nostalgia without resorting to pandering references and nudging the audience to make sure they get it. Specific touches in that regard are minor - a beeper, some scrambled porn, our main characters checking out hot girls in an old yearbook rather than on Facebook - and avoid bludgeoning the audience with obvious pop hits and stereotypical fashion ensembles. Instead, Super Dark Times appeals to the tactile and sensory memories of anyone who grew up in a middle-class suburb around the turn of the century. 

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10



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