2017 has certainly been the year of the nostalgic teenage horror movie. Stepehn King´s It and season 2 of Stranger Things have been the big hitters but now there is also Super Dark Times. It is more grounded in realism but it still captures the awful, perilous period of youth where childhood slips away to be replaced by adulthood and the threat of violence.
Unlike the other eighties based productions Super Dark Times is set in the 1990s. Gone are the hilarious clothes and fun movie references to Ghostbusters, instead nineties up state New York is a cold and bleak place to have your childhood. There are numerous references to the time and place – the teenagers wear baggy clothes, play crappy PC games like Minefield and everyone feels like they have been to Kurt Cobain´s stylist (not that he ever had one!) – but the only fun moment reflecting this is when one character talks about beating himself off to Jamie Leigh Curtis strip scene in the borderline misogynist True Lies.
Things start off still with a certain nostalgic gleam though – not for the cultural references but with the perfect way it captures wasted, and wasting, youth. Our main characters are Zach and Josh, two losers whose struggle with their lowly position at school but counter it with the strong friendship they have between them. The early part of the film is an absolute joy as we follow Zach and Josh and their hopes and dreams – which mostly amount to wanting to get laid of course. Even in these fun moments thoughthere is a desperate sadness about this. You can tell that something awful is going to happen, it is hiding just out of sight, but this is not an effects laden roller coaster ride but something much more tragic and real. These boys small lives, and how little experience they have in it, is perfectly reflected in a story one of them says about seeing a girl spill glue all over her hands: ¨Its the most erotic thing I´ve ever seen in my life¨ he says. Its funny but dreadfully sad: a short life of small events about to be turned upside down.
These films about youth really live or die by the casting. When Stranger Things first started people couldn´t believe how great the kid actors were in it, then Stephen King´s It knocked everyone sideways with the best ensemble of children since Stand By Me (admittedly with one of the children from Stranger Things but then he played Richie to perfection so no one was complaining). Picking up Super Dark Times I got to wondering if lightening could strike thrice but fortunately the cast here is great all round. This is especially true of Owen Campbell and Charlie Tahan as the two leads. They come across as believable and awkward friends mulling about wasting their time, waiting for something to happen. They have a genuine chemistry which is sweet and likeable, well to start with anyway. At first they are just like children (although we´re talking a little older than the It/Stranger Things crowd) but when an event spirals out of control it is like you can see the sheen of innocence just drop off their faces. The rest of the cast is equally as good although when we first met Max Talisman as Daryl I wasn´t sure what he was doing – he hilariously shouts all his lines which is a little jarring to start with, compared to the quieter performances around him, but it perfectly suits his crazy character.
The film also looks fantastic. Partly due to the cold autumnal setting, it has a much more grounded feel to it, but that doesn´t mean that it isn´t beautiful. There is once scene in particular which is shot up a hill with the golden sun setting in the background. It isn´t a coincidence that its at this moment that the terrible main event occurs – the sun is setting on the day but also on their happy (ish) lives too. Even the aforementioned gluey hands moment looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Eli Born has done a terrific job here, let´s hope he goes far.
Clearly a personal project of the film makers (hopefully not totally autobiographical) Super Dark Times perfectly captures the mood and despair of misspent youth. Although the title almost suggests a fun romp the emphasis is mostly on the middle word, but don´t let that put you off. This is a beautifully made work which may be set in someone else´s past but is something we can relate to in our present.