A few weeks ago, the then-new episode of the Vehlinggo podcast introduced me to Montreal synth duo Le Matos. Host Aaron Vehling had brought producers Jean-Nicolas Leupi and Jean-Philippe Bernier on the show to talk about their work on the new retro thriller, Summer of 84; the duo had composed and performed the film’s score, while Bernier also served as its cinematographer. With the description of the film and song samples that Leupi and Bernier offered up on the show, I was, to put it mildly, intrigued.
I jumped into the score immediately, but it took me until just this past weekend to actually sit down and watch Summer of 84. So, this edition of Retrocution is going to focus on both: a tremendous, tension building collection of cinematic synthwave tunes, and the decent-but-not-great nostalgia trip that can’t quite match up with them.
Leupi and Bernier formed Le Matos in 2007, citing influences from both pop music as well as synth score masters such as Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter. After a series of singles and remixes, the duo released their debut album, Join Us, in 2013. Two years later, they returned with Chronicles of the Wasteland, which served as the soundtrack to the indie action-adventure comedy, Turbo Kid. (Which featured the same directorial team as 84, as well as another cinematography credit from Bernier.
While the synth score influences did occasionally rear their heads on prior Le Matos releases, the duo’s work on Summer of 84 is their most overtly cinematic to date. It’s a score, rather than a soundtrack, and as such largely eschews their (admittedly, pretty terrific) pop sensibilities in favor of eerie, pulse-quickening ambiance.
You might be tempted to think of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s work on the Stranger Things soundtrack as a comparison point — pop culture recency, and all that — but I’m not sure it’s the right one. See, underlying Stranger Things‘ terrific sci-fi horror tension, there’s a fundamental warmth to Dixon and Stein’s score that reflects the innocence of its child characters. And that innocence, really, is nowhere to be found in Summer of 84. Its heroes are older kids, in some cases with some baggage, who are seeking out a serial killer. In other words, it’s a darker movie that befits a darker sonic palette.
And Leupi and Bernier deliver that in spades. Throughout the film, their score does its part to bolster the sense of unease. As the hunt builds, they add to the tension with unsettling leads and occasional loud bursts, which I’ll call “synthsplosions” for lack of a better term. Even if you listen before watching the movie, you may find yourself — as I did — visualizing potential scenes in which you might find these tracks filling you with dread.
With 45 tracks and more than 90 minutes of music, Le Matos’ Summer of 84 soundtrack is absolutely worth your time, particularly if you’re a fan of synth scores. Get it.
So, I really wanted to like this movie. On paper, it checked so many of the right boxes in my book — Horror? Synth score? Nostalgia bait? 80s? Serial killer? — that it almost seemed like too perfect a fit for my tastes. And the thing is, this should work swimmingly. (“Chillingly”?) It’s the summer of 1984, and the county of Cape May, Oregon, is being terrorized by a serial killer who primarily targets teenage boys. Our protagonist, Davey (Graham Verchere), begins to suspect his his police officer neighbor (Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer) is behind the murders, and leads his friends and, occasionally, the babysitter/love interest next door (Tiera Skovbye) on a covert investigation.
With each additional piece of evidence they find against the neighbor, a new layer of doubt follows suit. But with kids continuing to disappear, the stakes get ever higher. At a glance, it sounds pretty solid, right? And indeed, large portions of the film — the initial stages of the investigation, the growing back-and-forth between suspicion and doubt — are solid enough. The trouble comes when you take Summer of 84 at more than a glance; when you get down to the details, it gets to be a bit of a mess. For example, the film shows us multiple times Davey and his friends really like to play “manhunt” in their neighborhood. But that they’d be allowed to do so with a serial killer terrorizing the area seems… less than plausible?
And then, the kids themselves. I don’t have an issue with the ’80s kid stereotypes (nerd, rebel, fat kid, etc.) so much as I do with the random details the writers attempt to shoehorn in, only to abandon completely. About two-thirds in, for example, we see glimpses of problematic home lives for Woody (Caleb Emery) and Eats (Judah Lewis), whose parents are struggling with substance abuse and, just…apparently, hating each other, respectively. Handled properly, these could have added some depth and sympathy to the characters; instead, they’re just touched on in passing far too late in the game, and never followed up on. It feels like an “I definitely have breast cancer” moment in a film that should be above such things. And it frustrates even more given the non-explanations of things like… I dunno, how these misfits came to be friends? Or why Davey’s much-older babysitter — the embodiment of the stereotypical “cool girl” — is so compelled to hang out with these kids. (Particularly after catching them spying on her naked early on in the proceedings!)
By the time the ill-advised, multi-part ending finally runs its course, the writing’s negated a significant portion of the goodwill built up from what Summer of 84 does right. And make no mistake, it does do a good amount right: Bernier’s cinematography, the slow-growing tension that develops throughout the investigation, the score… hell, even the performances! Sommer excels as the film’s prime suspect, and the kids are likable enough in their roles as well. You just wish the writers had given them better material to work with.
In the end, Summer of 84‘s not great, but nor is it terrible. It’s a fine, kind-of forgettable piece of nostalgia bait. Watch it, or don’t, but do not skip out on Le Matos’ score. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Keep it heavy,