Set in an familiar and ambiguous time and place (mid-90s in anytown USA), Super Dark Times functions as a kind of trojan house until its twist. Delivering horror thrills, the Kevin Phillips-directed feature first and foremost invests in character development as an effective and sympathetic coming-of-age story until it lives up to its title. We follow four friends Zach (Owen Campbell), Josh (Charlie Tahan), Daryl (Max Talisman), and Charlie (Sawyer Barth) as they have mild, seemingly innocent adventures: watching scrambled pay-per-view softcore porn, playing 8-bit video games, biking over an abandoned bridge, and ultimately stealing from Josh’s brother. The last part doesn’t end well and it is impossible to discuss the film without spoiling the twist.
Before I provide fair warning and get into spoilers I’ll simply say Super Dark Times delivers on its premise. Virtually free from quirk and black humor, the film is an effective, nasty thriller and a rare horror film that provides an emotional investment because the portrait of teenhood is utterly authentic. These are not sexy 20/30-somethings playing teens wise beyond their years in a throwaway product designed for the weekend multiplex crowd . Phillips and cast offer something significantly more nuanced than that.
Should you wish to have part of the film revealed for you, continue onwards.
Opening like a traditional teen melodrama, Super Dark Times gives its characters a substantial amount of breathing room. The heart of the film’s first act is the relationship of Zach (Campbell) and Josh (Tahan). The former is an average student living with his loving mother Karen (Amy Hargreaves), while Josh’s home life seems to be off, especially in the wake of his brother’s departure to join the Marines. Daryl, a chubby and obnoxious kid, soon meets his end after the boys retreat into the woods playing with a sword they’ve found. Daryl officially goes missing, strangely without much of a community search party.
Zach, Josh, and Charlie are forced into keeping the secret, all while vying for the attention of pretty classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) as she grows into something of an obsession for both Zach and Josh. The film is grounded by true guilt as Zach reconciles what he believes to have been an accident while the community grapples with the tragedy.
The film’s tense conclusion wraps up by showing its scale as parents get involved. Typically, the kind of teen problems that lead to good kids getting detention (like showing up to school late) feel awful in the moment, but are relatively small in comparison to the horizons of one’s life. The film is deeply in touch with these emotions and it’s a superbly unsettling experience. Phillips and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski aren’t interested in one-off jump scenes — this is not a Wes Craven teen horror movie.
As Super Dark Times unspools, it becomes clear the film is a kind of serial killer original story with sharp emotions and an intense commitment to the material. It’s as unsettling as It Follows, also set in a suburb where something is ever so slightly off. Perhaps for those of us that grew up in a generic middle class suburbia, the film is like staring into the uncanny valley: we all knew which kids were unstable for one reason or another.
Super Dark Times screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens on September 29.