Ham-fisted messaging doesn’t take away the darkly humorous subversion of this playful horror

Grayson Lazarus on Marc Meyers’ ‘We Summon the Darkness’ (2019)

Director Marc Meyers’ interest in misdirection materialises in the opening shot of his We Summon the Darkness. A beaming white bunny is caught nibbling on the side of a dirt road presented in shallow focus on ground level while a van approaches. Genre fans should immediately recognise a visual lifted from the rotting armadillo à la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). But Meyers is playing with expectations. The inversion of dead and ugly with alive and beautiful may go unnoticed, but the subconscious play on expectations of who will and won’t become prey is well above commendable; it’s darkly humorous in retrospect. Like the rest of We Summon the Darkness, the subtle subversion is fun, but to what end?

The most overt subversion comes from the framing of a trio of punk concert chicks — Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson), and Bev (Amy Forsyth) — as the conventionally hot ditzes turned tortured victim in any other films from the 1980s (during which We Summon the Darkness is set), into the tormentors. Being Christians at the height of the “Satanic Panic” — a moral outrage over the supposed prevalence of Satanic death cults in the United States, as recently explored in Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan? (2019) — the girls want to play up the harm of rock music by slaughtering and framing the counterculture youth of America and attributing it to the evils of anything outside of conservative Christianity. So they lure another trio of male concert-goers — Ivan (Austin Swift), Mark (Keean Johnson), and Kovacs (Logan Miller) — back to their own lush home in an attempt to frame them as Satanic worshippers.

Playfulness litters the first half to bolster the impact of the changing guard in audience allegiance. Once they meet, both parties of girls and boys are given roughly equal screen time in isolation, making the interests of each seemingly plain — the boys want to bed and the girls want to party. For some viewers, the emphasis on dialogue, absence of horror iconography, and apparent openness of every character in the first thirty minutes might leave them awaiting the arrival of an external force to interrupt the protracted, flirtatious interactions. For others, the sly asides referencing “what they want to do” may give it away, but Meyers is smart enough to leave some suspense for the more alert viewer.

Prior to the reveal — which maturely lacks a musical cue to accentuate the horror of the situation, or pander to those slow on the uptake — when the girls have drugged the guys, one guy eventually moves off to the side to sit down, but not quite lay down. Perhaps he may make a moderately successful run for it? Details like this are littered about. This ability to maintain a scene that can function as a character-building hangout sequence and dramatically ironic suspense set-piece should not merely be levied at writer Alan Trezza. Meyers and the performers are deserving of comparable praise for the manner they play the elongated scene without putting enough emphasis on any line or aside as to make it incriminating.

Subversions abound throughout, but most effectively in the first half as Meyers slowly unveils the film’s direction. Once arrived, we are left with the thrills and set pieces of an effective home invasion film. Tension comes from the escalation of who has access to what sections of the house, what types of weapons are available, and when they will be swung, but the structure of what remains is conventional. A bystander arrives. The police get involved. Allegiances change. Still, despite the structure becoming as clear as a compass, its thrills are not made mute. 

Set pieces are still impactful and the tables turn effectively throughout, beyond the talent Meyers has as a director of suspense. Each performance is exceptional, displaying an appropriately escalating level of playful camaraderie between gendered camps. Interactions are usually founded on talking over one another’s incomplete sentences, building off interruptions, and backtracking to previously missed points — this truly is how drunk people communicate. But each player has more than jovial delivery to make them uniquely endearing come the second half. The girls and boys play exuberant maliciousness and terror respectively with a believable lack of composure, making the pain inflicted on both parties felt. Daddario is the surprising standout as the ideological menace and ringleader of the terrorising Christians. She has come a long way from her roots in the abysmal Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013).

Yet, the flavour is diluted. The second half works in conjunction with its prior portion, but at what cost? Trezza could have aspired for greater genre-bending ambition throughout — similar to a, notably inferior, film called Tragedy Girls (2017) about a duo of teens that kill in order to promote their social media pages. Perhaps choosing to limit the scope of the genre-bending was for the best, as leaning on the iconography of the tried and true home invasion subset prevents the embarrassment of revealing they had little more to say beyond deftly entertaining gimmickry. 

But about Christianity, Trezza is more overt in his ambitions, which may speak truthfully about the stuffiness of conservative tendencies, but does so with such a teenage-minded sensibility that it turns from subversive into didactic. The notion that the church may not always act what they preach is ultimately unable to transcend the exploitative genre. By only allowing the opposing side of the conversation a second’s long tirade from a charlatan preacher on the radio (Johnny Knoxville) the conversation becomes lopsided. Its most successful incitements come in more subtle ways, like the lack of self-reflection the girls have in how gleeful and powerful playing punk makes them feel. They’re sexy, violent, and good at it too, subtly bending over for men who find them attractive and becoming visibly aroused when stabbing and shooting those supposedly lesser than themselves.

Like the cult sleeper hit Trick or Treat (1986), We Summon the Darkness offers a refreshingly sympathetic view towards the punk scene, especially following this decade’s more adversarial tone — consider Green Room (2015). Likely, this approach will appeal to both genre fans and punks of the day and present — that chart is less a Venn diagram and more of a circle. It is the classic exploitation film’s creed and interest in validation of the niche and it does so in structurally surprising ways, despite being unconvincing in its messaging. Still, evocation — not introspection — and going beyond the pale is the immediate appeal of the genre. Both fit comfortably in the wheelhouse of We Summon the Darkness.

Available in the UK on Digital HD now and DVD 11th May.

Grayson Lazarus

By Grayson Lazarus

Grayson Lazarus is a graduate of Literature and Cinema Studies from the State University of New York at Purchase. He has written for Before The Cyborgs and The Purchase Beat.