Movies: Super Dark Times (2017)

Like many of the movies I end up watching and covering on this series, I can’t remember exactly how I first heard of 2017’s Super Dark Times, an independent movie that not only marked the directorial debut of cinematographer Kevin Phillips, but managed to scoop up the H.R. Giger Award for Best Feature Film at the Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival in Switzerland the year it was released. I imagine I probably saw it pop up on a couple of “best horror on [fill in streaming service] lists, and thought it sounded intriguing, so I finally got around to viewing it. Incidentally, the screenplay was penned by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, who also wrote another film I covered not too long ago, 2020’s The Night House.

Less a straightforward horror film and more a very grim, coming-of-age psychological thriller, Super Dark Times is a stunningly assured first feature, a tension-filled and bleakly unsettling examination of the aftermath of a tragedy. I’ve seen it compared to films like Mean Creek, River’s Edge, Donnie Darko, and Stand By Me, and those are all completely apt comparisons; the vibe of this movie fits right into that sort of poisonously nostalgic glimpse into the dark side of teenage lives and relationships prior to the internet era.

The film opens on a brilliantly chilling scene that doesn’t really have anything specifically to do with the events to follow, but sets the uneasy mood perfectly: we close in on a deserted-looking school building with one broken window, and then go inside to see the disordered classroom with desks askew and blood on the floor. It turns out that a deer has crashed through the window and is in the process of dying; the cops come in and aren’t sure exactly what to do, until one of them almost angrily puts the deer out of its misery by stomping it to death.

From there, we move on into the story proper. Set in the early-to-mid 1990s in what appears to be the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, Super Dark Times follows two best friends, Zach (played by Owen Campbell, who I recently saw in both 2020’s My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, and Ti West’s X from 2021) and Josh (played by Charlie Tahan, from 2007’s I Am Legend and the TV series Ozark). For the first bit of the movie, we’re just hanging out with these two teenage boys, doing what teenage boys did in the 90s: trying to look at scrambled porn on TV, playing Minesweeper, lusting over pictures of their female classmates in the yearbook, riding bikes around the neighborhood, and talking shit. The acting in this is superb, by the way; having been a high school student in the late 1980s myself, I can attest that both the activities and the way the boys talked to one another were eerily spot on, and so naturalistic that it’s hard to believe that these actors weren’t even born when this movie was supposed to be set.

This being a time way before cell phones, structured after-school activities, and helicopter parenting, the boys and their classmates are largely left to their own devices; their parents don’t get home until after dark, and even when they are there, they don’t hover over their offspring, which ends up being a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. It seems relevant that this film was set before the Columbine massacre, which changed how parents and society as a whole viewed certain behaviors in their children.

The town itself, which appears small and somewhat economically depressed, also looks empty much of the time, giving the whole film a desolate, almost post-apocalyptic feel, as if these kids are completely alone and cut off, not only from the authority figures in their lives, but also from the wider world.

While frittering away an afternoon by riding bikes and buying snacks, Zach and Josh happen to meet up with a kid they sort of know named Daryl, who is kind of seen as a loser, and Daryl’s friend Charlie, who is still in middle school. Josh, perhaps wanting to show off a bit, takes the boys back to his house and lets them into his older brother’s room; his brother is away in the Marines. The room is like a teenage boy fantasy: there’s porn plastered all over the walls, there’s a bunch of weed the guy left behind, and there’s a nice, sharp katana. Daryl wants to smoke the weed, but Josh gets mad and tells him not to because it belongs to his brother. Daryl seems to relent, so they take the sword and decide to go fuck around with it, slicing open milk cartons in an empty field while they quarrel pettily about girls and superheroes.

However, a problem arises when it comes to light that Daryl absolutely stole the weed from Josh’s brother’s bedroom, and he and Josh get into a heated argument which ends with Josh accidentally stabbing Daryl in the throat with the katana. The boys understandably freak out, trying to stem the tide of blood, and they wig out even more when Daryl—running purely on adrenaline—actually gets up and runs off into the woods. By the time they catch up to him, though, Daryl has bled out and is lying dead on the forest floor. Panicked, they decide to hide the body and the sword, and pretend like they have no idea what happened.

From then on, the friendship between Josh and Zach begins to crumble as each of them tries to deal with the secret in their own way. Zach is consumed by guilt, thinking of how Daryl’s mother must be worried sick about him, and personally unable to deal with the fact that everyone is concerned about a missing boy whose fate he knows for certain. He’s also conflicted by the fact that his crush, Allison, has started to return his feelings, and he wants to pursue it but is too emotionally distraught and isn’t able to tell her why.

On the other hand, Josh locks himself away in his room for days, telling his mom he’s sick, but when he emerges and comes back to school, he acts like nothing untoward happened at all, and what’s worse, he seems to be lashing out in ways he didn’t before, such as calling their teachers names and acting generally sort of off. Zach really starts to get worried when another classmate—who Josh absolutely despised—turns up dead in an apparent accident or suicide, and he begins to suspect that Josh might have had something to do with it.

As I mentioned, this is more a very dark thriller about teenage relationships and murder than a traditional horror film, but I actually think certain types of horror fans will really dig it, because it has a very ominous vibe to it that makes you feel as though things could spiral out of control at any minute. The acting is impeccable, the cinematography forbidding yet somehow beautiful, and the score and musical choices—with songs by Black Flag, Bad Religion, Wire, and The Comsat Angels, among others—really set the nervily somber mood that transported me right back to that time. It’s a fantastic dark drama that I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in such things.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s