Premise: In 1984, a group of teenage friends suspect that their neighbor is a serial killer and spend the summer trying to prove it.
About: Summer of ’84 made last year’s Blood List and is currently in post-production. The writers are newbies. But the script is being directed by the trio behind the weird yet beloved breakout indie film, “Turbo Kid,” – Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell. I didn’t even know it was possible to have three directors on a film. Ya learn something every day!
Writers: Matt Leslie & Stephen J. Smith
Details: 111 pages
Don’t count out those 1980s nostalgia-driven small-town group of teenage friends horror movies just yet. Cause we’ve got another one coming at you courtesy of last year’s Blood List. I didn’t put much stock into “Summer” until I saw it was being directed by the trio who made Turbo Kid. At the very least, these guys have a unique voice. So their take on the Stephen King Steven Spielberg world of 80s teenagers should be interesting.
Of particular interest in today’s screenplay will be TROPES. Tropes are common beats within genres that are generally acceptable to use if they’re done well. However, if they’re not, they get hit with that most dreaded of labels – CLICHE! And no writer wants to hear that word thrown about in relation to their script. We’ll talk about tropes more in a second. In the meantime, let’s break down Summer of 84’s plot.
In case you have trouble reading titles, it’s 1984. The summer, to be exact. Davey Armstrong is 14 years old and things are looking up. He’s got a group of friends (geeky Farraday, big lug Woody, and punk Eaton, or “Eats”) that he hangs around with every day. And he’s even got a crush, 17 year old neighbor Nikki, who likes chatting with him. Life could be worse.
But Davey’s small Massachusetts’ town has been wracked by a series of missing children of late – teenagers specifically. And Davey suspects that his neighbor, 40-something Mackey, a charming cop, has been killing these kids and burying them in his backyard. At first, Davey’s friends think he’s nuts. But when someone they know goes missing and was last seen near Mackey’s house, they change their tune.
The plan is to stake out Mackey for a couple of weeks and gather evidence to bring to their parents. They know they have to be thorough because Mackey’s a cop. So that’s what they do. And because this is the 80s, their stakeout bag consists of two things – walkie-talkies and binoculars.
Meanwhile, Davey tries to get it on with the older Nikki, using her parents’ impending divorce as an emotional “in.” And it’s actually working! It seems like everything’s working until Mackey catches wind of the kids watching him. This forces the gang to unload their serial killer theory on their parents. It doesn’t go as planned, with the embarrassed parents forcing the kids to apologize to Mackey.
Their investigation a bust, it’s time to move on with their lives. And that’s what Davey plans to do. The problem is, he can’t get rid of a nagging feeling that something’s off about Mackey. It’s time to find out what’s going on once and for all. And hopefully live to tell about it.
Back to tropes.
There was a moment in Summer of ’84 where Davey waits for his mom to tuck him in for the night and leave the room. As soon as she’s gone, he busts out his walkie-talkie, calling his friends, while simultaneously watching the girl of his dreams undress in the next door house. I considered closing the script right then and there.
The 80s walkie-talkie thing. The girl undressing in the next door house. These are tropes. And tropes can work. But ONLY if they’re used alongside an otherwise original script. If the dialogue is popping. If the characters feel unlike characters we typically see in these movies. If the writing itself has a unique voice. If the plot is doing things you didn’t expect…
When you do these things, tropes work because they’re the familiar residing within the unfamiliar. However, when everything else in the story is familiar, then tropes become cliches. These kids were all kids I’ve seen before. The things they were doing (walkie-talkies, bragging about fucking moms) were all things I’ve seen before. So a trope about the girl of your dreams undressing in the adjacent house is just one more thing I’ve seen before. It’s the familiar within the familiar.
In the writers’ defense, this was likely written before Stranger Things and It came out. However! That doesn’t completely get you off the hook. If two other high profile movies/shows are making the same choices you are, regardless of whether those choices came before or after your script, it means you’re not digging deep enough. If you were digging deep enough, writers wouldn’t be using the same things you were. You’d be using stuff that NOBODY thinks of.
I also thought the dialogue could’ve been better. Whenever you have teenagers, that’s going to be a dialogue-dependent script. The dialogue will have to stand out. Some of the dialogue here is okay. But there were too many times where it only felt adequate. “I bet her hair smells like Vidal Sassoon.” “Definitely. If I was over there right now, she’d be pregnant.” “Guys, show her a little respect. Her parents are getting divorced.” “Statistically that means she’s, like, 78 percent more likely to engage in pre-marital sex.”
Not bad. But it almost feels like the safe version of how teenagers talk. That’s what I loved about Stephen King. He had his kids talk like real kids. There was never a sense that he was holding back. And that’s what makes a great writer. Someone who’s fearless and always pushing boundaries. If you’re afraid to offend or afraid to go too far, believe me, your dialogue will feel that way. Plus, King is just so damn clever. There’s always bite to his dialogue, even during the most mundane conversations.
Summer of ’84 gets better as it goes on. My favorite part was the relationship between Davey and Nikki. It felt like we were really experiencing the trauma a young girl goes through when she finds out her parents are getting divorced, and that brought some character development to a movie that was, for the most part, plot-based.
We talked about this yesterday. A plot feels empty unless you’re exploring multiple characters on a deeper level. And that’s why “It” worked. They took the time to get to know all the kids and their families. They took the time to add fears and flaws to all the kids. They even took the time to build character into the group itself, a self-identifying gang of “Losers.”
Remember, once you add an identity to a character, you can explore that character’s transformation throughout the script. So it isn’t just about “Will they catch the killer or not?” It’s about, “Will this boy ever become brave? Will he ever stand up for himself?” which was the case for the main character in Netflix’s “The Babysitter.” You can’t give your character an ending point if you never gave him a starting point.
Summer of 84’ isn’t a bad script at all. The problem is that there isn’t anything exceptional about it. If you don’t have any part of your screenplay that stands out, it makes it hard for the script itself to stand out.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: With any horror script, there has to be a sense of danger present. Maybe not right away. But once we hit the second act, it should be there. I never felt that in Summer of ’84. It felt more like a group of kids having fun. Establish that sense of danger in your horror script and make sure the danger keeps bubbling up throughout. If we, the reader, feel safe for the majority of the journey, you’re not relying enough on fear.