We Summon the Darkness is just plain dull. It is dull to look at, dull to listen to, and dull to sit through. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie, so thoroughly and almost contemptuously, this dull.
It is the cinema equivalent of spinning one’s wheels; much happens but none of it means anything or is even remotely amusing. Marc Meyers directs We Summon the Darkness with a visual flatness that threatens to derail the entire picture from the get-go. From the very beginning, it becomes clear neither Meyers nor the writer Alan Trezza, have any clue what to do with either the cast or the so-called story itself.
The cast, it should be noted, is far from blame. Alexandra Daddario, who plays Alexis, is the type of talent that most movies have no idea how to utilize. They are too busy concerning themselves with her beauty rather than her skill. If you have the chance, see Stacie Passon’s 2018 We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Her performance in that is so subtle yet electrifying you will find yourself wondering how she is not a bigger star. Daddario is so much better than what she is normally allowed to be, that once you know this, it becomes painful to watch her in something as subpar as We Summon the Darkness.
Alexis is joined by her two friends Val (Maddie Hasson) a vain girl one with a small bladder, and Beverly (Amy Forsyth) the shy awkward one of the group. Hasson ends up stealing the show, if only because she so gleefully leans into her character as the makeup obsessed, damaged stereotype with a refreshing gusto. Beverly for her part does her best with grounding Beverly and trying to make her believable in a movie that doesn’t once ever commit to anything other than trying to fool us.
But it doesn’t fool us, not for a second. Watching We Summon the Darkness the one thing I could never figure out was who the movie was made for? Slasher fans would have checked out long before the body count began to rise and even if they stuck around, they would be bored by the mundane ways the characters are offed. Horror fans would be bored by Meyer’s lack of atmosphere or mining of any real trope or modern fear. Comedy fans would be looking at their watches as they realized that while Johnny Knoxville is in the cast the movie will not be all that funny.
Knoxville appears throughout the movie, usually in the background, on television as the pious and pompous Pastor John Henry Butler. He’s one of the preachers always preaching about the devil’s fawns and how Satanists are hiding plain sight as an affront to God Almighty. In a clever movie, Knoxville would only ever be in the background, a sort of knowing wink to the audience; a fun meta-joke casting Knoxville against type.
But We Summon the Darkness is not a clever movie. The moment Daddario’s Alexis worriedly says the words “You called Daddy,” I knew, just like anyone else who’s ever seen a movie will know, who Daddy is and what the next two “twists” will be. Predictability is not a problem unless the movie is counting on its own unpredictability to make it entertaining.
You’ve probably noticed I have danced around the plot of the movie. That is because Trezza’s script is structured as such that giving too much away would constitute a spoiler. The most I’ll say is that Alexis, Val, and Beverly go to a heavy metal concert and meet three boys Kovacs (Logan Miller), Ivan (Austin Smith), and Mark (Keenan Johnson). After the concert, the girls invite the boys back to Alexis’s house and the night spirals out of control from there.
Trezza’s script though is more concerned with appearing clever than actually being clever. I mentioned how the movie was a satire but of what I’m not exactly sure. Trezza’s conceit seems to be poking fun at the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, a period of time where Evangelicals and others of the Christian Right railed against the evils and sins of heavy metal music believing it to be the work of the Dark Lord himself. Looking back, we can clearly see the ludicrousness of such a claim as there are few things less demonic than Dee Snyder or Alice Cooper.
But Trezza’s never seems all that concerned with the Satanic Panic other than an excuse to have a movie. Which is fine, other movies have used historical periods for less. But Meyers and Trezza, along with the cinematographer Tarin Anderson, do nothing to make the movie feel a part of its time or even make us believe the characters are from their time. Oh, there are a couple of name drops of heavy metal bands and the leading ladies all have that atrocious 80s hair, but Meyers never really succeeds in capturing the feel of the 80s in any real sense.
Worse is the first so-called revelation is that the Satanists aren’t really Satanists. They are instead religious zealots who commit murders and blame Satanists to bring people into the Evangelical fold as it were. As a conceit, it seems fine on paper. But Trezza’s dialogue and Meyer’s flat visual style and lackadaisical pacing do more harm than good to a moderately good idea. All of this ignores the fact that the idea itself while interesting needs something more than just staging itself otherwise it’s not a satire because it’s not revealing anything.
Meyers and Trezza force their characters to say and do bluntly nonsensical acts solely for the purpose of contorting the scene to be ready for the next rug pull. For example, the trio of faux Satanists is about to kill the three innocent sacrifices when one of them demands to speak to the others in private. The three leave the room, giving the victims time to escape. What was the urgent conversation that required them to leave the room? Which of them got to do the killing?
A conversation that flows better and is darkly funnier if held in front of the people you want to kill. We Summon the Darkness constantly undercuts its own potential by forcing and manufacturing motivations onto characters purely for the benefit of a scene change. It also keeps the film from being about anything because it’s so busy trying to set up the next revelation and finding ways to make it happen that why anyone is doing anything or why anyone says anything ends up being empty and meaningless.
For a movie set in the 80s, the music is bravely bereft of personality or mood. Meyers attempts to try and recontextualize Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth”. A futile attempt considering the wlw community has already staked their claim on that song for all time. More to the point Meyer’s use of it is banal as it does nothing but remind us that we could be listening to Belinda Carlisle rather than continue watching We Summon the Darkness.
On top of all that, as much as the actors tried their level best to bring fun and life to these one-dimensional roles, I can’t help but feel as if they are all woefully miscast. I’m not sure how old any of these characters are supposed to be. Half the cast is in their early 20s while the others are either approaching thirty or are in their early thirties. I mention this because at times the characters feel like teenagers while at others, they feel like college dropouts. Not to mention I get the feeling that Meyers and Trezzar don’t know either.
We Summon the Darkness is filled with homages to other slasher movies. Beverly spends much of the movie carrying a drill that resembles the drill from Amy Holden Jones’s The Slumber Party Massacre. Though, like most things in the movie, it amounts to little else other than, “Here is a thing, isn’t it clever?”
All in all, for a movie about religious zealots pretending to be Satanists We Summon the Darkness is awfully tame. The gore and deaths are pretty substandard, even for a low budget slasher flick. For a group of characters hellbent on murder, they seem to have no idea what kills someone and what doesn’t. I remember slapping my head as one character shot another character, not in the head, but in the gut. Worse is the character then uttered, “I’m the wrath of God.” I’m no bible expert but I’m sure even God knows “three in the head you know they’re dead.”
We Summon the Darkness is a slasher movie, a horror movie, a thriller, and a comedy all rolled into one but somehow has neither chills, thrills, scares or laughs. It is a movie filled with twists, revelations, and misdirection. Yet, somehow none of them amount to a hill of beans.