[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 18 – We Summon the Darkness (2019)

Director: Marc Meyers
Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Logan Miller, Amy Forsyth, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville
Screenplay: Alan Trezza
91 mins. Rated R for bloody violence, pervasive language, some drug use and sexual references.

Satanic Panic in horror has been a slow-moving trend in horror for a few years now. Not satanic panic in the traditional sense, but the type of horror that commits to a satirical view of the insanity faced by the public in the 80s. We Summon the Darkness is one of those films, and it looked like a lot of fun. Yeah, it sure LOOKED that way.

Alexis (Alexandra Daddario, Baywatch, TV’s The White Lotus) and her two friends are road-tripping to see a favorite heavy metal band, fully aware that there’s been a string of satanic killings going around the area recently, and bodies are piling up. Once they arrive, they make friends with another group of three, led by Ivan (Austin Swift, Cover Versions, Breaking the Whales), and Alexis invites them to hang out at her dad’s house. What starts as a fun night evolves quickly into a dangerous and unpredictable night that will test each of their survival skills.

We Summon the Darkness is a movie of wants and missed opportunities. It wants so desperately to enter into that canon of stylistic, sassy, and conceptual single-location horror movies like Ready or Not and You’re Next. It aims for this realm and completely misses it. There are a number of reasons why this happens, but let’s start with what works.

Alexandra Daddario is a solid and effective lead in the film. This is an actress that has some serious talent, but she’s consistently overlooked because people are so focused on her looks, but I’ve continued to see an steady climb in her acting abilities, and she’s fun and engaging as Alexis. While she may not be written in the best way, Daddario puts her all into it.

Most of the other performances work well enough for what the film is, but I’d like to focus on Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions) as Kovacks, a member of the group of guys that Alexis meets at the concert. Miller is seemingly placed in unlikable roles throughout his young career, and he’s really good at them, but he works pretty well in most of his performances. I remember being swayed by him in Escape Room, and he adds layers to a character that maybe should be more forgettable.

The reveals that come up in this movie are so overwrought and easily guessable that it takes a lot of the excitement out of the movie. Five minutes in and you could guess just about every major plot point. I did, and I was pretty much right about all of it. That’s the problem that plagues We Summon the Darkness: the predictability kills it. That’s a tough thing to work around, and it looks like director Marc Meyers (My Friend Dahmer, All My Life) and screenwriter Alan Trezza (Burying the Ex) were unable to overcome that issue. With that issue comes the cardinal sin of horror: boredom. This movie just kind of bored me, and while it isn’t an experience-killing boredom, I don’t ever see myself watching this movie again.

There are also a few production goofs that, on their own, wouldn’t have mattered, but with the amount of issues in the film, they really took me out. Issues like a movie set in 1988 using newer paper money designs or the Bluetooth light in the girls’ car. These seem like small issues but each time they came up, I was pushed back out of the limited focus that the movie had on me. Everyone has an amount of investment they can afford to lose before they lose focus on the movie, and this one pummeled me just enough to lose me often.

We Summon the Darkness could work for some people, but I’m convinced that many of them have not seen better movies that do what this film can do but better. It wants to be subversive, and it’s mildly entertaining purely for its performances, but it could’ve been so much more. It should’ve been so much more.

2.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[31 Days of Horror Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan] Day 5 – [Happy 20th Birthday!] Joy Ride (2001)

Director: John Dahl
Cast: Steve Zahn, Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski
Screenplay: Clay Turner, J.J. Abrams
97 mins. Rated R for violence/terror and language.

It’s odd that a film like Joy Ride took four years from start to finish. Directed by John Dahl (The Last Seduction, TV’s Dexter), Joy Ride went through so many permutations that you could essentially put together a different movie from just the deleted scenes and alternate endings. This little B-movie slice of Americana thriller is one that doesn’t get talked about too much anymore, and while it had two sequels, it’s just not discussed as a short little piece of tense genre enjoyment. I probably haven’t watched Joy Ride since just after it came out, so I figured now is the best time to look back on this film, give it a rewatch, and see if there’s something worth remembering.

Lewis (Paul Walker, The Fast and the Furious, Running Scared) is a college freshman who has just discovered that his childhood crush Venna (Leelee Sobieski, Never Been Kissed, Amerikali Kiz) is newly single, and he’s embarking on a cross-country trip to pick her up during summer break on the hope to get a little closer. On the way, he’s been tasked with retrieving his deadbeat brother Fuller (Steve Zahn, War for the Planet of the Apes, TV’s The White Lotus), who’s just been released from prison. Fuller and Lewis don’t have the best relationship, and the two find themselves bonding over a silly prank played over the car’s CB radio to a voice known as Rusty Nail, but Rusty Nail doesn’t like being pranked, and he’s out to get vengeance as the two brothers and Venna try to evade him on the open roads.

Rarely is the standout performance of a film just a disembodied voice on a CB radio, but Ted Levine, in an uncredited role, is a nasty and tense and incredible as Rusty Nail. The entire film hinges on his ability to do more with less, and it’s clear that he’s the right choice for role, having been brought aboard the production rather late. We don’t get much to go on with him, as a character, but that’s maybe the best thing for someone like Rusty Nail. Because we, and also our cast of youths, are unable to discern just who this villainous voice is, we have a small-but-impactful bit of whodunnit that ties in nicely with this riff on Duel and The Hitcher.

As far as our group of youths, they are serviceable enough. While Lewis doesn’t have a lot of character development outside of “somewhat horny college kid who makes bad mistake,” Walker infuses him with charisma, which is part of what made him such a special performer. He was always able to add a likability. On the other side of things, Steve Zahn’s Fuller is just kind of an asshole. Zahn is putting everything he can into his performance, but the writing just makes him so unlikable. As the film goes on, you kind of want him to suffer for his actions, making it hard to empathize with his being put into danger. Again, Zahn is capable of adding some likability, but the character is just written too poorly. As for Sobieski, I couldn’t honestly tell you anything interesting about her character, as she’s mostly stock characterized and not all that interesting a character.

The film’s greatest strength has to come from the tension. It’s a flawed movie but it does have a high amount of engagement where I was geniunely concerned about how Lewis was going to thwart Rusty Nail. Again, a lot of tension comes from Levine, but it should be noted that director John Dahl does a solid job of ratcheting up the tension often enough to keep the whole movie entertaining, which makes up for a number of its faults.

And the film does indeed have faults. As with the characterization of both Fuller and Venna being underwhelming, there’s also a significant amount of logic gaps and inconsistencies revolving around Rusty Nail. There are a number of plot points that require Rusty Nail to have a far better understanding of things he should know nothing about. At times, he seems all-powerful and omniscient, and it makes one question the realism that we as audience members have been asked to accept. It also feels like the film ties up a little quickly. There are a number of plot threads that I would’ve liked to see fully resolved instead of just assumed. I’m well aware of the number of alternate scenes and endings that led to Joy Ride’s four-year production, and that’s likely where a lot of this is resolved. Hey, at least they changed the name from Squelch to Joy Ride, right?

Joy Ride is thankfully quite an entertaining little B-movie that has some early 2000s grindhouse-y flavor. I found myself quite enjoying this little action thriller and I’ll probably revisit the film again, not it likely won’t take another twenty years. Hopefully, by then, they’ll have released a special edition of the film that randomizes the ending we got with one of several that were filmed and left unused, a la Clue. If not, I’m content enough with the film we got. It’s a fun little time-killer.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

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