A film by Kevin Phillips
Welcome back to Knockout Horror. Today, we are continuing our Fall Themed Horror season with another movie with a slightly ambiguous time setting. Kevin Phillips’ Super Dark Times is a psychological thriller movie with some strong horror leanings. Again, a subject that always comes up with movies like this is whether or not they can be classed as horror. If you are talking about traditional, jump scare filled, killer chases victims horror, then absolutely not. Horror has a far broader definition than that, though. Whereas Super Dark Times is, predominantly, a thriller, there are plenty of horror elements to keep most fans entertained.
November is Fall themed Horror month. We will be reviewing a few movies every week that feature an autumn setting. The criteria is pretty broad here as the fall setting is rarely pivotal to the plot of a movie. It’s more of a coincidence than anything. Fallen leaves and orange hues are a must, however. When Fall Themed Horror month is over, we move onto December and Awful Advent. 25 days of Christmas themed horror reviews leading up to the big day. Definitely keep an eye out for that.
This is the second movie in our Fall Themed Horror series. As with our first review, ParaNorman, this is a bit of an awkward one with regards to the Autumn setting. It is apparently November, there are references to Thanks Giving and there are a whole bunch of fallen leaves so I think it counts. For me, it immediately jumped to mind as a movie with an autumnal feel.
It is obvious, however, that the movie quickly moves into the beginning of winter and there is a lot of snow and references to Christmas. We have to be fairly flexible with regards to this theme, however, so we’ll give it a pass. Anyways, on with the review. As always, I will include a spoiler free breakdown of the movie so feel free to skip that if you like.
Super Dark Times kicks off with best friends Josh, played by Charlie Tahan, and Zach, played by Owen Campbell, looking through their school year book. The boys are commenting on the various girls from their classes and rating their attractiveness. The two both agree that they are attracted to one girl in particular, Alisson played by Elizabeth Cappuccino.
Heading out on their bikes, the pair encounter Zach’s friend Daryl, played by Max Talisman, and Daryl’s eighth grade friend Charlie, played by Sawyer Barth. Daryl is, apparently, a little loud mouthed, abrasive, and seemingly disliked by many people around him. The four ride their bikes around the town and chat. Later that day, Zach and Josh pass Allison’s house. Shouting up at the window attempting to embarrass Josh. It becomes clear that Zach was wrong in his assumption of the house being empty and there is, indeed, someone home. A few days later, the group hang out together at Josh’s house. Josh talks about his brother and how he has joined the marines. The four decide to visit Josh’s brother’s room to look at his stuff.
In his brother’s room, the group find weapons, pictures of naked women, and marijuana. Daryl asks Josh if he can buy the weed but Josh refuses saying his brother would know it was gone. He says he can show them something cooler and pulls out his brother’s Katana blade. The friends decide to go to the woods with the sword to cut milk bottles. While there, Daryl appears to be smoking something. Realising that Daryl has stolen his brother’s weed, Josh verbally attacks Daryl. The two then get into a fight that leads to a horrifying series of events and some… ermmm… super dark times.
Super Dark Times is a slow burning psychological horror/thriller. Taking its time to establish the setting and characters, the plot builds slowly before racing to the finish line like a steam train. Focusing predominantly on Zach, this is a tale of a person attempting to cope with his involvement in some incredibly traumatic events. Weaved in to this is a romance subplot that only adds to the conflicted nature of the protagonist’s thoughts. It’s fairly compelling and easy enough to follow.
Focusing on a group of teenagers that are somewhere in the middle of the popularity spectrum. Super Dark Times is an interesting look into the problems teens can face in their later school years. Attempting to navigate school work, relationships, and complicated feelings of resentment and uncertainty, the movie features a strong drama element. Zach is a somewhat popular kid with a potential girlfriend to look forward to, a group of close friends and a calm, positive outlook. Josh, on the other hand, is less popular, considered to be somewhat strange, and with a far bleaker view of life.
Super Dark Times does a fairly good job of keeping the viewer engaged. The first two thirds of the movie are in no rush. We are introduced to the characters, their relationships develop, something happens and we are presented with the slow process of the characters learning to cope with it. The final third of the movie, however, completely changes leading to an ending that, at the beginning, seemed highly unlikely. The escalation is dramatic and the conclusion a little divisive.
It is worth pointing out that Super Dark Times is not a horror movie in the traditional sense. It’s probably fair to say that it is far more of a thriller. I always make the argument that horror movies can take many different forms. Slow burn psychological thrillers with horror elements is one of these forms. Despite that, there are a few scenes here that are horror through and through. They would likely hold up against many of the scenes from pure horror movies. The fact remains, however, that if you are a fan of fast paced, action driven, horror then you might want to look elsewhere.
Super Dark Times is set against a backdrop of 90’s small town America. The area is so small that the kids can ride their bikes everywhere and frequently do. This lends a sense of intimacy to the movie that makes you feel as though you recognise the location. Naturally, I am Welsh so I didn’t grow up around this type of place but it could be any small town from American movies or TV series. We were all raised on shows from the USA, we all know this town. People who grew up in communities like this will instantly enjoy the sense of familiarity offered by the location.
Events that occur in the movie feel tightly contained and there is a sense that everyone knows everyone else. This does a nice job of adding to the tension and keeping the viewer on edge. Zach’s paranoia is easily understandable and the almost claustrophobic nature of the setting adds to this. You can’t run or escape from the things that happen in a place like this. Something will always remind you and the whispers in the class rooms or workplaces might as well be shouts for how quickly they spread.
Small town America has always been a fantastic horror movie setting. Stephen King recognised this, as do many other horror movie makers. The small size of the area creates an almost oppressive impression of being contained and under a microscope. Along with this, the cold, autumn feeling of the movie adds to the character’s sense of desperation. Josh remarks about how he hates the winter and the cold. The rapid onset of said winter provides a backdrop of snow covered fields. It also places something of a timer on how long the boys can keep their secrets before spring comes, the leaves blow away, the snow thaws and they are revealed for the world to see.
Super Dark Times takes place in the 90s. When in the 90s isn’t made clear but, given the video games being played and some of the music, it is safe to say it is around 97-98. This offers a really nice aesthetic. From the bikes to the bomber jackets, from the large phones to the televisions. This is a movie that will sing to people who grew up in that era. Being a 90’s kid myself, it’s somewhat funny to see a movie recreate it so perfectly. It evokes memories of video games played at that time, music listened to, and the pre-internet age of calling people on landlines and riding your bike to their house to see if they were home.
There is something of an innocence to that age that we are all a bit guilty of buying into. Everything seemed a bit simpler then and that plays heavily into the drastic shift the kids in the movie experience. The death of innocence. One minute they are riding their bikes, the next their lives are changed forever. Super Dark Times is like a Midwest Emo album cover and I genuinely love that about it. I expect for this to become a trend in the upcoming years, much like the 80’s setting did.
Super Dark Times has, as I mentioned above, a very nice aesthetic. Kevin Phillips has a very keen idea of how he wants the movie to look and puts it across perfectly. It could be described as a quintessentially indie film with regards to style. Lots of independent movies try to look like this, few look as good. The browns and oranges of the trees along with the interesting architecture of the town combine to create an almost oil painting quality. It is somewhat dreamlike and the use of natural lighting offered during certain times of the day leads to some stunning scenes
Distant shots of the boys riding their bikes are simply gorgeous. A long trailing shot of the group walking over a bridge has a distinctly Stand By Me feeling to it. The characters looking down at the water below discussing whether someone could break through a boat by jumping directly onto it are understated but impactful. As Josh stands above the rest of the group in a self imposed moment of isolation from his peers, you can almost sense what he is thinking.
The whole picture feels like a love letter to the mid 90’s emo scene. I feel like I am watching a movie version of a Mineral Song. I absolutely love it! None of the landscape is wasted. Eli Born embraces every pixel of the camera. The visuals also work in perfect harmony with Ben Frost’s score. it is both haunting and airy. Super Dark Times is a simply beautiful film.
Acting is great, pretty much, throughout. I was not a fan of Amy Hargreaves as Zach’s mum. There is an over the top element to her performance that made me feel as though she was trying too hard to school these young actors. Elizabeth Cappuccino, as Allison, is fine but doesn’t really stand out. Owen Campbell is great as Zach and does an excellent job of expressing the emotions and paranoia of the character.
Special mention has to go to Charlie Tahan’s brilliant portrayal of Josh, however. He is fantastic and thoroughly believable as the troubled teen who is both socially awkward and seemingly wary of the people around him. Some of the subtle things he does really make you chuckle and he does a great job of acting strange. Tahan absolutely stands out among what is a very talented cast.
It is worth pointing out that the majority of actors here were adults when this film was made. I have seen people praising the cast for being decent actors while still being school age. With the exception of one or two actors that isn’t the case. It doesn’t take away from their performances at all but it does bring me to the fact that this is super common in American films. Zach, Allison, and a bunch of the other kids in the school are very clearly in their 20s. It does detract from the visual a little but at least it doesn’t remove children from school to make a movie.
My biggest complaint about Super Dark Times is the last 30 minutes or so. The movie has a runtime of 103 minutes and, for most of that time, it is slow paced. The story unfolds, the characters react, time moves on, and nothing major happens. All of a sudden, everything escalates at a tremendous pace to the ultimate conclusion. This, for me, drags the movie down a fair bit.
The actions of one character, in particular, towards the end of the film make almost no sense. The character’s mental decline is not expanded on and happens, mostly, offscreen. It is unexplained and doesn’t feel at all organic. There is no gradual progression of events, no exposition to explain how the character is feeling and no explanation for why the character does what they do. The ending feels rushed and extremely sudden.
It doesn’t help that all of this leads up to a final segment that I imagine will disappoint many viewers. The whole thing feels out of place given the previous events of the movie and it ultimately doesn’t fit. It’s as though they had to wrap the story up, realised they maybe didn’t expand on the character enough but went with the first draft ending anyway.
As much as I enjoy the cinematography, there is far too much time spent lingering on shots that are irrelevant and not enough time spent developing characters other than Zach. There are plenty of scenes that could have been removed to be replaced by more character growth. Offering a better insight into why the character’s personality shifted so dramatically would have gone a long way to making Super Dark Times a must watch movie. As it stands, it is still very good, but it could have been so much better.
Super Dark Times is a slow paced psychological thriller with some strong horror elements. Featuring a cast of interesting young characters, the plot develops gradually and does a great job of drawing the viewer in to the nightmare situation the boys have found themselves in. Engaging from the very start, the final third of the film is, unfortunately, a bit out of place and poorly paced.
Stunningly filmed, Super Dark Times is a visual treat. Set in a sleepy small American town during the late 90s, the setting feels familiar and lends itself well to increasing the paranoia of the main characters. Acting is decent with special mention going to Charlie Tahan as Josh. Not for everyone, this is far more of a thriller than a horror movie. It isn't scary in the traditional sense but the subject matter is fitting for a horror movie and the events that occur are presented with strong horror elements. Super Dark Times is a brilliant movie that could have been so much better with a little extra care given to an ending that feels rushed and out of place.