The first in my new occasional series reviewing movies I watched over the weekend.
It is hard not to feel like there is a moral rot at the center of our civilization, one that has been festering for decades and threatens to become gangrenous. In the past few months, we have learned that nearly every man with any power is a sex predator. We have seen freedom redefined as a celebration of anger, hatred, and disgust. Self-interest has been remade as the new national interest. The crass vulgarity of Donald Trump has unleashed a toxic miasma of American ugliness that was always there but had hitherto been kept hidden by the fantasy that civility was a virtue. Johnson and Nixon were nearly as foul as Trump, but never before have large crowds cheered open displays of crudity. When historians tell the story of our times, I wonder how it will go? Perhaps future historians will punctuate chapters on America’s decline in the face of power and prosperity with vignettes of individuals who went mad and in self-destructive rage lashed out against the perceived enemy within.
The moral decay blighting America is the unstated subject of the recent movie Super Dark Times, which had a brief theatrical run a few months ago and is now streaming on Netflix. It is not normally the kind of movie I would watch, or review, but since it was billed as a Gothic tale of teenagers growing up in a rundown upstate New York town in the mid-1990s—the same time and place where I came of age—I couldn’t help but think I should see the film. Throughout the sordid tale of death and madness, the physical and moral decay of America casts dark shadows over the lives of the unfortunate protagonists.
I was struck at how much Super Dark Times resembles Sins of Our Youth, which was released just about a year earlier. The bare bones of each movie’s plot are identical: In both films, a disaffected group of young white male teens combat their boredom with ill-advised play with deadly weapons, fueled by illicit substances, resulting in a tragic death. In both films, the survivors attempt to cover up their crime and turn on each other, resulting in more deaths until the police finally catch on and order is restored. Both movies, oddly enough, take place over the Christmas season, and both use lighting, framing, and blocking to give an air of supernatural horror to a rather straightforward story of the consequences of bad decisions.
Sins of Our Youth wasn’t a good movie, and Super Dark Times is the better of the two in large measure because it leans more heavily into style and minimizes the clichés, exposition, and heavy-handed messaging. It is, instead, a mood piece. And that mood is, apparently, depression.
The movie opens sometime around Christmas, since there are decorations on the houses, but still a few days or weeks away since school is still open. It is the middle 1990s, when Bill Clinton was still president, and the far-off elites in Washington speak of a prosperity that the rusted-out small towns of upstate New York will never feel. However, there is something almost supernaturally wrong in the unnamed town where empty factories squat like bombed-out ruins. It may be Christmas, but the trees still hold their autumn leaves. The only bridge over the local river is closed due to decay. The streets are oddly empty, as though the townsfolk are either gone or hiding. In the first scene of the film, a huge buck deer crashes through the local high school’s window and lays dying on the cafeteria floor as faculty and staff look on in horror. No sooner is a plank placed over the window frame than it ends up tagged with obscene graffiti. The sky is always an ominous shade of gray.
None of these details impacts the plot, but they give the story a Gothic, supernatural air that heightens the impact of the story proper. Zach, as played by Owen Campbell (The Americans, The Following), and Josh, portrayed by Charlie Tahan (Gotham, Ozark, Wayward Pines), are lifelong best friends, and outcast nerds in their school, and they share with two other friends a particularly vulgar sensibility common to teenage boys, but here stretched by the corruption of the world around them into nearly the whole of their being. There are few other outlets for their dreams or their fears except in crude jokes and ignorant insults of the usual kind, and furtive glimpses of scrambled cable porn.
Josh shows his friends the dank basement room of his older brother who had left for the Marines. The boys gawk at pinup girls and fantasize about smoking an old bag of weed. They take a samurai-style sword out alleviate their boredom and pretend to be movie heroes. The sword ends up buried in one of the friends, and his death triggers the remainder of the film. The three remaining friends panic and hide the body and the sword and try to return to “normal” life in an abnormal world. The second act drew out the gradual building of tension a little too long, as dark details begin to accumulate that one of the survivors has come unhinged. The third act, which does not entirely follow from the previous two, becomes a slasher movie in the realist mode until the film reaches a bloody climax, arrested only by the tardy arrival of law enforcement.
The young actors offer exceptional performances, and first-time director Kevin Phillips crafts both a powerful atmosphere of dread and scenes of startling beauty, notably a shot of the four friends on their bicycles, silhouetted against sunlight reflecting off a lake. The aesthetics of the movie mostly compensate for the clichés in the plot and the somewhat illogical Grand Guignol climax, as well as the underdeveloped female characters, who mostly serve as indifferent wallpaper or helpless victims.
In large measure, your reaction to the movie will depend on how much of your own life you recognize in the world depicted here. Most of our current 1990s nostalgia sees the decade through the candy colored lenses of Clueless and boy bands, celebrating the long autumn of the American Dream, when peace and prosperity seemed like they might last forever. But the so-called “End of History,” as Francis Fukuyama famously mistermed it, was always a lie we told ourselves. Large parts of America were not prosperous in the 1990s, and the Rust Belt cities and the collapsing factories of the Northeast spoke to the failures of America that the titular millionaires of a booming stock market only papered over.
The town where I grew up, Auburn, New York, looked a lot like the fictional town of this movie in 1990s, though it was perhaps a bit larger. The streets were lined with houses from the 1970s and 1980s, and many neighborhoods had no sidewalks. The high school was a big ugly 1970s construction, square and brick and looking like the corpse of a modernist warehouse. The outer ring of the city was filled with the burned-out shells of former factories—nearly all gone now—that would periodically catch fire or collapse into piles of century-old rubble, like spent vampires decaying in the sun. My town, too, was filled with the taint of the supernatural. The center of town was a cemetery, built atop an old Indian burial mound, and in winter the city was lousy with crows—by one count the largest murder of crows anywhere in North America, so thick with black feathers that the trees at midwinter looked alive with leaves. It was the city where spiritualism took its baby steps, and the memory of old ghosts loomed as sharply as the watchtowers of the state penitentiary a stone’s throw from my grandparents’ house.
Many critics noted that Super Dark Times seems unrealistic in how few people are around town to see and stop the madness, but I can recall in the late 1990s, when bomb scares would close school with routine inefficiency and school buses couldn’t be mustered quickly, I would have to walk home from one side of town to the other, a walk of several miles. In the middle of the day in a bedroom community where most people worked somewhere else, I would walk clear across the city and encounter no other soul, though to be fair, I did not go through downtown. It’s also amazing to think that back then no one worried that kids would walk across town without a police escort. Imagine a school letting students simply walk away during a bomb scare today.
Super Dark Times is occasionally a difficult movie to watch because the teenaged characters are by turns vulnerable and confused and vulgar, crude, and unlikeable in a way true to life but nevertheless unpleasant. Were we so awful in our own youths? I knew many who were, and too many of them still are. It is the tragedy of our time that our ceaseless push for greater equality has instead reduced everyone to the basest level, and in that primitive equality of barbarism opened the door to unspeakable acts of evil, delivered with a cold indifference.
The opening scene of the movie confused many viewers, who did not understand why the dead deer was included. But in the end, the dying buck is the key to understanding what went wrong. The great and powerful beast, driven by whatever instinctual forces were perverted by the shiny reflection in the mirror-like windows, was driven mad with rage at nothing at all and performed a violent act of self-destruction. So too does the killer in Super Dark Times. So too has our entire country, and our world.
Next Week: 13 Reasons Why and Goosebumps star Dylan Minnette discovers the horrors of real estate when he is forced to participate in The Open House.