'We Summon the Darkness': Film Review

Bad girls just want to have fun.

A wave of grisly killings spreads satanic panic through the American heartland as a televangelist played by Johnny Knoxville rails against the insidious grip of heavy metal on the country's youth in Marc Meyers' retro horror thriller.

"You know who's sexy? Judd Nelson," Maddie Hasson observes randomly as the deliciously trashy Val, one of three badass young women headed to a heavy metal concert in middle-of-nowhere Indiana in We Summon the Darkness. Similar notes of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia and '80s slasher throwback fun help patch over some pacing issues in Marc Meyers' horror thriller. There's also a bit of a structural imbalance, with a big reveal that comes too early to keep the resulting cat-and-mouse action taut for the duration. Still, an appealing cast and slick period production values make this an entertaining enough retro bloodbath.

What the film really has going for it is the front-and-center placement in Alan Trezza's script of the female roles, leaving no doubt at any point about who's driving the plot, at first with their playfully bitchy banter and snarky sisterhood, then later with ferocious purpose as events take an increasingly hairy turn and the mayhem accelerates.

The murky morality of far-right religious fanatics also provides some thematic currency with the hypocritical conservatives of the Trump era, represented by Johnny Knoxville in lugubrious Frankenstein mode as Pastor John-Henry Butler, a culty televangelist who declares, "I'm the wrath of God."

The protagonists, dressed in regulation black metalhead maiden-wear and industrial-strength makeup, are cool queen bee Alexis (Alexandra Daddario); her best friend, Val, whose blond hair and scarlet lips make her as much Monroe as Manson; and the more insecure Beverly (Amy Forsyth), a new addition to the group whose troubled background is hinted at early on. No crop tops on her. In one of many winking horror tropes, a crusty gas station attendant warns them: "You girls be careful. There's a lot of evil out there, and you seem like nice girls is all."

It's 1988 and news reports heard over the car radio and seen in tabloid headlines put the death count at 18 in a wave of ritualistic murders notable for the satanic symbols scrawled over the walls of the crime scenes. Meanwhile, Pastor John-Henry is raising a state of alarm over the imperiled souls of America's youth, being corrupted by the sinister influence of heavy metal music.

Alexis and her friends seem untroubled by all that as they roll up for a Soldiers of Satan gig, where they meet three hardcore fans following the band on tour: wannabe rocker Ivan (Austin Swift), goofball Kovacs (Logan Miller) and quietly intense Mark (Keean Johnson), the latter about to bust up the trio by taking his mullet to Los Angeles in search of fame as a musician.

After some sweaty revelry in the mosh pit, the horny dudes invite them to continue the party in their van, which is well-stocked with beer and weed. But Alexis suggests they relocate to her father's ranch house, a palatial pad isolated off the beaten track and filled with hideous modern décor statements courtesy of production designer Kathy McCoy. They toast the evening: "Let the madness begin!"

Having established both groups' awareness of the killing spree, Meyers and Trezza deftly tease out anticipation as to how that plotline will intersect with the night of the partying metalheads as they play a drinking game around a backyard bonfire. The big twist, while virtually given away in the film's trailer, is revealed with a wicked delight that considerably raises the stakes.

If most of what follows becomes a tad more routine, not quite hitting all the marks, there's still plenty to keep genre fans engaged thanks to well-drawn characters, a steady stream of bloodletting, sly humor and the inconvenient arrival of a couple of unintended victims. A heavy-duty rotary brush-cutter is to this film what the chainsaw was to the Tobe Hooper classic, and of course it makes sense for a killer's stalked prey to be rattled by Belinda Carlisle bleating "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" from the cassette deck at maximum volume. Plus, there's a handy reminder of the highly flammable quality of '80s hair products. Special nostalgia bonus: T'Pau on the end credits!

The synth score by Timothy Mark Williams has just enough vintage John Carpenter flavor to evoke the reference, as do stunts that recall Halloween and Carrie, among other films.

Some pointed early dialogue about women using makeup as sexual war paint alerts us that We Summon the Darkness intends to flip traditional gender roles, something it does with initial success. But the failure to develop any interesting feminist commentary beyond that central idea is disappointing. Thankfully, there's compensation in the lively dynamic between Daddario's manipulative mean-girl Alexis and Hasson's gleefully saucy flirt Val, with Forsyth's withdrawn Beverly saving her surprising resourcefulness for the climactic action. They make it an enjoyable girls' night out.

Distribution: Saban Films
Production companies: Fyzz Facility, Nightshade Entertainment, Common Enemy

Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Maddie Hasson, Logan Miller, Amy Forsyth, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville, Allison McAtee, Tanner Beard
Director: Marc Meyers
Screenwriter: Alan Trezza
Producers: Mark Lane, Robert Jones, James Harris, Christian Armogida, Jarod Einsohn, Kyle Tekiela, Alexandra Daddario, Thomas E. Van Dell
Executive producers: Arianne Fraser, Delphine Perrier, Henry Winterstern, William V. Bromiley, Shanan Becker, Jonathan Saba, Ness Saban, Elizabeth Zavoyskiy, Andrew Kotliar, Alan Trezza, Jody Girgenti, Phyllis Lang, Devan Towers, Lee Broda, Mike Donovan, Eytan Rockaway, Rebecca Schaper, Jim Schaperrobert, Girard Charles Auty, Charlie Lee
Director of photography: Tarin Anderson
Production designer: Kathy McCoy
Costume designer: Maxyne Lockhart
Music: Timothy Mark Williams
Editors: Jamie Kirkpatrick, Joe Murphy
Casting: Michelle Lewitt

Rated R, 91 minutes