Set in Indiana in 1988, We Summon the Darkness plays on the “Satanic panic” trend of the time period, when political commentators and conservative activists were determined to blame supposedly devil-worshiping heavy metal bands for inciting violence and murder among young people. At first, the movie’s main characters look like exactly the kind of degenerates that God-fearing middle Americans were horrified by. Friends Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson) and Bev (Amy Forsyth) are driving along the back roads of Indiana on their way to a metal show, dressed like rock groupies ready to be the first victims in a horror movie about Satanic killers.
News reports on the radio speak of a series of ritualistic murders, and a TV preacher named John Henry Butler (Johnny Knoxville) warns against the dangers of rock music and Satanic imagery. The three friends don’t seem to mind, scoffing at the old-timer behind the counter of a convenience store who warns them to be careful. When they arrive at the concert, they enter a scene right out of cult-classic documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, full of burnouts lounging around and getting wasted, and they quickly hook up with a trio of metal dudes. These boneheads chucked a milkshake at the ladies’ car back on the highway, but after a bit of payback via firecrackers, everyone gets along, and the women even invite the dudes back to Alexis’ dad’s house for some post-concert partying.
That’s where things take a turn, about half an hour into the movie. And while it would be a spoiler to reveal what happens, the big twist isn’t hard to see coming, especially after screenwriter Alan Trezza and director Marc Meyers have so diligently planted the seeds for a reversal of expectations. Decades of horror movies may have conditioned audiences to expect characters like Alexis, Val and Bev to be the victims, but the filmmakers clearly aren’t playing things straight right from the beginning. The pieces fall together a little too easily, and small details hint at a twist to come as the three women bring Mark (Keean Johnson), Kovacs (Logan Miller) and Ivan (Austin Swift) to Alexis’ secluded family mansion.
Although Trezza’s script features references to late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton and late Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads, among other metal heroes, the movie ultimately isn’t about heavy metal at all. The rock and roll framework is a sort of bait and switch on the audience, just like the main characters’ look and attitude, and We Summon the Darkness goes in an entirely new direction after the three guys and three women have been hanging out for a little while. It’s a bit disappointing to lose the fun ’80s metal aesthetic, but the movie is slow in the lead-up to the twist, and once the true plot becomes apparent, the pacing becomes a lot livelier.
The sprawling house in the middle of nowhere turns into a hunting ground of sorts, and while We Summon the Darkness is set up like a horror movie, it ends up as more of a gory thriller, owing a lot to Jeremy Saulnier’s cult favorite Green Room (which also used hard-rock trappings to tell a story of gruesome violence). The kitschy ’80s period details mostly fall away after the first act (and Alexis’ house looks anachronistically modern), but there’s a genuine fondness for the dirtbag metal scene that comes through, especially from the clueless trio of headbangers the ladies pick up at the concert. And even though ironically matching sunny pop songs with horrific violence has become a bit of a cliché, Meyers still gets some mileage out of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” during a climactic showdown.
Daddario has played the innocent victim or bystander in plenty of movies, and she starts out in that same mode here. However, she gets to dig into a much darker persona as the movie progresses. She embraces that shift with enthusiasm, giving a gleefully unhinged performance in the movie’s second half, reminiscent of her similar turnabout in 2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D. The other characters are less memorable, and Knoxville’s crooked preacher doesn’t become a major presence until the movie is almost over. Although We Summon the Darkness is mostly lighthearted (despite all the violence) and sometimes satirical about the whole Satanic panic trend, Trezza and Meyers take some time to delve into the motivations of killers, even adding a little sympathy and understanding (albeit in a goofy way).
Meyers previously directed 2017’s My Friend Dahmer, based on Derf Backderf’s graphic novel about his connection to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and the filmmaker has an obvious interest in the way societal outcasts can turn into murderers. Those serious themes are only a small part of this generally silly, over-the-top movie, though. The entertainment value of We Summon the Darkness comes from seeing these ill-prepared young people as the hunters and hunted in a stand-off that quickly goes off the rails.
Starring Alexandra Daddario, Maddie Hasson, Amy Forsyth, Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, Austin Swift and Johnny Knoxville, We Summon the Darkness is available Friday on digital and VOD.
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We Summon the Darkness is slow in the lead-up to its twist, but once the true plot becomes apparent, the pacing becomes a lot livelier.