Midsummer Nightmares

Certificate: 15
Running time: 90 mins
Director: Ryan Stacy
Starring: Chad Collard, Amanda Collins, Lisa Davis-Freeders
Genre: Horror
Country: USA

Audrey Small and her pals have a summer tradition of an “early doors” Halloween party but with a masked murderer on the loose it’s only a matter of time before a killer party becomes a killer party.

The slasher movie, like most sub-genres of horror, has many thematic expectations, devices, and pitfalls not to mention highs and lows.  In recent years the indie horror scene has embraced the return of the slasher in ways that mainstream Hollywood has exhausted, thanks to the Scream franchise, the two terrible I Know What You Did…movies, not to mention countless more.  Returning to a genre that has without doubt seen its heyday is something of a risky prospect, there’s only so much you can achieve within it without trying to completely reinvent the genre and therefore rendering the exercise pointless.  So with that in mind, and with Midsummer Nightmares: Summer’s End a matter of weeks away, how does this Ohio based offering stack up against its peers and grand-peers?

Horror works best with restrictions.  Restrictions in narrative, restrictions in cinematic geography, restrictions in time.  Most slasher movies operate within a relatively basic set-up, over a limited amount of space and over the course of a limited amount of time (with the exception of any horror movie that has 3D in the title which feels like forever).  It is to this triadic principle of slaughter that Stacy’s Midsummer Nightmares adheres to as the events roll out over the course of a party (planning and execution – pun intended), across a neighbourhood over the course of a twenty-four hour period.  It is this condensing of scale which provides a great deal of the tension felt by the audience as they are unable to escape the events that are slowly unfolding before them as unnamed slasher picks their way through limbs and organs and bone alike.  For the most part this faithfulness to the triadic principles serves Midsummer Nightmares well, yet it in itself is not without issue.  As an audience we have become more and more sophisticated over the years, and though it’s important to adhere to genre conventions there does need to be a degree of revision to them in order to prevent plot points from landing flat with an audience.  Some slasher movies add a supernatural element (pros and cons a-plenty), some add 3D (cons!), and some attempt either an expansion of geography (Jason goes to Space – not real title) or time.  Narratively MN goes wrong because it fails to deploy any signifying deviation thus not only not creating an independent cinematic identity but not challenging the audience enough to move them out of first or second gear.  Even in the first act (when any movie earns its individuality) Midsummer Nightmares seems content with following the plot points laid out by Scream, which in itself is a cinematically and historically aware piece of social anxiety.  From here MN steps into the genre required expectations of narrative but without an establishment of individuality in the first act it does leave the audience posing the question, what is the point of this movie?  Especially if it feels as though we’ve already watched it –which is a critical issue with any genre movie with a high quantity of expectations.

There are positives though.  Julie Sherwood (as Audrey Small) is a talented performer who steers the film well not just through the genre road markers but through some interesting, funny, and dramatic scenes.  Her interchanges with Liz (Kelci C. Magel) work really well though I would like to see more of her relationship with Gavin (Garrett Freeders) as horror characters are essentially just body parts awaiting to be slaughtered and any characterisation that delves into the “normal” and “everyday” allows us to see them outside of the event and care more.  The direction (from Stacy) and cinematography both grow with confidence and composure during the course of the movie, there are quite a few difficult set ups that are greatly appreciated; the editing is also strong and does a excellent job of stitching the audience into the fabric of the film.  The grand reveal (no spoiler, they all have one) is also handled extremely well handled.  It plays believably, organically and is an interesting take/cultural critique on the world in which we now occupy and the fascinations we have.

Midsummer Nightmares actually managed to find its voice as a genre movie the further it progressed, and I can’t praise it enough for actually achieving that (as it’s something that no mainstream slasher movie achieves now).  The problem is that it is slightly hampered by its adherence, and some might even say deference, to genre expectations in the first act.  Where it should set its stall out and stake a claim to an individual identity it sits passively, and where it should be full steam ahead ticking off genre mile markers it’s fishing around for identity.  There's also the issue that most of the deaths in MN come off a little tame, the film as a whole builds slowly before racing towards the end and the film is weighted too heavily at the business end of proceedings (narratively speaking).  Whether it’s one to grow remains to be seen (MN2, March 1st 2014 release, review here) but on its own Midsummer Nightmares is more a gentle hug of nostalgia than a jagged blade to the gut.


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