Roughly 30 minutes into Marc Meyers’ We Summon the Darkness, the tables turn. The twist isn’t telegraphed. Paranoid viewers might catch the scent of something “off,” the way people with hyperosmia know the milk’s gone bad before opening up the carton, but noticing the clues that Meyers, screenwriter Alan Trezza and the film’s main cast—Alexandra Daddario, Maddie Hasson and Amy Forsyth—leave on the screen takes a little deductive reasoning and a lot of psychological study. No one gives anything away. Instead, Meyers carefully pulls the truth from the set-up, and in the process hints at not a small amount of relish on his part. He’s having fun.
A good twist should be fun, and We Summon the Darkness does indeed have a good twist, but Meyers, Trezza and especially Daddario appear to realize that the pleasure of a twist isn’t the reveal, it’s figuring out how to hide the twist in plain sight. This is, at first, a horror story about teenagers uniting under the banner of heavy metal in 1980s America, a time when God-fearing Christian bedwetters saw proof of devil worship everywhere they gawked and blamed the rise of Satanism on objectively awesome things like Dungeons & Dragons and Dio. Half an hour in, We Summon the Darkness still is that story, but told from the perspective of religious vultures who happily exploit the fears of the flock to profit the church.
Best pals Alexis (Daddario), Val (Hasson) and Bev (Forsyth) are on the road, motoring along to see a Soldiers of Satan show in the middle of Nowhere, U.S.A., armed with little but packaged snacks and makeup (because, as they conclude in the film’s opening scene, makeup is basically just war paint for sex). Their windshield gets pasted by a milkshake thrown out of a passing van driven by three other best pals, Mark (Keean Johnson), Ivan (Austin Swift) and Kovacs (Logan Miller), en route to the same show. When they run into each other in the parking lot before the concert starts, the rightly pissed off girls end up making amends with the boys, and when the music stops they head to Alexis’s dad’s place for an afterparty. Then the knives come out.
We Summon the Darkness reminds audiences via radio broadcasts and TV news segments that there hangs over the area the shadow of Satanic activity: A gang of cultists have been going around kidnapping innocent folk and ritualistically slaughtering them, which makes the thought of going anywhere with strangers, as the boys go with the girls, sound like folly. Guess what? It is. But the film challenges our preconceptions about who the real threat is, and gleefully rubs the answer to that question in its viewers’ faces. It’s a slow burn done in a small window of time, but the payoff provides chilling satisfaction.
And from there, the movie stalks ahead with comparatively single-minded intensity. The guessing games end and the cat and mouse game begins. Central to Meyers’ chicanery is Daddario’s lead performance. We Summon the Darkness isn’t exactly a new role for her; she’s often cast as rom-com love interests but she’s done her fair share of horror productions, too (American Horror Story: Hotel and Texas Chainsaw 3D). Meyers trades on Daddario’s image in the former for maximum effect, and she embraces her role with gusto verging on disturbing, quivering with unbridled energy as if she’s stretched herself just before her breaking point. Any excess tension might cause her to snap.
Daddario’s work is a ferocious joy to watch, particularly in light of how well We Summon the Darkness holds back on secrets. Tipping the hand too much would be easy; the tells only become clear after the fact, couched in a choice of words here, a moment of hesitation there, a dose of forced enthusiasm there. The film might have done better to shave a few minutes off in service to tightening the noose in the final act. Once every character’s alignment is clarified, the Red State-style horror intermittently stalls out before roaring back to life with one of the year’s more savage denouements to date. Still, We Summon the Darkness’s impressive confidence makes the movie worth recommending on its own. For as unrestrained as things get, it’s the initial restraint that’s most memorable.
Director: Marc Meyers
Writer: Alan Trezza
Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Amy Forsyth, Maddie Hasson, Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, Austin Swift, Johnny Knoxville
Release Date: April 10, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.