Few subgenres of film are more underappreciated than those focusing on teenage paranoia. Movies where teenagers struggle to deal with the consequences of accidentally committing a heinous act often don’t get the credit they deserve, despite evoking something really special. Kevin Phillips’ aptly-titled Super Dark Times is one of the finest examples of such a film — a stylish period thriller that never refrains from showcasing the brutal realities of both life and death.
Set in the 1990s, Super Dark Times finds best friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) growing apart during the early days of their high school careers. While out with their friends Daryl (Max Talisman) and Charlie (Sawyer Barth), a horrible event leaves them all wondering who they can trust, testing the friendships of everyone involved. When a romance between Zach and Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino) begins to blossom, Josh begins acting more and more erratically, and Zach’s paranoia becomes uncontrollable.
Transitioning effortlessly from coming-of-age drama to true-to-life horror, the film is all the more effective because we get to know the characters before their lives are put in danger. From there, the movie still isn’t your standard dark drama. Phillips lets the camera linger on absolutely brutal images for an excruciating amount of time. It’s disturbing in a very real way. Featuring a story ripped straight from the headlines, it’s clear that the filmmakers were influenced by a number of true horror stories, but Super Dark Times never comes close to glorifying these acts of violence. Like its title suggests, it’s an analysis of the dark moments that seem inescapable at times.
It’s consistently upsetting from the beginning until the end. One could argue that Super Dark Times has a predictable final act, and there’s certainly some merit to that belief, but the greatness of the film lies in how suspenseful it is anyway. Anyone who is well-versed in genre cinema knows exactly where the story is headed thirty minutes in, but that doesn’t prevent the final twenty minutes from being genuinely heart-stopping.
That wouldn’t be the case if not for the sharp performances from its young cast, who truly feel like a group of confused teenagers in the 1990s. From the clothes they wear to the music they listen to, everyone in Super Dark Times comes across as though they exist in this world that isn’t too far removed from the one we are currently living in. Similarly, veteran actress Amy Hargreaves is excellent here as Zach’s worried mother. It’s always fun to see performers who burst onto the scene as teenagers develop and grow and end up portraying the parents of these kinds of characters, and that’s precisely what Hargreaves has done.
If Super Dark Times doesn’t end up being one of the best films of 2017, that will be extremely telling as to what a great year cinema has had. It’s creepy, shocking, honest, stylish, heartbreaking, and heartfelt. Anyone who appreciates true crime-style horror movies or grim drama in general will want to seek this one and see it as soon as possible. It’s a gem.
This review originally ran as part of our 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival. Super Dark Times arrives in theaters on September 29th.