Slasher riffs and parodies date back nearly as long as slashers themselves, dissecting the enduring tropes and familiar formulas. In Hell of a Summer, first-time directors/writers Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”) and Billy Bryk (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) frame their slasher riff as a buddy comedy from the perspective of teens, aimed solely at teens. The directors’ acting backgrounds translate to an ensemble of entertaining and lively performances, though their debut is less effective in form and slasher thrills.
After a requisite opening kill, Hell of a Summer spends a lengthy first act assembling Camp Pineway’s summer camp counselors, running through the archetypical roles destined to kill or be killed. Leading the charge is tenured counselor Jason (Fear Street’s Fred Hechinger), an “ancient” 24-year-old by his younger co-worker’s repeated jabs. Jason’s an unflappably plucky guy who tries to rally the team in the absence of the camp’s missing owners, but all they’d like to do is party free from rules and supervision. Too bad a masked killer intends to crash the fun.
Wolfhard and Bryk play best friends Chris and Bobby, respectively, joining the stock horror roles that include Bobby’s love interest (Krista Nazaire), goth girl Noelle (Julia Lalonde), vegan new age gal Miley (Julia Doyle), jock Mike (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), influencer-type Demi (Paradis Saremi), Ezra (Matthew Finlan), thespian Ari (Daniel Gravelle), and wisecracking loner Claire (Abby Quinn). The slasher component falls to the wayside as the filmmakers spend time capturing the irreverent and often dumb aspects of youth. It’s an endless barrage of gags, quips, and punchlines that establish the dynamics between each stock, one-note character. Look for Miley to complain about tofu burgers and reject a suitor based on his zodiac sign, for example, or Ezra to humorously explain statistics, setting up a long joke over his nut allergy.
It’s when Wolfhard and Bryk attempt to marry their more successful coming-of-age hangout comedy to the genre they’re playing off of that Hell of a Summer stumbles. More accurately, it’s where the young filmmakers reveal their inexperience as first-time directors. Taking place primarily throughout one evening of slaughter, both interior and exterior set pieces are poorly lit, making it difficult to decipher the action. The directors opt for punctuated fast cuts that effectively highlight the zippy humor but obscure the horror; most deaths happen off-screen and are edited so quickly that it can be difficult to keep track of who dies so unceremoniously. It’s not helped by a lack of establishing locations or an articulate narrative structure that doesn’t bother with stakes or suspense.
That the characters are one-note and without any engaging arcs is by design; this is satirizing the subgenre, after all. But Wolfhard and Bryk’s focus on the humor over the slasher means it’s less effective at the satire. The good news is that their focus on youth culture commentary lands, and it’s clear the cast and crew had a blast making the film. There’s a keen awareness in highlighting just how oblivious teens can be when faced with mortal peril. While each has a moment to shine with the comedy, it’s Bryk’s fast-talking, false bravado jerk Bobby that steals every scene. Even when Bobby’s overconfidence lands him in trouble, Bryk leans into the absurdity of it so well that he renders a stereotypical bully-type an ultimately likable fellow.
Those hoping for a more inventive examination of the slasher genre won’t find it here. Wolfhard and Bryk evoke multiple movie references and lean into slasher conventions, but the focus is all about giving a voice to a specific demographic. On that front, it succeeds; Hell of a Summer isn’t really a slasher comedy so much as it is a representation of actual teens telling a story about transitioning into adulthood over what was meant to be one final hoorah at summer camp. That alone will win over its target audience and then some, but it’s clear that Wolfhard and Bryk are still at the earliest stages of honing their craft in form and technique. With a strong voice and a clear sense of ambition, though, the first-time filmmakers are ones to watch.
Hell of a Summer made its World Premiere at TIFF. Release info TBA.