Super Dark Times begins with its first death already in progress: a deer, having crashed through a classroom window of a small-town high school overnight, lies in a pool of its own blood, breathing shallowly. There’s a cluster of teachers and students who’ve stopped to watch the hopeless spectacle, but it’s not the gawky, hysteric high-school scene we might expect; the mood is eerily solemn, as if everyone knows without saying anything that things will only get worse from here.
They eventually do, but for the next 15 minutes or so, everything seems more or less normal for Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), and their sort of geeky friends in upstate New York, all of whom are positively dripping with hormones. Despite their bikes, their small town, and their semi-outcast status, these are not the cute little nerds of Stranger Things, or even their more foulmouthed counterparts in this year’s It. These boys are gross. Moreover, they’re bored. It’s the mid-’90s, so they have to use the yearbook to find pictures of the girls they lust after, or a furtively watched VHS copy of True Lies. There’s a feeling of a powder keg in the rambling, profane banter (mostly concerning masturbation and female anatomy) as they wander the residential streets lined with split-level homes and nearly naked, late-autumn trees.
One of the thrills of Super Dark Times, an incredibly stylish and confident debut from director Kevin Phillips, is the feeling that its reality could slip away at any moment to reveal something not quite bound by logic, a realm of omens and possessions and sinister transformations. It feels fitting that, rather than a gun, the film introduces Chekhov’s samurai sword, found in the vacant bedroom of Josh’s older brother, who has gone off to join the Marines. It’s a weapon as malevolent as it is absurd, a perfect match for the clumsy misogyny of teenage boys. (The basement-level room where they find it is dank and low-ceilinged and plastered with sad-looking cutouts of hot babes; the boys all agree it’s “the coolest room ever.”) Paired with a little stolen weed and a stupid argument, the sword soon becomes deadly.
From there, the film largely concerns Zach, the now-reclusive Josh, and Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), their mutual crush who picks the exact wrong time to take an interest in one of them. The violence of the crime they’ve covered up and the violence of adolescent jealousy and rivalry become indistinguishable from each other. As they lose sleep, they become less rational than they already were, and Zach’s nightmares begin blurring with his real life in increasingly troubling ways. He’s not sure how to deal with his feelings for Allison, and he’s not sure if he should start seeing his friend — or himself — as a murderer.
The three leads — Campbell, Tahan, and Cappuccino — are as promising as Phillips, with Campbell especially appealing as an all-too-familiar hapless nice boy. As Josh unravels more and more, Tahan is a truly unnerving presence, and Phillips often shoots him from below, clouds reflected in his glasses and blocking his eyes like an ominous comic-book villain. With his anger and entitlement, he starts to feel like the kind of kid who in 20 years will be a regular on MRA boards, and it’s a chilling connection to make, especially once the film reaches its surprisingly bloody conclusion. Phillips’s film may be dismissed by some for being so overwhelmingly white and male, but it’s specifically about white male problems, and it’s jarringly frank about them, despite all the just-shy-of supernatural trappings.
Its climax is where the film drops most of its atmosphere and becomes more of a straight-ahead horror-thriller, which feels both inevitable and unnecessary. The film ends as it begins, through Allison’s eyes, and I just don’t buy it — she doesn’t wind up on top of the teenage wreckage any more than any other girl caught up in the violence of boys. The events of Super Dark Times are indeed extremely dark, and are (coincidentally or not) meant to take place only a few years before violence in schools starts to reach epidemic levels. Phillips kind of stumbles when he tries for a pat wrap-up of a still-horrific problem. But when he digs into the muck of the rot at the heart of it, he comes up with some unforgettable moments.