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Super Dark Times is super dark, and the most honest teen movie of 2017

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Kevin Phillips’ debut feature is a tight scary story and a gorgeous portrait of guilt

Image: The Orchard

This fall, The Verge is making a choice. The choice is fear! We’ve decided to embrace the season by taking in as many new horror movies as possible and reporting back on which ones are worth your time. We’re calling this series Hold My Hand, as we look at films you might want to watch with a supportive viewing partner. Get comfortable, put the kettle on, check the closet for ghosts, then find a hand to squeeze until the bones pop.

Fall is a mood, obviously. The mood is a blaze of glory before a slow march toward death. Locations can also be moods, and the best horror movies I have seen understand this. Super Dark Times, the debut feature from director Kevin Phillips, takes its from a semi-anonymous suburb in upstate New York, which happens to be the same general setting that my adolescence took its mood from. It’s a place where glaciers carved out dramatic landscapes and dozens of lakes, and the dominant accessory for those landscapes is many hundred-year-old trees that turn briefly scarlet and then into skeletons. You couldn’t ask for a prettier horror movie mood, in my biased opinion.

In the years since small agriculture got more complicated and less profitable and Kodak stopped being so interesting to the world at large, upstate New York has also sat squarely underneath a shadow of poverty. Super Dark Times takes place before the worst of the area’s changes, in the late ‘90s, but they’re in the air. The events of the film take place amid creepy watercolor backdrops reminiscent of that other perfect suburban mood piece, Donnie Darko, as well as in homes with old, tacky furniture and around space heaters in ugly garages.

It follows, like so many movies these days, a group of teenage boys who are suddenly asked to grapple with weighty topics like sex and loyalty and grief and violence. But especially violence. The movie stars The Americans’ Owen Campbell as Zack, who witnesses his best friend Josh (Gotham’s Charlie Tahan) do something horrible by accident, and helps him cover it up. In the aftermath, Zack is haunted by nightmares and guilt, as well as a secret grief he’s unable to communicate to his charming and patient mother (Homeland’s Amy Hargreaves) or his understandably less-patient love interest (Jessica Jones’ Elizabeth Cappuccino).

Co-written by the relatively unknown Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, Super Dark Times builds slowly to a fairly traditional (and gory) thriller climax and a somewhat disappointing resolution. But on the way there, it’s a one-of-a-kind portrait of what Campbell refers to as “that cruel soup of teenage life.” Cruel soup!

IS IT SCARY?

Yes, much scarier than any other upstate New York horror movie I can think of, the most notable recent example being a horribly cheesy 2008 thriller about Rochester’s famed Alphabet Killer. That movie essentially amounted to a half-baked tribute to 2007’s Zodiac, and a single bargain-bin DVD copy of it was passed around basements in my hometown for several years as a joke.

Without spoiling anything, Super Dark Times is scary because it takes the time to examine how a single act of violence can ripple differently through several lives based on what’s already there. Zack and Josh have a crush on the same girl. Josh’s brother is off serving as a Marine and left behind some drugs and a sword. Zack is the type of shy that means he doesn’t go anywhere and Josh is the type of shy that means he puts on an aggressive, too-cool mask in public. Zack is an only child to a single parent who believes he’s perfect — pretty much self-sufficient at 16. The film’s first two acts are concerned with establishing all of this, and its third lights the powder keg. You can almost forget you’re watching a horror movie and then feel wildly dumb when it starts rushing toward its inevitable conclusion.

WILL I CARE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS?

Yes. It’s easiest to care about Zack, because he gets the most screen time and wears a hot pink cast on his arm for half the movie. But Elizabeth Cappuccino as Allison is a winningly familiar character too, a cool girl in flannel and plastic chokers who has no way of knowing that the object of her affection is floating around in a nightmare world. Not every teen has seen something as terrible as Zack has, but every teen has felt something as confusing as what Allison feels when she says, “I like you. A lot sometimes.”

Super Dark Times Image: The Orchard

IS IT VISUALLY IMPRESSIVE?

Yes, it looks like Donnie Darko! It also looks like real life, in a way that convincingly argues that kids who grow up near bridges and forests and large, empty spaces where no one can hear them screaming often grow up pretty wild.

The film’s opening shot is of an enormous deer sliding across the floor of a high school classroom in a pool of its own blood, followed by a local police officer’s boot heel coming down on its skull. The image is striking in a vacuum, but it also sets the tone for a movie that takes place in a part of the country where this change of seasons is particularly dangerous: There are going to be way more skidding tires and starving, desperate deer than this one before winter even gets going, and oh look, time to start a horror movie.

WHAT’S LURKING BENEATH THE SURFACE?

There’s a blurry line between the literal, bloody violence of Super Dark Times and the violent language its teen boys start spewing from the jump. Josh is a familiar archetype, a resentful loner and misogynist whose response to any refusal of his will is a full-on tantrum. You don’t have to look very hard to see a commentary on the now-infamous world of Reddit’s MRA boards and the toxic masculinity that festers there day after day. But if you’re tired of peering into the brain of that particular type of dude — and I wouldn’t blame you — there’s still plenty of other scary stuff going on.

Through Zack’s eyes, you can take a little time travel vacation back to the early days of adolescence when it felt like every single fuck-up shifted the landscape of your life and your perception of your character irrevocably, and it seemed like there was no one on Earth who could possibly understand you without hating you. Inching only very slightly ahead of Julia Ducournau’s debut feature Raw, it’s the most honest teen movie I’ve seen all year.

Super Dark Times Image: The Orchard

HOW CAN I WATCH IT?

Super Dark Times opened in limited release on September 29th and already seems to be out of theaters, at least in New York. I was not happy to discover this! But you can rent it on Vudu, Google Play, YouTube, or Amazon Video.

IS THIS A HAND-HOLDING MOVIE?

Finally, for the first time in the one-month history of the Hold My Hand column, the answer is yes. Super Dark Times is a tense, expertly choreographed thriller and it has several endearing and painful sequences of botched teen romance. I would hold basically anyone’s hand while watching this movie. That would be nice.