Writing-directing duo Phillip Escott and Craig Newman deliver their feature film debut in the form of brutal British horror Cruel Summer.
Purported to be based on a true events, Phillip Escott and Craig Newman’s Cruel Summer is a tough film to watch. Here, an innocent victim, weak and alone in a secluded countryside setting, is pursued by a trio of feckless youths fuelled on rage. Free of ambition, direction and a job, the gang turn their boredom into bloody exhilaration by way of a gardener’s scythe and some stolen lager. It’s an unsettling, provocative image of sink estate youth culture getting its kicks out of other’s pain and misery. There’s a distinct whiff of James Watkins’ Eden Lake but whereas that film was as much about the victim as it was the perpetrators, Cruel Summer is predominantly focused on the two boys and one girl who carry out this heinous crime.
For Nicholas (Danny Miller), every summer is a cruel one. And this one just got even worse. Dumped by his girlfriend, he can’t take the rejection. He’s usually the one using and discarding sexual conquests. When a friend (Julia, played by Natalie Martins) who clearly has a soft spot for this local bad boy suggests that a disabled teen from her school slept with Nicholas’s former girlfriend before him, his jilted, narcissistic rage turns into an impassioned pursuit of retribution. It doesn’t matter if Julia’s story is true, just as Nicholas’s twisted, callous need for lover’s closure has nothing to do with the innocent man he targets his aggression. After all, it’s a cruel summer and there’s nothing better to do.
Escott and Newman, who also write the film, deliver their feature debut by showcasing a knack of coaxing credible performances from their gang of abusers. Miller, best known for his appearances in English soap opera Emmerdale, literally has steam coming out of his ears as hot-tempered Nicholas. But there’s nothing caricature about his low-rent bully, an unsettling psychosis cutting through the superficial nastiness. The fact he emits a disquieting charm when he needs it (like in one scene when he gets his victim’s whereabouts from the boy’s mother, feigning a long-term friendship), adds another layer to an antagonist you won’t quickly forget.
Cruel Summer does telegraph where it’s going. The opening scene depicts a distressed Danny (Richard Pawulski) next to a tree in the woods, his mouth full of blood, his body heavy due to possible concussion courtesy of obvious blows to the head. The film then takes us back to the beginning of the day to reveal how we get to this woodland carnage. On the one hand, there’s an inevitability about what will happen that makes some of the elongated establishing sequences, with some admittedly gorgeous landscape photography, feel like unnecessary baggage. Conversely, our knowledge that something horrible will happen injects more tension, a sort of unwanted anticipation in preparation for the violence to begin.
Once the gang catch up to Danny, this idyllically staged horror shifts into high gear and permits little respite. We learn that Danny has autism, a disability that gives him an obvious physical weakness beyond simply being outnumbered. It also magnifies the division between the gang and their clearly disadvantaged prey. Nicholas’s actions are therefore even more small-minded and cowardly.
But Cruel Summer doesn’t wallow in pitying the victim, it’s more concerned with the power play between leader and followers. Nicholas goads companion Calvin (Reece Douglas) by lying to him about Danny being a paedophile, then plays on his guilty conscience when he backs down from hurting the teenager. Calvin is torn between appeasing the desires of his deranged friend, and therefore retaining a powerful ally on the street, and doing what is right, lawful and humane. Similarly, Julia, who admires Nicholas’s toughness if not his temper, is happy to toe the party line in order to remain in his good graces. Calvin and Julia are present partly out of fear, their moral code muddied by a need to survive their own misfiring social worlds.
Most successfully, in taking its time to establish the stage, Cruel Summer gives us chance to get to know the trio. Anyone expecting to be bludgeoned by non-stop violence will be sorely disappointed. There’s an unhurried pace and the violence, when it does come, is largely implied. Importantly, Escott and Newman offer no clear-cut answers; the environment which spawns the brutality only hinted at. There’s nothing new in this underling context – marital breakdowns, disenchantment with education, drug and alcohol abuse – each a neat platform to a lack of aspiration and an eagerness to blame everything but themselves for their predicament.
It nevertheless prefaces the horrors to come, the subtleties of character development and performance ensuring the gang offer a recognisable kind of everyday malice. Each character is nuanced enough to stand out too; Julia’s lap-dog wickedness contrasts with Calvin’s wary, mannered consideration of their actions. This reveals some truly unforgettable moments. For example, at one point Julia begs Nicholas to stop and he simply says he can’t. It’s that desensitisation to violence and dismissiveness of consequence that makes Cruel Summer so frightening and so effective.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed Cruel Summer courtesy of Solo Media and Matchbox Films which release the film on DVD & VOD February 6, 2017.