This piece first appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #6 – available in print here
It’s easy to understand why Summer tends to be people’s favourite season. Beautiful sunshine, longer days, sizzling barbecues, and exotic trips away. Over the years, audiences have been treated to movies that perfectly capture that feel-good summer vibe with classics such as Pauline at the Beach, Mamma Mia, Dazed and Confused, and of course Grease.
These seasonal features aren’t all literal sunshine and rainbows though. Audiences have endured summertime stories that have toyed with their emotions: thanks to the likes of killer sharks terrorising seaside towns, and heart-wrenching coming-of-age adventures. The following is a list of five films set during the height of Summer that will certainly instil a feeling more akin to a cold, winter’s night.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Don’t let the title fool you, as this 1997 slasher flick from Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson sees young friends Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Barry (Ryan Phillippe) and Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.), being stalked by a hook-wielding menace. The film kicks off during one of America’s biggest Summer events: Independence Day. The central cast of high school graduates are introduced during a Fourth of July festival set in a small seaside town complete with fireworks, beauty pageants, and barbecues at the beach – but the pleasantries end there. It doesn’t take long for the four friends to take a trip down a dark coastal road and accidentally run over a pedestrian. Instead of calling the police, however, they decide to dump the body into the ocean, even after seeing that the pedestrian is still alive. From there on, the film jumps forward a year and the four friends are tormented by messages from someone claiming to know what happened the Summer before, as well as a killer with a deadly hook.
I Know What You Did Last Summer establishes a clear juxtaposition between the scenes driving the plot forward and the horror set pieces. When the cast get together to unravel the mystery behind who the stalker is, or are doing something else besides being chased by the killer, the scene is usually set during a bright, summers day. The audience know the characters are safe and are free to advance the plot. In contrast, every kill in the movie is performed at night time or in a darkened interior location. It seems that the film’s creative leads wanted to keep in line with classic horror conventions by staging the violent set pieces with a dark and suspenseful atmosphere.
There are some exceptions to that rule, however, that effectively catch the audience off guard. A scene with Julie driving is set during broad daylight, where after hearing some strange sounds she pulls over in a peaceful neighbourhood and opens the boot. Julie discovers a corpse amongst countless crabs crawling around the boot. It’s an effective jump scare that plays into the fear of encountering horrors when you feel the most safe. A scene later on builds upon the idea of paranoia during a busy Fourth of July festival, where Helen sits atop a float during a parade through the town and keeps an eye out for the killer. With the deadly stalker donning a fisherman’s garb, we see through Helen’s eyes the many lookalikes wandering about the festival as the local fishermen join in the festivities. It’s a delightfully tense sequence that feels wildly different from the more standard set pieces in the film, where even during a summertime event danger lurks everywhere.
Spielberg’s 1975 classic captures the spirit of summer: young adults having parties by a bonfire at night, beaches packed with tourists sunbathing and taking a dip in the cool sea. That is until a hungry great white shark comes by for a snack. Jaws falls somewhere between I Know What You Did Last Summer and Midsommar: with the film taking place over Fourth of July in a seaside town whilst displaying most of the scares during a bright, sunny day. The story of police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) hunting down a killer shark with the help of marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) made audiences too terrified to go for a swim in the sea again.
It’s common knowledge nowadays that shark attacks are extremely uncommon, and that sharks are in fact rather intelligent species, but even with that in mind Spielberg and his crew do such an incredible job of making you fear the oceanic beast. However, the true villain in Jaws is arguably Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), for his reckless mayorship favouring money over lives. Many places across the globe are reliant on the summer season, including the film’s central location Amity Island. People spend money on day trips and holidays to sunny beachside locations, fuelling the local economy by staying at local hotels, enjoying fresh fish and chips, and buying novelty items at little beachside shops. Mayor Vaughn is well aware that the Fourth of July will bring in many tourists, and a lot of money, but even after multiple deaths he is persistent that the beach will remain open. At one point in the film, he even pressures a local family to wade into the waters to make the sea seem safe for the other beach-goers. Of course, everyone joins in and soon enough another victim is claimed by the killer shark.
Audiences nowadays tend to compare Mayor Vaughn to real-world politicians who have a similarly foolhardy and money-hungry approach to issues. Some people, like Prime Minister Boris Johnson, even unironically told journalists in a lunch event back in 2011 that Mayor Vaughn was his political hero for keeping the beaches open. There are unfortunately a plethora of real-life horror stories at the seaside – drownings, boating accidents, and yes the rare animal attack – and Jaws reminds us of the unexpected dangers of enjoying the golden sands by the sea, but even more so the ever-present danger of capitalism and people in power.
Ari Aster’s second feature-length film has some truly gorgeous cinematography. The Scandinavian setting boasts lush, green fields and colourful flower beds, and the white garments worn by the local community are almost blinding in the sun. Midsommar purposefully welcomes you in, to then completely rip your nerves to shreds in one of the most anxiety-inducing horror films in the history of cinema. It’s a break-up movie wrapped up in a folk horror, as Dani (Florence Pugh) tags along with her awful boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends on a trip to Sweden for a festival that only happens once every 90 years.
Aster leans hard into subverting horror tropes and largely sets the film in broad daylight, thanks to the bulk of the story taking place during the summer solstice. It’s an unspoken rule that the dark is frightening as we can’t see what lurks in the shadows, making the light a welcoming sight. Presenting the horror in daylight, however, flips that concept on its head with terrifying effect. It suggests that whatever ghastly sight is in front of you is all the more real. Ghouls and boogeymen hide in the dark but real-life horrors – funerals, deadly-incidents, personal trauma – tend to happen more frequently during the day. It also takes away what we traditionally associate light to be. Light is the universal symbol for goodness and understanding, and the sun too symbolises life, growth and health, so the revelation that the light is in fact hostile becomes all the more powerfully nightmarish.
Even beyond that, Midsommar catches viewers off guard because it features some genuinely funny moments. Mark (Will Poulter) is an unlikeable character that provides some hilarious lines of dialogue and reactions throughout the film. His comedic moments are often followed by scenes of anxiety and horror though. It is also difficult to define Midsommar as a horror film, as crazy as that sounds. Sure there are plenty of elements taken from the horror genre guidebook, but Aster doesn’t build up fear in the audience as much as he makes them anxious. Thanks largely to Pugh’s performance, we feel her anxiety and the panic attacks she endures, and the build-up to those moments simmer under the surface until it reaches its boiling point. Don’t let the height of summer trick you into a false sense of security.,
Another coming-of-age story, this time by acclaimed writer and director Céline Sciamma of Portrait of a Lady on Fire fame. Water Lilies specifically centres on the exploration of love and sex as a teenager, but through Sciamma’s now trademark observational gazes from her characters. Teenagers discovering sexual attraction during summer is nothing new within the world of film but Water Lilies shows the somewhat grim reality of it: it’s messy, often devastating and doesn’t always guarantee a happy ending. Marie (Pauline Acqaurt) observes her best friend Anne (Louise Blachère), who is taking part in a synchronised swimming competition, but finds herself infatuated with Floriane (Adèle Haenel), an older member of the swim team. Marie strikes a deal with Floriane: Marie can sit in on Floriane’s practise sessions if she can help her sneak out to meet up with the pool boy Francois (Warren Jacquin). To make matters even more complicated, Anne is attracted to Francois but obviously he is already close with Floriane.
Matters only grow more complicated as the film goes on, much to our displeasure. The central emotional conflict between Marie and Floriane is viewed through Marie’s eyes, so of course we want to see Marie happily intimate with her crush. Floriane has her own journey in exploring her own sexuality, however, and feels pressured to flirt with boys and to lose her virginity. It’s an all too real situation: the film suggests that Floriane has some sort of attraction to Marie but she feels she has to become intimate with men instead. Instead of being upfront with Floriane, Marie goes along with everything she asks her to do, as uncomfortable as those situations end up being for Marie. We’ve all been in similar situations growing up, where we simply lack the words to tell others how we feel about them. The fact that this story is told through the medium of moving image so we see the way Marie longs after Floriane makes it heart-achingly painful to watch.
How the story unfolds is painful too, for us and the characters. Marie and Anne have to watch Floriane and Francois run off with each other on numerous occasions, and we see the effect that has, particularly when Marie and Anne break down into tears on separate occasions. Do they manage to win over their objects of desire by the time the credits roll? No, they don’t. The openness to the film’s ending suggests that it’s not all in vain, as Marie and Anne still have each other, but nonetheless they only find solace in each other after having their hearts ripped to shreds. If Jaws made you fearful of the ocean, Water Lilies is bound to make sure you never go to a swimming pool ever again.
Stand By Me
Richard Dreyfuss once again appears in a film that attempts to ruin your summer fun. Stand By Me is an absolute classic: a fun, witty, coming-of-age adventure featuring a talented young cast on a quest across the forests of Oregon. The film differs from the other entries on this list as it isn’t a horror film, and is set during the end of summer rather than during the height of the season. All the promotional material, from trailers to posters, suggest a light-hearted flick, but this Stephen King adaptation has one hell of a sucker punch ending that is guaranteed to put a lump in your throat.
Four boys, Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), overhear the general whereabouts of the body of a missing boy and decide to become local heroes by trying to find the body. Along the way the boys learn the meaning of friendship and growing up whilst encountering trains, leeches and a young Kiefer Sutherland. Woven between the set pieces and laughs are scenes that remind audiences of the harsh realities of life that provide genuine emotion and heart. The first eye-opening moment is when the cast finally find the dead boy. It’s a somber scene, with the young adventurers dealing with mortality face-to-face, the death of someone similarly aged. That confrontation with death hits Gordie hard, as the film’s opening establishes that his brother Denny (John Cusack) had recently died.
The theme of death is prevalent throughout the whole runtime, and especially around Chris. Stand By Me’s narrative is structured around a grown up Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) writing about his childhood after reading in the papers that Chris, now an attorney, has been killed. Even with that key bit of information, it doesn’t make the ending any easier to watch. As the younger Gordie and Chris part ways after their adventure, the older Gordie narrates about how Chris went on to become a lawyer but was stabbed to death after attempting to break up a fight. The younger Chris doesn’t even finish walking off screen before he literally fades away. An adult Gordie continues typing out how he will miss Chris forever, and continues to write about how he never had friends later on in life like Chris, Teddy and Vern all those years ago. Stand By Me presents death as it really is: sudden and unflinching. The younger Gordie had no idea that that goodbye with Chris would be his last. In retrospect, what makes this death all the more heartbreaking is the fact that Chris was played by River Phoenix, who tragically died of a drug overdose a few years after Stand By Me. You’ll most likely want to go outside into the warm sun to feel something again after this film’s ending.