Smile Politely

Final Summer hearkens back to horror of decades past

Please note: This article contains SPOILERS for Final Summer.  

The year is 1991. It’s the last day of summer at Camp Silverlake. Another camper has been struck dead by the skull-masked, ax-wielding figure that has haunted the camp for years. The plucky young counselors process their shock and grief as they close up shop and prepare for the property to be sold, its tragic story at an end. Come nightfall, however, the killer emerges from the woods once more, determined that none of them survive until dawn.

That’s about what there is to the plot of Champaign writer-director John Isberg’s throwback horror slasher film Final Summer, and it doesn’t need much more. Like the classic horror films to which it pays homage, Final Summer is not overly concerned with who the characters are, choosing instead to focus on the fear generated by their gruesome demise. The atmosphere of dread that looms over the film is expertly showcased in the official trailer, with shots of characters reacting to an unseen threat set to a ticking noise that grows louder and more urgent throughout. The trailer then cuts to the title card, and the ominous soundtrack is replaced with ambient forest sounds — sometimes, nothing is scarier than anything.

The official Twitter account for Final Summer describes it as being inspired by the Friday the 13th and Scream franchises, borrowing the summer camp setting from the former and the self-aware examination of horror tropes from the latter. The film is proud of its influences: one character wears a Jason Voorhees-style goalie mask, another imitates the famous “ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma” leitmotif from Friday the 13th, and Thom Mathews, who played the role of Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, appears as Sheriff Parmer. Even one of the plot twists from Scream is mirrored with the revelation that not one, but two people are responsible for the murders.

The camp director was my first guess at the identity of the masked maniac after her sinister introduction, in which she bitterly laments having to sell the camp that has been in her family for generations, so the real surprise was that she had an accomplice. Although the character of local eccentric Warren Copper is initially believed to be a homicidal psychopath by the counselors, he is ultimately revealed as a red herring, and a sympathetic one at that. Other familiar slasher scenarios play out — the phone lines are cut and the power is sabotaged, hapless victims run from a slow-moving assailant before tripping and being butchered, and saying “I’ll be right back” means certain doom.

Movie poster for Final Summer. A person wearing a skull mask with blood on the face is pictured in profile. They are wearing a dark coat and carrying a bloody ax in their right hand. There is red text over the image. Image from Final Summer's Facebook page.

Image by Creepy Duck Design, from Final Summer’s Facebook page. 

The editing effectively conveyed the frantic adrenaline rush of running for one’s life, and while this meant it was not always easy to tell what was going on, it proves just how frightening the dark can be. The film’s brisk pacing means that some characters meet with a terrible fate not too long after they are introduced, but the earnest performances of the cast humanize the camp staff immensely in the time that they have to live. Although the film is mostly serious, it is not without moments of comedy. The audience at the screening I attended was particularly amused by counselor Mario (Myles Valentine) fleeing from the killer while cursing up a storm. Another delightfully cheesy moment occurred at the climax of the film, where the camp director attempts to pass off her crimes as a murder-suicide committed by female lead Lexi (Jenna Kohn), urging the latter to put a gun in her mouth. Once Lexi gains the upper hand and pushes her boss into a swimming pool, she throws in a nearby stereo to finish her off, yelling “Put this in your mouth, [expletive]!” It was definitely a cathartic moment of hero triumphing over villain, but the sheer absurdity of the method made it simultaneously pretty funny. In the end, when emergency services have arrived and the surviving counselors are reunited, one of them wonders aloud if they will still get paid for the summer. After spending 90 minutes at the edge of their seats, the audience needs these laughs almost as badly as the characters do.

Final Summer was produced by Swede Films and filmed at Camp Robert Drake in Fairmount. It premiered at Popcorn Frights Film Festival on August 13th, 2022 at Savor Cinema Fort Lauderdale. The screening was attended by Isberg and cast members Jenna Kohn (Lexi), Charlee Amacher (Georgia), Luzzo (fight choreographer), and Bishop Stevens (Deputy Henry), who introduced the film and participated in a Q&A session afterwards. The film was also shown at the Harvest Moon Drive-In Theatre in Gibson City on October 13th, and at Savoy 16 from October 28th through the 31st. It will feature at the Days of the Dead Film Festival in Chicago on November 18th. According to the film’s Twitter, it will likely become available for streaming in 2023. So if you enjoy the bloody exploits of Ghostface, Michael Myers, and others of their ilk, keep an eye out for a chance to watch Final Summer — it may just prove to be the film of your screams.

Top image from Final Summer’s Twitter account. 

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