You’d never know that Super Dark Times is Kevin Phillips’ first feature length film without looking it up. He shows so much elegance behind the camera, framing each shot deliberately and with aplomb—Phillips’ dark tone and atmosphere are on full display here, often using these lingering shots to speak volumes, telling us exactly what his characters are feeling. There’s a quietness to his film that gives it this poised kind of tension; the kind that unravels methodically and unnervingly slow. You couldn’t have come up with a better name for this one—Super Dark Times indeed. In it, teenagers Zach and Josh have been best friends their whole lives, but when a gruesome accident leads to a cover-up, the secret drives a wedge between them and propels them down a rabbit hole of escalating paranoia and violence.
It’s not too often that a film hits you with atmosphere first. Usually it takes a little while before you really get a sense of the film’s tonal vision, but in the first few shots of Super Dark Times there’s a startling sense of dread and coldness that trails behind them. It’s set during the dark and gloomy days of fall, just before winter hits, further driving that somber mood into the narrative. Like I said at the top, the title of the film says it all. Even its lighter moments feel short-lived because they’re always a step behind the horror.
It’s a great example of how powerful of a role atmosphere and tension play in a horror film. What I mean is that the story itself is pretty underwhelming—it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before, yet the tone of the film is strikingly poignant, carrying the story and its characters along with it. Phillips pulls it off by grounding the beginning of his film in these insanely eerie shots that practically force the viewer into the narrative. There’s no context to them either, making it feel immediately unsettling and dark. That was (by far) my favorite thing about Super Dark Times—not only its ability to set the tone so early on, but to maintain it throughout the entire length of the film.
While it may not be scary in the traditional genre sense, it’s absolutely terrifying for its characters; you can see the pain and horror all over their faces. That sudden loss of innocence is so powerful and terrifying that you can’t help but feel for them. And it works because Phillips spends a good portion of the first act really opening up his characters, allowing us to get a sense of who they are. And while the dialog was a little over-the-top (I get it, they’re teenagers), he definitely nails that sort of mindless bullshitting that most kids do in their teens—they feel like real people, so when the narrative finally twists the knife, the horror hits that much harder.
There’s only one issue I can see people having with the film and it’s the sudden psychological development of a certain character that it has a hard time justifying. Was the character struggling with these desires all along and the film only wanted us to see the defining moment in which they come apart? Is that giving Phillips’ film too much credit? It really depends on how you look at it, really. It hardly bothered me, however. In fact, I prefer that sudden shift in tone (especially when it comes to a character) because it’s much more profound when you never see it coming. Phillips’ debut is one of the biggest surprises of the year. It’s a powerful coming-of-age tale fueled by teenage angst, and it reminds us how just a single moment, one that comes and goes in an instant, can change your life forever.