This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, HELL OF A SUMMER covered here wouldn’t exist.

HELL OF A SUMMER is one hell of a cozy horror comedy. You can pop some popcorn, wrap yourself in a blanket, and feel nice and snug while people are running for their lives. Is there anything wrong with that? No! While the press information calls it a combination of Friday The 13th and Wet Hot American Summer, I found myself thinking of another 80s summer camp slasher, The Burning. It is definitely a homage to the 80s slasher, but it leans more heavily on character-based comedy and is clearly set in more modern times because there are influencers and cell phones.

The synopsis is short, sweet, and too-the-point. As the counselors are getting Camp Pineway ready the night before the campers arrive, a masked killer begins killing the staff.

HELL OF A SUMMER marks Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”)’s directorial debut alongside co-director Billy Bryk (Ghostbusters: Afterlife). It stars Fred Hechinger (“White Lotus” as Jason, Kraven), Abby Quinn (Knock at the Cabin) as Claire, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai (“Reservation Dogs”) as Mike and Wolfhard as Chris, Bryk as Bobby, Pardis Saremi as Demi.

In particular, Hechinger as Jason, Abby Quinn as Claire, and D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai are the standouts, but the cast as a whole is quite good. Claire is a great stand-in for the 80s and 90s cynical female horror character; a prototype might be Clea DuVall’s Stokely in The Faculty. Hechinger’s Jason is every lonely but enthusiastic guy who is too scared to live through anything but his summer camp job. Matthew Finlan, as Ezra, gets those comedy beats and does good things with them. D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai emanates the aura of the coolest kind of slightly menacing bad boy and makes a great impression.

You have to accept that this is mostly an ensemble comedy with horror, so while it may not feed the relentless gorehounds, it will please the horror fans who would love to watch a new summer camp slasher who knows what to do with the subgenre. You can only watch all of the 80s slashers so many times, and it is interesting to see what current filmmaking sensibilities will do with the basic structure of this kind of horror movie.

HELL OF A SUMMER opens with a scene that actually could have come from an 80s slasher easily. It’s clever, dimly lit, with a bit of a shocking twist that makes you laugh and appreciate the form. As for the filmmaking, it does tend to lean on the dark end of horror movies, and quite a few scenes are set at night. Some will probably complain that they can’t see enough of what’s in the frame, but that’s actually a lot like a few films of the period, in case you haven’t spent your hours watching tons of slasher films. Is it intentional? I don’t know, but it doesn’t distract that much from the enjoyment of the film.

Is the film terribly deep or resplendent with social critique? Not really. There are some light touches of male characters acting like selfish and sexist jerks, but that’s also in tune with 80s filmmaking. HELL OF A SUMMER is a pastiche, but it is a reverent one.

HELL OF A SUMMER world premiered at TIFF 2023.

Dolores Quintana
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