CRUEL SUMMER **** UK 2016 Dir: Philip Escott, Craig Newman 80 mins
Inspired by a particularly brutal Sheffield case, this Cardiff-shot feature debut for documentarians Escott and Newman unfolds to devastating effect over the course of a few hours on a beautiful summer Saturday.
Danny Miller is a high school student who believes spurious rumours that an autistic fellow pupil (Richard Pawulski) was among those who slept with his ex. Further unfounded hearsay also pegs Pawulski as a possible child rapist, and the enraged Miller sets off with easily led mate Reece Douglas and spiteful gossip Natalie Martins to terrorise the young man while on his solo lakeside camping trip for a Duke of Edinburgh award. CRUEL SUMMER visits thematic territory recently covered by visceral British “hoodie horror” fare like EDEN LAKE, and in Miller’s bone-chilling performance, it certainly has an unrepentant, loose-cannon figure of fear, whose remorseless actions fulfil the average Daily Mail reader’s fears of “the youth of today”. Like EDEN LAKE, it also builds inexorably to a harrowing final act of humiliation and violence.
Artfully made and devoid of obvious shock tactics, however, the film places the accent on mounting dread and painfully authentic, brilliantly essayed performances: Douglas underplays effectively as the passive good kid coerced into joining a witch-hunt, while the smiling, shit-stirring thrill seeker Martins sheds her apathy when things get dangerous. Pawulski is outstanding in an unpatronising portrait of the persecuted protagonist, enhancing the disturbing power of his plight. Although the film never wallows in exploitative sadism or graphic grue, it does climax with a sense of hopelessness akin to the more graphic centre-piece of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (complete with idyllic woodland setting), focusing in particular on the two sidekicks mortified by their own involvement in a despicable act. Refusing to exploit tabloid panic about Strongbow-quaffing adolescents hanging around outside One-Stop, it’s more about presenting a timely reminder of how ignorance and casual rumour mongering can, has, and always will escalate into cruelty and tragedy. It’s one of the stand-out British horror films of the last few years.
Review by Steven West