‘Hell of a Summer’ Review: Finn Wolfhard’s Bloody Fun Horror Throwback | TIFF 2023
This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.Actors turning to directing isn’t a new thing in Hollywood. Some of the most legendary filmmakers in the business started out as actors such as Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, and Sofia Coppola. In recent years, stars like Greta Gerwig, Bradley Cooper, and Jordan Peele have transitioned to working behind the camera to great success. Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard is the latest performer looking to flex his filmmaking chops with Hell of a Summer, a slasher comedy he co-directed and co-wrote with his best friend Billy Bryk. What’s even more interesting is that Wolfhard and Bryk are still only in their early 20s, compared to performers like Michael B. Jordan, who’d been working on-screen for over two decades before he directed this year’s Creed III.
The duo’s film takes clear inspiration from summer camp slashers like Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp, and The Final Girls, and primarily focuses on Jason (Fred Hechinger), an optimistic 24-year-old who has been asked to return to be a camp counselor at his favorite summer camp, Camp Pineway, even though he’s older than all the other counselors. His fellow counselors include the horny duo, Bobby and Chris (Bryk and Wolfhard), Demi the unattainable diva (Pardis Saremi), Claire the wallflower (Abby Quinn), Mike the jock (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Ezra the thespian (Matthew Finlan), Ari the hipster (Daniel Gravelle), Miley the staunch vegan (Julia Doyle), Noelle the goth girl (Julia Lalonde), and Chris’ crush Shannon (Krista Nazaire), among others. Unfortunately, their days of drinking, hooking up, and having fun are cut short when a masked killer gets loose in the woods then begins picking them off one by one.
‘Hell of a Summer’ Boasts an Energetic and Lovable Cast of Characters
Hell of A Summer might not have the most original premise, but Bryk and Wolfhard are fully aware of that, creating one of the most entertaining and crowd-pleasing slasher films of the 2020s. The youthfulness of the cast and the creative team ultimately ends up being a major benefit for the film, especially as the cast of young adults actually talk like people their own age. Yes, they enjoy being stupid and making moronic decisions, but they’re also extremely relatable.
For those not already in the know, Hechinger is a supremely talented actor who has finally been getting the recognition he deserves after his role as the technology-obsessed rich teen Quinn in The White Lotus Season 1. In Hell of a Summer, he’s playing a role that feels completely opposite to that. His character Jason is kind of a loser. After all, how many 24-year-olds would be excited to be a summer camp counselor? The answer is not many, especially if you ask some of Quinn’s fellow campers. Still, he is the heart of this throwback slasher and Hechinger’s performance transforms the character into someone beyond what could have just been a grating and irritating loner. He doesn’t deserve to be chased by a killer wearing a demon mask (well, nobody does, but the point still stands). Alongside him is Quinn who, after making a big impression earlier this year in M. Night Shyamalan‘s Knock at the Cabin, is another strong part of the cast playing his long-time camp crush Claire.
‘Hell of a Summer’ Suffers From Some of the Same Pitfalls of Other Directorial Debuts
This strong cast aside, the film does take its sweet time to get going after an excellent opening kill. This proves to be the perfect preview of what kind of a movie Hell of a Summer is. The opening act feels like a rendition of the same generic teen sex comedy that was commonplace in the 90s. Once the kills do get up and running, the film picks up the pace. And while the plot twists are extremely predictable, it doesn’t take away from its entertainment value.
As can be expected from a directorial debut, Hell of a Summer does feel like a “first film.” It is clunky, will often shy away from showing some of the coolest kills, and there is a quality to it that feels extremely low budget. The dim lighting during the nighttime sequences makes it hard to tell what is going on during several key moments. Because of their young age, Wolfhard and Bryk have plenty of time to grow as filmmakers, and cranking out their first film this early means that they already have a head start. This doesn’t prevent their debut from feeling like it playing it a little too safely at times with the gore that you’d expect from a film of this ilk being surprisingly tame.
The humor also tends to be very hit-or-miss. While some of the film’s improvised lines, including Hechinger’s Quinn calling hot dogs “weenies,” are very funny, other moments, such as running bits about veganism and zodiac signs, aren’t nearly as much so. On top of being predictable, the plot twists also try to add a bit of social commentary, but ultimately end up feeling like an afterthought rather than something that will stick with you long after watching the movie. With all that being said, for as messy as the film is, their direction shows so much promise. If they learn from this first go-around, they can only improve from here.
The Big Picture
- Hell of a Summer is a crowd-pleasing slasher film with an energetic and lovable cast of relatable characters.
- The film suffers from some of the pitfalls of other directorial debuts, including clunkiness and low-budget production quality.
- While the plot twists can be predictable and the humor hit-or-miss, the film shows the young directors have plenty of promise.
Hell of a Summer had its World Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.