Review by Bryan Yentz
Starring Richard Pawulski, Danny Miller, Natalie Martins and Reece Douglas
Written and directed by Phillip Escott and Craig Newman
If I’ve learned anything from watching movies (especially horror movies) it’s to be always wary of a film that proclaims be “based/inspired by a true story/event.” Marketers love it because it makes their jobs easy and the flick simple to sell, while filmmakers abuse it because it lends a certain level of justification to what they commit to camera. So with Phillip Escott and Craig Newman’s feature CRUEL SUMMER, I was a bit apprehensive upon seeing those foreboding words plastered across the screen which, along with its misguided cover art made the whole thing look like some supernatural slasher (not to mention that it steals the artwork from a transcendental horror flick called THE SHELTER). However, while the filmmakers might need some education in design plagiarism, their film remains a polished piece of cruelty, one that ultimately doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond its raw (and slightly altered) take on a horrific event.
Danny (Richard Pawulski) is an autistic teen with loving parents and a knack for the great outdoors. While camping alone, he’s beset by a trio of ruffians who seek to torture him for reasons that may or not be based in fact. As with most stories inspired by real acts of depravity, Danny’s forested outing does not end well. . .
As for the “true story” element, it seems that Escott and Newman stuck quite closely to a horrific event which transpired in Sheffield, England and involved a young man with learning disabilities being mercilessly butchered by fellow acquaintances. CRUEL SUMMER takes this event and — per the testimony of its filmmakers — several other generalized episodes of publicized inhumanity to recount the day in which victim and murderer converged. While the intersection is fictionalized, it nonetheless succeeds by maintaining both a sense of realism and respectability in contrast to what actually occurred.
CRUEL SUMMER inevitably leads to violence, but much of the film’s focus is on the dramatic tension building to the fateful meeting. Performances are naturalistic and surprisingly solid for an independent feature, the most standout of evil instigator Nicholas (Danny Miller). He’s believably narcissistic, heartless and utterly indifferent to the well-being of anyone but himself. Even better, the movie takes no strides in making either him or his accomplice the least bit sympathetic (the third antagonist being reluctant to the whole attack). This isn’t a film that attempts to empathize with evil, but merely depicts its outcome on the innocent. Aiding to the tone is an appropriately melancholy score (that sometimes rears its head when it’s not quite necessary) and naturalistic exterior photography.
CRUEL SUMMER is almost simple to a fault, but succeeds as a low-budget excursion into bleakness. Due to the content, the film is, in essence, a one-time watch that lacks any details or content that would be truly worthy of repeat viewings. Given that the daily news is rife with these sorts of occurrences, it begs the question whether or not CRUEL SUMMER is even necessary, exploitative or both. In the end, there’s not much in the way of a message, warning or purpose to the picture beyond its authentic display of savagery. As that — an appropriately cynical slice of storytelling — it succeeds.