I’m struggling to find the words to even begin this movie review. Not because I don’t have a lot to say, but because there is so much that I need to say and there are so many thoughts still running rampant in my brain. This is, honestly, one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write. Make no mistake, Cruel Summer is well shot, features a hauntingly realistic cast and really flusters all sorts of emotions. The problem here is – not all the emotions are positive ones. I was left emotionally drained after viewing Cruel Summer this afternoon and you need to know why. You need to know what happened and you need to learn. Maybe such gut-wrenching material as the caliber pictured within this movie can educate someone. So, with my struggles and hope out of the way, let me finally get to the review.
Cruel Summer is written and directed by Phillip Escott and Craig Newman. Cast members include Richard Pawulski, Danny Miller (of “Emmerdale”), Natalie Martins, Reece Douglas (of “Waterloo Road”), Grace Dixon, Gary Knowles, Sabrina Dickens and Thomas Conning. Cruel Summer follows, “autism sufferer, Danny (Pawulski), who escapes the inner-city and goes out to the country as part of his Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. Little does he know, that bitter yob Nicholas (Miller) is hunting him, stemming from a lie created by the enamored and envious Julia (Martins). With the help of new boy, Calvin (Douglas) the three youths close in on the innocent Danny, as Nicholas’ behavior grows erratic and increasingly more violent. As tensions rise within the trio, Julia and Calvin must decide whether they are capable of going through with Nicholas’ deadly plan.”
Being that I write for a horror themed website, the first thing I’d like to clarify is how Cruel Summer falls into this particular genre of film. Cruel Summer is marked as a feature that is “based on true events,” and although I’m unsure where the subject material spawned from, a quick Google search shows me dozens of instances in England – where this film originates from – and all over the world where special needs humans are victims of heinous, barbaric acts of violence. When you realize that Danny Miller existed somewhere in the universe, maybe not in body but in circumstance, the horror you witness on the screen becomes something more palpable than what most horror fans are used to. Cruel Summer proves that evil isn’t always a burned man with razor fingers or a hulking beast with a machete. Cruel Summer proves that the villains we need to fear the most walk alongside us every day. They’re out friends. They’re our families. They’re our co-workers. And they’re capable of such darkness that we don’t see until it’s far too late. When the evil is real, it adds such depth to the emotion and, in this case, the viewer is going to be absolutely crushed and crippled with psychological terror and suspense. I guarantee you’ll struggle to breathe, strangled by suspense, when the trio reaches Danny, alone in the woods.
Secondly, I’d like to say that Cruel Summer can be used as a learning tool to some degree. Despite our progression as a civilized, intelligent, empathetic race, unfortunately there is a lot of stigma and mis-education in relation to humans who are born with disabilities or special needs. A lot of people still think that someone with autism is stupid or illogical, when that thinking is illogical in itself. Most special needs humans that I’ve met lack qualities like street smarts and intuition, but they are also so skilled and well-versed in topics that rival my own intelligence. In connection to this movie, Danny can fish, build a tent from pieces in a bag and navigate using a compass. I cannot do those things and I have a college degree! The only thing that makes a disabled person different is just that – they’re special. You can’t help but feel love for them, the desire to nurture them, the desire to help them succeed. Not because you feel bad for them, but because you should be able to look past your differences and see the human being hiding behind the body ticks, the odd way of speaking and general social anxiety. I felt such pride for the character of Danny as he walked through the woods, triumphant in his own freedom and confident in his own abilities. It made it all more difficult to watch when he is bullied, harassed and tortured. I would love to give so much credit to the writer and director duo of Escott & Newman, as well as the man who played Danny – Richard Pawulski – for portraying a person with autism in such a respectful, true, and endearing way. I had to ask if Pawulski was autistic (he’s not) because his performance here was so genuine.
I struggle now to find an audience that Cruel Summer would most be the most well received by. I don’t think straight up horror fans will give this one a shot. I don’t think there’s enough thrill to keep the psychological thrillers at bay. This is far from a family movie and certainly not for the faint of heart. I literally cried during my viewing of Cruel Summer because of the similarities between Danny and a co-worker/friend of mine; and thinking about what if something like that ever happened to him. Although, that is a completely different topic all together. I think this movie would be best marketed to… people who are interested in life. The good parts of life, where someone like Danny can win awards and taste freedom from prejudice by doing a hobby that he loves. The bad parts of life, where three sick young adults can murder a helpless, unaware young adult over a lie. The themes pictured within Cruel Summer that we can all relate to – doing whatever it takes to impress someone you want to love you, the desire to be accepted and adored, the inner battle of right and wrong when peer pressure is involved, how subculture and society drastically affect a youth’s upbringing and, most of all, regret! I now need to stand firm in my stance that Cruel Summer is going to hurt you. It’s going to hurt you bad. But it’s also going to make you think. It’s going to make you reflect. And maybe it’ll change you. And then the hurt you feel after watching will all be worth it. Please take more away from this movie than “three kids go in the woods and kill another kid.” That is not why this film was created.
Cruel Summer is the most emotionally disturbing movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a gut-wrenching, haunting look into the pitch black resesses of the human mind. It’s extra-ordinarily acted, cinematically perfect and a movie that will stick with viewers well after the credits roll. It’s a journey, but not one that many will be prepared for. It’s the perfect ying-yang of gore & suspense and thought provoking bliss. I spent the rest of the day talking to people about this movie and the reaction was all the same – sad faces, shocked faces and general unknowing. Still, if I’m going to review this movie based on how much I was entertained (both good and bad), the level of suspense, and how much I was actually horrified, then my rating is the easiest part of this whole review. FINAL SCORE: 10 out of 10. This movie is powerful.