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Short Take: Super Dark Times

(Director: Kevin Phillips, Country/Distributor: USA, The Orchard, Opening: September 29)

The first feature by Kevin Phillips is a compact, feel-bad teen character study/horror film about buddies in Hudson Valley suburbia in the mid-’90s whose routines are upended by a gory accident.

Geographic specifics aren’t actually discussed, but there’s a tactile sense of place in cinematographer Eli Born’s spectral, cold-to-the-touch wide shots of nude late-November maples and the silhouetted friends ditching their bikes at dusk. Normal boys, they kill after-school time comparing the merits of Silver Surfer and The Punisher, squinting at the smut visible amid the noise in scrambled porn on cable, and, in the case of best friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), sharing an infatuation with cute classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino). When violence erupts, it’s the immediate sociopathic detachment of the cover-up that disturbs.

A prologue involving a bloody elk and a cop all too willing to stomp it out of its misery swiftly establishes a dread inevitability. That (not unpleasurable) sickening sense voids any nostalgic buzz that might’ve been induced by the many ’90s signifiers (True Lies, Primitive Radio Gods, Bill Clinton, a CD spinning in a Discman in loving closeup), and Phillips never labors to make the dark times of the title apply to more than the horror at hand. The nightmare sequences he hazards are carefully mapped and scary, and thanks to confident performances by his young cast, the potentially I Know What You Did Last Summer–esque premise gains something of the timeless weight of a River’s Edge.