Cast: Kaori Hoshino, Shinya Hankawa, Keita Kusaka, Kiyomi Kametani, Kuromi Kirishima
Duration: 75 mins.
By Henry McKand
The sound of summer, the feature debut from the Japan-based British director known as ‘Guy’, opens with a transformation. A cicada sheds its skin in an eerie close-up; it’s like seeing an alien parasite burst forth from a suffering host. Against a black background, it looks eerie, almost computer-generated, and the scene is accompanied by the miniature cacophony of buzzing insects. It’s a disorienting and unsettling start that makes you feel as if the bug could break through the screen itself and fly towards you.
Immediately after this astonishing graphic, a silly rock song comes into play. This is followed by a low-budget montage of someone using a net to catch non-threatening cicadas in broad daylight as the opening credits roll. It looks more like a high school video project than a ship for the almost cosmic horror of the initial metamorphosis.
The tonal polarity between these two sequences defines The sound of summer, which is torn between terror and kitschy fun. These competing perspectives don’t always complement each other. Still, it’s a bold film debut for Guy, who has the nightmarish imagination of the best horror directors even when his execution is hazy.
The inspired concept is loaded with perverse potential. The “sound of summer” of the title refers to the ambient chirps and buzzes of cicadas that (perhaps literally?) get under the skin of the protagonist: a young bar employee played by newcomer Kaori Hoshino. His simple life is interrupted when he meets a strange man (Shinya Hankawa) who enters his bar with a face mask and containers full of writhing insects. Never speaking to him, he gives her the nickname “Cicada Man” and begins to suspect that his intentions are sinister. Gradually she becomes convinced that his little creatures have infected her body, setting off a strange journey into paranoia and self-harm.
It’s the best kind of scary movie setup, taking something seemingly innocuous that everyone has experienced (the warm-season courtship cries of cicadas) and turning it into a source of terror. Those noises are everywhere, which makes the first scenes of socialite full of suspense. Sadly, many of the early scenes function as harmless filler, establishing a “normal” life. mashed potato trivial to worry about. The music in this stretch of the first act, which veers to sound like an archive music soundtrack, doesn’t help matters.
But even as the characters go about their working days in a digital daytime glow, there is the threat that we will suddenly be transported back to that dreamlike vision of the sinister moulting cicada. Here the questions are scarier than the answers. Why is there so much attention on these bugs? What are they capable of? As the unpleasantness escalates and the mystery fades, the tension fades as well.
Luckily, Guy mostly avoids the faux “is this all an illusion?” safety net that so many indie psychological horror indies rely on. No, this is a movie dedicated to actually showing you what you should be afraid of in unequivocal detail, which makes it more interesting than most Rosemary’s baby-lite that have come out in recent years. For better or for worse, most of the meager budget has clearly gone to tacky special effects, z-movies that will be catnip for people looking for dark body horror flicks.
The turning point comes halfway through the film when Hoshino, convinced that there are cicadas inside her, decides to cut them out. What follows is a gorefest splattered with red food syrup; Cabin fever via Cronenberg’s footage on an iPhone. The squishy effects are as hilarious as they are disgusting. The heightened bloodiness and behind-the-scenes inventiveness is fascinating, but distracts from what could have been unnervingly creepy if handled more earnestly.
This comes down to a matter of taste. Do you enjoy your horror with a movie-nerd smile or a hardened frown? The playfulness is enticing while also undermining later scenes that reach for a higher sense of human fear. Ultimately, it’s more of a DIY FX showcase than a fleshed-out story.
If you love this kind of stuff, you already know it. The images are scary and the rubber horror prosthetics are always fun, but it’s hard not to think about what might happen if Guy fully and seriously commits to the macabre visions of him in the future. At the moment, The sound of summer it’s an interesting look at an exciting filmmaker to watch for years to come.
Henry McKeand score: 5.5/10