You can tell something has reached critical mass when South Park decides it is time to spoof it.
In December, the most recent season of the Comedy Central cartoon concluded with Splatty Tomato, an episode poking fun at Netflix's Stranger Things, the series with a 1980s obsession and a Vangelis-inspired synthesizer soundtrack. "Dude, c'mon, this is not kickass eighties music," says South Park's Stan, as he and his friends trek through the woods to the sounds of Richard Marx's Hold on to the Nights (1988). One of the boys puts on a different eighties tune. "Oh yeah, that's better," Craig says sarcastically as Buckner & Garcia's Pac-Man Fever (1981) comes on.
Of the eighties revival pop culture is currently experiencing – or enduring, if you're a South Park character – Stranger Things is just the beginning. Unadjusted for inflation, the past fall's remake of It, set in the eighties, is the highest-grossing horror film of all time; Crossing Souls, an upcoming independent video game, features sequences designed to look like eighties television; and Steven Spielberg's upcoming adaptation of Ready Player One, while set in a distant dystopia, trades in Dungeons & Dragons, arcade video games and geekdom galore.
"There's an eighties comeback in everything pop culture right now," says Yoann-Karl Whissell, one third of the directing trio RKSS. Short for Roadkill Superstar, the Canadian team – which includes Yoann-Karl, his sister Anouk Whissell and François Simard, Anouk's partner – is behind the new Sundance thriller Summer of '84, the follow-up to 2015's Turbo Kid, a BMX-centric ode to the postapocalyptic shenanigans of Mad Max.
Summer of '84, however, sees the three-headed beast (as RKSS refers to themselves) tackle a different type of wasteland: Suburbia, as seen by a group of bicycle-riding, binocular-wielding boys searching for clues about a neighbourhood serial killer. RKSS insists their timing in this new nostalgic zeitgeist was a coincidence, albeit a serendipitous one. "We had been working on the project for a year," Simard says. "Then in 2016, we saw the first poster for Stranger Things, and we're like: 'No! They did it first!'"
The Montreal-based trio weren't upset for long, though: Simard admits it was the success of Stranger Things that got Summer of '84 green-lit. "Everybody saw that there's a huge public for that kind of movie."
That's another way of saying audiences are buying this eighties-era revival. But why? What is it about the decade that has recaptured imaginations?
"The eighties were the beginning of the end [in terms of] the feeling of security and community of suburbia," Anouk suggests, explaining that their film had to be set in the 1980s – screenwriters Matt Leslie and Stephen J. Smith weren't simply capitalizing on nostalgia. "Crime began to infiltrate the suburbs, and people just started locking their doors. There was a shift."
"The suburb wasn't safe any more," Anouk's brother adds. "Suddenly, people were wondering: What's happening behind the doors of my neighbours?"
What's more, each member of RKSS sees this nostalgia rush as a way of escaping our always-connected, completely digital world.
"Everything is so fast now," Yoann-Karl says. "The information we receive, the consumption – everything is so fast. I believe there's a desire to go back to something slower, to go back to our roots."
"I just feel less connected to a CG fest," Simard says. "In the eighties, [filmmaking] was there. It was real."
It's that sense of what's "real" that sets Summer of '84 apart from other nostalgia pieces: It isn't paranormal, à la Stranger Things, nor is it monstrous, like It. What it does have, though, is RKSS's respect for the cinema they grew up with – Stand by Me, The Monster Squad and The Goonies – "and, of course, a kickass soundtrack," Simard says, excited about RKSS's inclusion of Bananarama's Cruel Summer (1984) and the requisite synthwave tones composed by Le Matos, a French-Canadian electronic band.
"The soundtrack's so good," Yoann-Karl says with a grin. "The kids from South Park would love it."
Summer of '84 plays the Sundance Film Festival through Jan. 27 (sundance.org).