TV Review: Freeform’s ‘Dead of Summer’

Dead of Summer Freeform
Courtesy of Feeform

The teen horror series is loaded with clichés, but with enough popcorn, it might make for a fun summer fling

With a title like that, Freeform’s vacation offering “Dead of Summer” is inviting any number of headline puns: “dead on arrival,” “dead in the water,” “dead boring,” et cetera, ad nauseum. The puns would not be entirely wrong, either; “Dead Of Summer” is a very silly new show that samples nearly every available cliché in the summer-camp-horror genre all at once, making for a messy homage to “Friday The 13th” that reads partly as satire and partly as meditative gothic horror. Nearly every scene in the first three episodes sent to critics is laden with some kind of terrible portent, which I know because the score histrionically hits the strings every time something is supposed to be shocking. That, and usually someone screams. In the astonishingly bad first episode, our bland protagonist Amy (Elizabeth Lail) screams in horror upon encountering: a mouse, a ghost holding a balloon, her own memories, a cute cop she already has a crush on, a dead body, a boy holding a video camera and a bloody deer.

But “Dead of Summer” does have a satisfying campy layer — new headline pun: “putting the camp back in summer camp!” — which lays it on thick with the lurking horror of the woods around Camp Stillwater and the implausibly sophisticated secrets of this batch of horny teenagers. The story follows a group of camp counselors who stumble into a small town teeming with demon worshippers and disgruntled ghosts. The teens are quickly plagued by nightmares that stir up both their own individual demons and create encounters with the haunted spiritual plane of the cursed Lake Stillwater. But of course, no one goes home, because they are too excited to be teenagers free of their parents for a few weeks. In the grand tradition of moralizing terror, alcohol use, drug use and eating disorders each get dinged for creating vulnerabilities for evil to prey on innocents in the first few episodes, though I am putting that a lot more succinctly than the episode manages to. Mostly, “Dead of Summer” is insinuation and visual tricks, where paper-thin characters are either supposed to be scary or scared.

Beyond the crowded, confusing pilot — which shoves characters’ secrets, standing feuds and clandestine romances at the viewer with all the delicacy of a speeding truck — later episodes of “Dead of Summer” are more comprehensible. But the show never stops being mostly ridiculous. Perhaps the silliest conceit of all is that the show is supposed to be set in 1989. In the second episode, a major plot point revolves around a character experiencing anxiety about being called a “commie” because he has a Russian name. In the third episode, one counselor gives another a mixtape. The first song on it is “Jane Says,” by Jane’s Addiction. And in the pilot, a character showily reads a Rolling Stone issue announcing the upcoming “Batman” with Michael Keaton. Maybe this is all an homage to the decade of “Friday The 13th” — and maybe this is a warmed over idea from a few decades ago that only now got a chance to shine. But it’s perplexing, because this is a show on Freeform, a channel directed at young adults. Will today’s high schoolers, born from 1998 to 2002, even know what a mixtape is?

Somehow, the fact that no one is going to get it makes “Dead of Summer” more fleetingly appealing. It’s not knowing enough to be really campy, but it is not so unsophisticated that it isn’t occasionally frightening. And like so many teen dramas are, it is deadly earnest about its characters’ angst, from the boat-shoe wearing jock kid to the ugly duckling who grew up into a teen swan. Borrowing a page from its sister show (and lead-in) “Pretty Little Liars,” there’s even an adult-teen romance with the 40-ish camp director and a camcorder-toting counselor. It’s all very (melo)dramatic, in a way that it’s easy to get lost in; the ups and downs of girls trying to get laid, the back and forth of boys making bets about who they’ll score with.

And though “Dead of Summer” is a period piece, it has a modern lens on racial politics and queer identities. For example, the backstory to the devil worshipping cult includes the murder of a black piano player; it looks like a lynching that used magic as an excuse to get the deed done. And the counselors include a trans character, Drew, who is still keeping this fact a secret when he starts crushing on one of his co-counselors. This is not a show that is particularly original; every twist is a cliché, and every character is playing to type. But with so many well-worn at play, “Dead of Summer” makes for a schlocky hour that never quite gets boring. At the very least, while escaping the dog days of summer inside with the air-conditioning, there’s plenty of fun to be had in laughing at how bad it is.

TV Review: Freeform’s 'Dead of Summer'

Series: Freeform, Tue. June 28, 9 p.m.

Production

Executive producers, Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Ian Goldberg, Steve Pearlman. 60 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Elizabeth Mitchell, Elizabeth Lail, Zelda Williams, Mark Indelicato, Alberto Frezza, Eli Goree, Ronen Rubinstein, Amber Coney, Paulina Singer

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  1. Sheila says:

    But watching a girl turn from a saint to pure evil is also very interesting.

  2. Sheila says:

    Too many character’s are getting killed,That really sucks!!

  3. Gina says:

    This shows first season was great I just don’t see how they could make a second season out of it and if they did it would suck

  4. Bob Bosak says:

    Absolutely incredible and well thought. These writers can write and please never take those pens away from them. Having lived through 80’s and 90’s as I am 53 years old, I really do not see where people are thinking is nowhere near authentic. I do agree racial slurring was coming to a halt by the end of the 80’s, but at the point character Alex was young it was still very dominant. Believe me, I had friends and they were made fun of in the late 70’s at which point Alex would have been the youngster persecuted.

    I am highly impressed by this series as the story line is quite similar to “Lost” in the respect we are learning about different characters each episode. Of course, if you do not like shows that are unpredictable and confusing, it is definitely not the show for you. I then suggest watching the game shows or some other mindless dribble, this is a show that is for people that want to be wowed with mystery and mayhem. Have to understand how amazing and brilliant these writers are when they can take a show centered on fairy tales(Once Upon a Time) and turn it into a show that goes on and on. Personally, I think being a summer show only will never do “Dead of Summer” anywhere near the justice it deserves. It belongs in a year round showing. I will miss it dearly after these last 3 episodes play and will bet the mindless people will win and will never play again. I will then have to be bored to tears with stupid game shows and mindless dribble. Sure fire reason for all these DVD and movie rental places to make a fortune!

  5. xyz321xyz says:

    “Perhaps the silliest conceit of all is that the show is supposed to be set in 1989.”

    It would be an awesome idea and not a silly conceit at all and fit in well with the horror camp genre. Except that it looks like it was half set in 1997 and half set in 2016 and barely at all in 1989.

    I don’t see why you think today’s kids will feel lost when they obviously bent over backwards to pander to them and make it feel like 2016 (mixed with maybe 1999 and only a touch of 1989).

    Sadly, the fashion and hair styles they are using are almost all from the 90s and today and almost none from 1989.

    Except for a few token bits of genuine 80s (cars for one), 90% of it screams mid to late 90s/2016 and only 10%, at best, 1989. Not exactly authentic.

    It’s amazingly how the producers were in high school in 1989 and still somehow managed to make this yet another show that gets the 1980s so completely wrong. This was THEIR exact era. How could they mistake it for the 90s that ended their era or for today?

    Even the slang they mess up by somehow using some of the few bits of today’s slang that were not used the 80s.

    You make it sound like kids of today won’t get the commie harassment plot point, well guess, what, 80s kids don’t get it either because it wasn’t something that ever happened in the 80s either. It’s bizarre that the gay guy is freely open and the Russian kids are being demonized for being Russian when in the 1980s it was gay people getting hassled and nobody caring a whit if someone came from a Russian
    family or not.

    I love they did set it 1980s, but I wish they had just tried even a little bit more to make them look and act like they were in the 80s and not 2016/1997.

  6. Jake says:

    It looked interesting. But looks can be deceiving. I agree with EVERYTHING the reviewer said. It barely held my interest. Will I keep on watching it? Probably.

  7. A says:

    I wanted to get into this show.. I had good expectations considering how great Lost was. I watched the first episode….. 2nd episode I had to turn off after about half…. I am not into turning things into a demonic level.. The scene with the councler coughing up blood and the hand coming out of his mouth was to much for me..

  8. jackie says:

    Well I’m 31 and I love it!

  9. Jordan Paris says:

    Highly reminds me of a game until dawn

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