Review: DEAD OF SUMMER Invites You to Camp Creepy

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DeadOfSummer_LOGO_sm
Season 1, episode 1: “Patience”
Written by Ian B. Goldberg, Adam Horowitz, and Edward Kitsis
Directed by Adam Horowitz

[Header image courtesy Freeform/Tyler Shields]

Disney’s Freeform channel already offers a wide array of teen-targeted drama programming, from the muderlicious Pretty Little Liars to the urban fantasy Shadowhunters. This summer, Freeform expands into the world of spooks and spirits with its brand-new paranormal horror, Dead of Summer.

Created by Once Upon a Time vets Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis, and Ian B. Goldberg, Dead of Summer will follow the adventures of a pack of teen counselors at the newly reopened Camp Stillwater during the summer of 1989. The counselors arrive at Stillwater excited for a summer of freedom, romance, and fun in the sun. But they have no idea what evil lurks in the dark woods and what restless spirits roam the camp grounds. As Freeform says, “It’ll take a hero to unearth the roots of the campground’s mysterious past and put an end to the terror once and for all.”

Don't let the name fool you. The waters here are anything but placid. (Freeform/Katie Yu)
Don’t let the name fool you. The waters here are anything but placid. [Courtesy Freeform/Katie Yu]
Fans of Once Upon a Time will recognize Horowitz and Kitsis’ cinematography and scenery. With its misty woods and rich, earthy palette, Camp Stillwater could easily be a neighbor to the town of Storybrooke. But if you’re looking for enchanting tales, look somewhere else. Here there be ghosts and lots of them.

While Stillwater is full of ghosts, it is also full of stereotypes, with most of the characters fitting neatly into established horror and/or teen archetypes. Among the counselors, we have Hot Girl Jessie (Paulina Singer, The Intern), Easy Girl Cricket (Amber Coney, Mother May I Sleep with Danger), Alex the Jock (Ronan Rubenstein, Dude), Blotter the Other Jock (Zachary Gordon, Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Blair the Very Gay Kid (Mark Indelicato, Ugly Betty), Grunge Kid Drew (Zelda Williams, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and Joel (Eli Gordee, The 100) the Aspiring Filmmaker. They are occasionally joined by Sexy Deputy Garrett (Alberto Frezza, Angels Fall in Love) from the nearby town. Leading the younger cast is Elizabeth Lail (Once Upon a Time) playing Amy Hughes, the doe-eyed, nervous newcomer.

A pack of teens hanging around haunted woods at night. What could go wrong? From left: Paulina Singer as Jessie, Eli Goree as Joel, Amber Coney as Cricket, Mark Indelicato as Blair, Zachary Gordon as Blotter, Ronen Rubenstein as Alex, and Elizabeth Lail as Amy. (Courtesy Freeform/Katie Yu)
A pack of teens hanging around haunted woods at night. What could go wrong? From left: Zelda Williams as Drew, Paulina Singer as Jessie, Eli Goree as Joel, Amber Coney as Cricket, Mark Indelicato as Blair, Zachary Gordon as Blotter, Ronen Rubenstein as Alex, and Elizabeth Lail as Amy. [Courtesy Freeform/Katie Yu]
We are first introduced to our intrepid teens as they gather to board the bus to camp. From minute one, it seems like the Summer writers pulled their traits and dialogue straight from TV Tropes. Perhaps it’s a tactic to help deal with such a large group of characters; though their names are spoken multiple times throughout the first episode, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Giving each person a single defining characteristic helps the audience know who they’re watching do what. But this differentiation should come from creating interesting, dynamic characters, rather than trotting out the same tired stereotypes and beating the audience over the head with them.

This is particularly grating when it comes to Amy Hughes. Unlike the rest of the counselors, Amy is new in town and didn’t attend Camp Stillwater as a kid. During the episode, we see that she’s gone through several different schools and has a hard time assimilating, despite her mother’s order to, “Fit in. You’ll be happier.”

Except that this is a horror show, so you'll be pretty much terrified the whole time. Elizabeth Lail as Amy. (Courtesy Freeform/Katie Yu)
Except that this is a horror show, so you’ll be pretty much terrified the whole time. Elizabeth Lail as Amy. [Courtesy Freeform/Katie Yu]
While I’m sure many of us can empathize with being “the new kid,” Amy takes it to a rather extreme degree. She only seems to have two facial expressions: strained apologetic smile or outright terror. Anybody who saw Elizabeth Lail in Once Upon a Time (where she portrayed Disney Princess Anna) knows that she has more range than this, so the fault could lie with the script, which gives her little to do besides wrong-footing herself or seeing ghosts. Whatever it is, by the end of the episode, her timid embarrassment isn’t endearing, it’s annoying.

Fortunately, not all of the characters are entirely flat. Elizabeth Mitchell (also of Once Upon a Time and the V reboot), for example, plays camp director Deb Carpenter. Mitchell’s Deb is downright creepy, her motivations shrouded in mystery despite the kind smile she plasters on in public. By the end of the episode, we also see brief glimpses of the secrets that a few of the counselors are hiding, which could promise some nuance for them in episodes to come.

Elizabeth Mitchell plays a creepy and intriguing Director Deb. (Courtesy Freeform/Katie Yu)
Elizabeth Mitchell plays a creepy and intriguing director Deb. [Courtesy Freeform/Katie Yu]
While the living can leave something to be desired, the dead do not fail to impress. From an army of pale hands grasping through piles of old clothes to a mob of watery faces rising up from the dark waters of the lake, Summer does an excellent job of keeping viewers on edge. There’s a jump scare or two, especially for those easily startled, but for the most part, the show rests tentatively on the border between creepy and bone chilling. You’ll certainly be glancing over your shoulder the next time you go up the stairs at night.

Alberto Frezza as Deputy Garrett Sykes/The Hot Townie. (Courtesy Freeform/Katie Yu)
Alberto Frezza as Deputy Garrett Sykes/The Hot Townie. [Courtesy Freeform/Katie Yu]
The spirits are only part of the appeal. With them comes a mystery stretching back at least a century, marring the idyllic landscape of Stillwater. Summer’s premiere drops a few tantalizing hints to get viewers interested but keeps its cards close. To solve the mystery, you’ll have to come back for more.

Overall, Dead of Summer is off to a steady start — not impressive but not weak, either. Most of the characters rest firmly in the land of “meh”, though there are glimmers of hope for the rest of the season. As of now, the strength of the show lies in its creepy atmosphere and intriguing mystery. It will certainly appeal to Freeform’s target audience as well as anybody who likes a good ghost story told around the campfire.

Dead of Summer premieres on Freeform on June 28th at 9/8c. For more info, head on over to the official Dead of Summer website or Freeform’s Twitter.

And check out our other coverage of Freeform programs here.

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