[This is a review of the Dead of Summer series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Freeform’s newest endeavor takes viewers to the idyllic Camp Stillwater of the 1980s in the network’s horror/teen drama series, Dead of Summer. The creators of ABC’s Once Upon A Time, Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, re-teamed with former collaborator Ian B. Goldberg to develop Dead of Summer, which follows the staff of Camp Stillwater — led by its new owner Deb (Elizabeth Mitchell) — as they prepare to reopen the camp. A group of returning campers, now counselors, are joined by newcomer Amy Hughes (Elizabeth Lail) as the summer at Camp Stillwater gets off to a deadly start.
The series premiere of Dead of Summer, ‘Patience,’ was written by the team of Kitsis, Horowitz, and Goldberg while Horowitz directed. The episode opens on a flashback to Stillwater Lake in 1871 that sets the creepy tone for the entirety of Dead of Summer while quickly establishing the legend of Camp Stillwater. Then, ‘Patience’ cuts to the show’s present, 1989, as many of the counselors reunite: Joel (Eli Goree), Jason (Zachary Gordon), Alex (Ronen Rubinstein), Jessie (Paulina Singer), and Cricket (Amber Coney). Once they arrive at Camp Stillwater, they’re joined by loner Drew (Zelda Williams).
Much of ‘Patience’ follows the typical horror movie setup, with the counselors getting up to typical teenage fun; although without straying into R-rated movie territory, the ’80s teen characters are largely relegated to PG-13 partying, joking about having sex, and jumping into the lake in their underwear. However, it’s during one of these excursions into the lake that Amy discovers the dead body of the groundskeeper and the local police are called in. But, though the sheriff is quick to make sure none of the counselors panic, Deputy Garrett Sykes (Alberto Frezza) insists on digging deeper into the death — especially since the counselors found a dead and gutted deer on the camp’s property earlier in the day.
The premise of Dead of Summer may seem to resemble that of Friday the 13th at first glance, but ‘Patience’ effectively differentiates the show by leaning more into a supernatural horror story than following the typical slasher narrative (though Friday the 13th does feature some supernatural elements). This story choice also helps to draw a line between Dead of Summer and MTV’s Scream TV series, which re-envisioned the 1996 Wes Craven film and sticks more to the slasher horror subset.
Whether Dead of Summer’s choice to incorporate a ghost story tied to what appear to be Satanic rituals will lead to a satisfactory resolution remains to be seen. But, within the premiere episode, the restless spirits of Camp Stillwater have so far largely been used as creepy background decoration to set the tone of the series — occasionally popping up on Joel’s camera to remind viewers Dead of Summer is a supernatural horror show. Though these ghosts may be scary in theory, they don’t provide any actual scares in ‘Patience.’
Instead, the ghosts of Camp Stillwater are most effectively utilized as a parallel between Amy’s current situation and the flashbacks to how she wound up a counselor when she had never set foot in any camp. The climactic scene that depicts Amy holding on to her friend Margot (Morgan Taylor Campbell) in an effort to save the other girl from falling to her death and the ghosts’ hands grabbing at Amy’s ankles on the dock of Lake Stillwater managed to bring the two story threads together while infusing the scene with as much fear and tension as viewers can expect. Though, the parallel between Amy’s metaphorical ghosts and the camp’s literal spirits is a bit on the nose, it works within the confines of Dead of Summer.
Described as part horror, part coming-of-age story, Dead of Summer also spends a good deal of the series premiere episode establishing the relationships — both old and new — between the characters. As can be expected of any show aimed at teenagers and young adults, Dead of Summer has already set the groundwork for more than one love triangle between the counselors; one specifically between Amy, Garrett, and Jessie. But, other types of relationships were also teased, like the complicated past between Jessie and Cricket as well as the slightly voyeuristic something between Deb and Joel.
Additionally, ‘Patience’ plants seeds for more character development later for Amy (who is a Final Girl if ever there was one) since the episode sees her struggling both with the death of Margot and with figuring out the person she wants to be — a theme of the flashbacks is Margot insisting Amy do things even if she’s scared. However, the final moments of ‘Patience’ also offers a flurry of hints to deeper character development for many of the other characters — including Deb, Alex, Drew, and Cricket — that will likely be revisited over the course of the season, but largely act as a within-the-episode teaser.
Still, the cast of Dead of Summer help to carry the lighter side of show, with the rapport between the counselors acting as an anchor point in reality for the supernatural storyline so far seen in ‘Patience’ — as well as the other unbelievable aspects of the show, like Deb’s willful optimism and the Sheriff’s insistence that the death of the groundskeeper isn’t worth worrying over (or worth investigating, really). Since Lail is the only cast member given much to work with in ‘Patience’ — and she’s serviceable in her performance as Amy, though not necessarily remarkable — it remains to be seen how the cast of Dead of Summer handle the more horrific or dramatic story beats as the season goes along.
While the premise of Dead of Summer sounds familiar to any horror movie fan, the show benefits from not being directly tied to an existing horror franchise since it won’t suffer for being compared to movies beloved by generations. Dead of Summer dips a toe in horror, and another in teen drama, but neither the series’ ghosts nor its counselors’ coming-of-age stories will likely make a splash in the vast TV landscape — even in the summer season when it has less competition.
All in all, Dead of Summer has all the makings of a popcorn summer horror/drama perfect for Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars audience or fans of MTV’s Scream. Neither the horror nor the drama may be exceptionally scary or deeply explored — and, as such, the show may not appeal to a every TV viewer — but fans of similar fare may enjoy watching the typical young, attractive cast of the teen/young adult-aimed series battle both the ghosts of Camp Stillwater and the ghosts of their respective pasts on Dead of Summer.
Dead of Summer continues Tuesday, July 5 with ‘Barney Rubble Eyes’ at 9pm on Freeform. Check out a preview below: