One of my biggest beefs with the summer camp slasher/horror genre is the ludicrous body count. Whether it’s the Sleepaway Camp or Friday the 13th franchises, you have to greatly suspend your disbelief that a. one killer could do so much damage unnoticed and b. that anyone would be stupid enough to stay at the camp after one let alone dozens of murders.
The pilot episode of Freeform’s new summer camp slasher anthology series Dead of Summer has one death and, true to its form, the counselors who are preparing for the reopening of Camp Stillwater don’t heed it as the terrible harbinger that it is.
The audience is introduced to the Wisconsin camp through the eyes of newcomer Amy (Elizabeth Lail), who has to try and fit in with a group of former campers who have already been through the camp experience together.
As the story in the present unfolds with its thick late ’80s nostalgia, there are also flashbacks to a traumatic experience that happened to Amy before arriving at camp. As the weirdness just beneath the cheery disposition of director Deb Carpenter (Elizabeth Mitchell) is revealed and the creepiness of the camp caretaker (what’s the deal with caretakers always being depicted as sketchy?) is demonstrated, Amy’s own trauma gets mixed up with the evil lurking on the camp grounds.
While the focus is primarily on Amy this go around – each episode will focus on a different counselor – subtle hints are given to the motley crew she finds herself trying to fit in with. Most notably is the shy Drew, who (spoiler alert) it takes almost the entire episode to realize is played by Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda Williams.
A dead body (preceded by the gutted carcass of a deer) serves as the episode’s most climactic point and a sheriff deputy’s arrival provides a budding romantic storyline awfully familiar for shows on the cable channel formerly known as ABC Family (seriously, what’s the deal with dreamy police deputies?).
Dead of Summer is one of the first shows to drop under the new Freeform brand and while its content suggests something darker and edgier than standard “family” fare, the pilot proves to be not much of a departure from many of the other cable shows on cable geared toward teenagers. Billing the show as John Hughes meets The Shining makes it sound a lot more sophisticated and prestigious than it actually comes across in its first offering.
Sure, it’s more watchable (if not less unintentionally hilarious) than say Secret Life of the American Teenager but it all just feels very Hot Topic – the guy into his camcorder wearing an Alfred Hitchcock shirt and a gay counselor who likes The Cure and R.E.M. – with a transgender storyline to be explored more at a later date. Had this show been made in the year it’s set, it would probably survive as a campy show with terrible special effects and a cheesy synthesizer-heavy soundtrack not unlike the after school specials of its time. Just because the package is prettier, the storytelling reminiscent of Lost and the special effects sharper doesn’t necessarily mean it will have that much better of a fate.
That said, it’s still too early to write this one off despite some reviewers already punfully pronouncing it dead on arrival. If nothing else, the concept that future seasons will be set in different time periods with a new set of characters played by the same actors is an intriguing one.