Monday, August 30, 2021

Freeform’s Teen Horror Series “Dead of Summer” Deserved Better

Crystal Lake. Arawak. Stonewater. Summer camps are places to avoid in horror movies. And Camp Stillwater from the TV series Dead of Summer is no different from its cinematic parallels. The camp’s employees are too preoccupied with themselves to ever suspect trouble is afoot, and by the time they are aware of the goings-on at Stillwater, it is too late to escape evil’s reach. 

Dead of Summer‘s first and only season aired in the summer of 2016 on Freeform. Horror was already in the midst of a small-screen resurgence by the time Scream: The TV Series, Scream Queens, and Slasher came to be. Joining that pack of televised and pulpy whodunits was this intriguing show with the most striking of posters; one features someone’s amputated lower half dangling from a swinging tire, and another sees an oblivious teen floating in a lake of corpses. The youth-aimed network was jumping on the bandwagon before the temperature on slashers cooled down like they might in these situations, but Dead of Summer was no simple cash-in.

The story occurs in 1989 at a seemingly ordinary, Midwestern summer camp. With Stillwater now under her ownership, Deb (Elizabeth Mitchell) reopens with the help of eight very different, teenage counselors: Amy (Elizabeth Lail), Alex (Ronen Rubinstein), Jessie (Paulina Singer), Carolina (Amber Coney), Joel (Eli Goree), Blair (Mark Indelicato), Drew (Zelda Williams), and Jason (Zachary Gordon). As the counselors prepare everything in anticipation of the campers, something old and sinister is summoned from the depths of the lake.

The show’s creators, Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz and Ian Goldberg, previously worked on Lost and Once Upon a Time. What those two different and distinct series have in common with this horror collaboration is the narrative style. Rather than a straightforward and sequential format that takes place squarely in the present timeline, Dead of Summer partly dedicates every episode to one specific character and unveils their troubled past. In spite of the And Then There Were None setup, the counselors all know each other from before; with the exception of new girl Amy, everyone attended the camp years earlier.

From a surface glance, Dead of Summer looks like another copycat killer; it screams Friday the 13th. On the contrary, the show lifts DNA from several horror properties with an emphasis on movies of the supernatural persuasion. In particular, that early era of “Satanic Panic” films is a sizable inspiration along with The Evil Dead. Initially, local occultists raise a malefic entity at Camp Stillwater as part of their master plan. A spectral stranger (Tony Todd) is also present, and his intentions are uncertain for a large chunk of the story. It might sound as if Summer does not belong with other slasher series, but not everything here is demons, ghosts, and Satanists. There is in fact a very human murderer roaming these woods.

What Dead of Summer does better than almost any run-of-the-mill slasher movie is study its characters. With there being more time to figuratively undress the cast, the series is afforded an opportunity to flesh everyone out before deciding if they are indeed fodder or survivors. However, trying to guess who lives and who dies is also a challenge because someone’s fate at Stillwater is neither karmic nor predetermined by their history. The innocent and guilty are treated no differently in the eyes of evil.

All the basic archetypes of classic slashers exist in some form here: The Jock, The Bully, The Stoner, The Misfit, The Virgin, and so on. For starters, Alex is the entitled rich boy who has no qualms about manipulating others so long as he gets what he wants. Carolina (or “Cricket”) is that promiscuous girl whose exploits line the walls of boys’ restrooms, and she finds Amy’s naivety threatening. Jessie — or “Braces,” as she is called by her childhood camp crush and now the town’s deputy sheriff, Garrett (Alberto Frezza) — is the mean girl who misuses her intelligence and keen observational skills. Joel comes the closest to being the resident horror movie buff, but he is more of a well-rounded cineaste who is hardly seen without his handheld camera or eyes fixed on Deb. Other checked-off boxes are D&D nerd-turned-pothead Jason (or “Blotter”), Cricket’s openly gay best friend Blair, and the androgynous and moody Drew, who no one but Jessie can quite place from the olden days of Stillwater.

Meanwhile, Amy has all the makings of a standard “final girl” — that one survivor who is empowered by loss and pushed to defeat the villain at the end. She is attractive, generally inexperienced, and is willing to do the right thing even if it makes her unpopular. Amy is the new fish again upon her arrival at Stillwater; she struggled to fit in at her last school. That novelty attracts the attention of multiple males, and the other female counselors are distrusting or jealous. However, hers and everyone else’s backstories make it clear these characters are not at all who they appear to be.

While the more well-known character tropes are all accounted for, their depictions defy expectations. The price of keeping up appearances becomes too costly over time for Alex, and when given the chance to redeem himself, he takes it. Cricket’s hypersexuality is the work of artifice; she seeks attention to counterattack low self-esteem, as well as avoid the life her mother has settled into. Jessie feels like her future has been dashed by unfair circumstances, and she comes up with a new plan and image that turns her into someone she dislikes. Joel uses the camera to distance himself from a harsh reality. Drew chooses solitude after being abandoned by someone important in his life. No matter how much each character fits in or not, they either succumb to their own festering otherness, or they turn against it in hopes of finding a way out of their nightmare.

This series upholds the genre’s tradition of terrorizing teens in the woods and then sending them home in body bags, but it also subverts frustrating tropes and challenges horror as a whole. The characters most likely to die sooner than later in the horrors of yesteryear are guaranteed at least a shot at making it to the end now. Period stories coming out today have a tendency to deliberately gloss over the less progressive attitudes and actions of the past, whereas Dead of Summer is oftentimes honest while also endearingly optimistic.

Early reviews were harsh, and a good number of viewers gave up before the series ever hit its stride. Around the midpoint, though, Dead of Summer started taking bold risks with the characters and story. The setup, the aesthetic, and the early plot devices are here not because the showrunners lacked creative thought. In order to subvert convention, a substantial foundation of familiarity has to be laid down first. And from there springs a chain of narrative rug-pulls and seismic twists that still have fans talking to this day. 


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