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Review: ‘Dead of Summer’: Neither scary nor satirical, this summer-camp ‘horror’ series is dead on arrival

Zelda Williams, Eli Goree, Amber Coney, Elizabeth Lail, Ronen Rubinstein, Mark Indelicato and Paulina Singer in the new Freeform series "Dead of Summer."
(Tyler Shields / Freeform)

Next time, ask for a pilot.

Last year, ABC Family’s newly renamed Freeform gave “Once Upon a Time” creators Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, along with Ian Goldberg, one of its writers, a full season order for their summer-camp “horror” series “Dead of Summer.” A light homage to “Friday the 13th” and other ’80s horror movies in which nubile camp counselors are systematically terrorized-slash-killed, “Dead” had a solid enough hook, a creepy setting and, eventually, a decent cast headed by “Once Upon a Time’s” Elizabeth Mitchell and Elizabeth Lail.

So how bad could it be?

Very bad, as it turns out. And not just very bad, but very bad in a completely uninteresting way. Which is the worst.

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It should have been easy for the team to create an ’80s horror pastiche, so fun to give Camp Stillwater a cool backstory for its troubled history and then watch the dwindling number of counselors discover and possibly stop it.

Unfortunately, instead of either honoring or satirizing the genre, the creators appear to have simply rifled the overturned wastebaskets of its collective editing room.

The result is a disjointed, absurd and only mildly frightening story that, three hours in, is still flailing more frantically than a teen falling out of a canoe into a lake full of corpses.

An odd yet dull opening scene, in which an old-timey black piano player is attacked by a group of bearded white guys with guns, suggests that this is a tale of the supernatural as opposed to simply a psycho slasher. The figure reappears as do the bearded guys. and bad things begin to happen.

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But then again, all of the counselors come fully equipped with personal bogeymen. Reopened by Mitchell’s clearly “haunted” Deb Carpenter, Camp Stillwater holds a special place for the staff, many of whom attended as children. Only Amy (Lail) is the outsider, which appears to be her lot in life. Though lovely enough to be a lead actress, ol’ Amy has endured much Mean Girl teasing and a Tragic Incident, so when she begins to see ghosts she is quick to attribute it to the normal full-blown hallucinations we all experience after personal trauma.

Her new peers are equally insecure, including the formerly overweight Cricket (Amber Coney) and her best friend, Blair (Mark Indelicato), who instantly crushes on brooding (and transgender) guy Drew (Zelda Williams), while Cricket longs for Alex (Ronen Rubinstein) who, in the show’s oddest twist, has been deeply scarred by the anti-Soviet sentiment he experienced while working at a dry cleaners with his father. (Seriously, it is quite dry-cleaner-specific.) Jessie (Paulina Singer) begins competing with Amy for the affections of the deputy sheriff who begins showing up with alarming, yet necessary, regularity while counselor Joel (Eli Goree) gives boss Deb the eye and films everyone all the time. Just in case they need to turn this into “The Blair Witch Project.”

As with an Ikea product, each of these parts makes some sort of sense when viewed on its own, but the proof is in the assembly, and the creative team appears to have lost the Allen wrench that would make this possible.

Using the narrative equivalent of duct tape, they attempt to stick one implausible scene/event to another, over and over again, until whatever shape they originally had in mind becomes a leaning, creaking, misshapen jumble that might be frightening if it weren’t so obviously made of, you know, duct tape.

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When a show that references “The Wicker Man” makes you wish you were watching even the ghastly Nicolas Cage remake, something terrible has occurred at Stillwater Lake indeed.


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