“Dead of Summer” (9 p.m. Eastern Tuesdays on Freeform) doesn’t break a single clod of new ground, but it’s a slick summer horror series that almost achieves a sense of nostalgia. It’s set in 1989 at a summer camp on a lake, presumably somewhere in the Midwest (one of the characters sports a White Sox cap), and it deliberately calls forth the ’80s vibe – not palpably so, but at least it avoids anachronisms.
When characters run from a threat, synthesizer beats pulse in a mix of “Halloween” and “The Terminator.” And in the less-tense moments, choice pop cuts from the decade play, starting with Janet Jackson’s “Miss You Much.” The lake setting, of course, calls to mind “Friday the 13th.”
Created and produced by a trio who also worked on “Once Upon a Time” (not a good sign) and “Lost” (a better sign), “Dead of Summer” seems more interested than “Scream: The TV Series” in developing distinct characters right off the bat (although “Scream” has improved in this category in Season 2). The pilot episode finds the main cast of counselors setting up Camp Stillwater in the days before its re-opening. Although Deb (“Lost’s” Elizabeth Mitchell) runs the camp and enforces its no-smoking rules, the counselors don’t act much more mature than the kids who will presumably be showing up next week.
Indeed, many of them attended the camp four years prior, before it was shut down. An exception is Amy, who is both the new girl and the Final Girl. She is at the camp in part for a mental escape from the tragic death of a friend at a keg party, as seen in flashbacks. Also somewhat of a main character is the budding videographer and Sox fan, Joel; in a nice reminder that this is 1989, the group gathers around the TV, entranced by the novelty of seeing themselves on video.
Adding to this colorful cadre of counselors, Carolina carves risque messages about herself in the cabin walls to give herself a bad-girl reputation; Jessie, formerly known as “Braces,” is adjusting to a role as a hot girl; and Drew (played by Zelda Williams) is a girl passing as a guy, hiding behind a wall of stringy hair. She seems to have a thing for the gay guy, Blair. A similar transgender character was on “Young Americans,” which also was set at summer camp, although the twist wasn’t revealed so quickly there.
Unlike “Scream” and “Slasher,” “Dead of Summer” deals in supernatural horror. We get a “Ring” girl climbing out of the water; a dapper man appearing only in video footage; and hands reaching out of the lake, grappling for a victim. It seems every character has visions: Amy sees the girl and the hands; Joel sees the man in the video; and Garrett, a local sheriff’s deputy, says he too has been seeing things. So presumably that’s the villain’s trick: making people see nightmare images.
“Dead of Summer” gives away a lot right off the bat. The deputy investigates the cabin of the maintenance man, whose body is found in the lake. He has a hidden room filled with old Polaroids of dead people and a map of the camp area that’s shaped like a demon head. The episode opens with a flashback to the 1800s with a pianist (horror veteran Tony Todd) being attacked by a mob, followed by shots of corpses floating in the lake.
Because of this barrage of information, the show lacks a sense of mystery. In one hour, we are told – at least broadly – what is happening at Camp Stillwater. Still, while the first episode isn’t particularly scary, largely because the tropes are so familiar, it does make nice use of the dimly lit woods, lake and cabins, along with the aforementioned music score. If it didn’t rush so much, it would have a decently scary vibe.
Oddly, “Dead of Summer’s” hook might turn out to be the characters. Episode one focuses on Amy and makes her seem like the lead, but perhaps upcoming episodes will provide flashbacks to the other counselors. The series is going to have to offer a lot of new elements, because so far, everything is happening on the surface in a straightforward way. The fact that it chronicles supernatural entities doesn’t make it any less rote. But the engaging look and feel of “Dead of Summer,” and a few characters with potential, will have me coming back for at least another episode.