If “Friday the 13th” was the result of sketchy satanic rituals and overly exaggerated facial expressions, then “Dead of Summer” has accomplished its task of reimagining classic ’80s horror tropes. Welcome to Camp Stillwater, the Freeform equivalent of Camp Crystal Lake — paranormal activity included. It’s the summer of 1989 when six camp counselors, including newbie Amy (Elizabeth Lail, “Once Upon A Time”), return to the camp on the eve of a grand re-opening following a lengthy, ominous period of closure in the mid-’80s. Strikingly similar to the synopsis of the original “Friday the 13th,” Camp Stillwater carries a dark and dangerous secret, revealed in the premiere episode as a mass drowning incident that occurred in 1871 by a man referred to as the “Tall Man” (Tony Todd, “The Flash”) — a character who has yet to play a major role in the series but possesses the room to expand as the series progresses through the summer.
So far, “Dead of Summer” has lined itself up with every horror cliche in the book, desperately lacking in both originality and conviction from plot and cast alike. The dialogue is paper thin and is delivered by cast members who appear too eager to delve into their part in an offbeat horror franchise that constantly reminds viewers of the decade with off-pace references that are not easy to miss. An example is a camper reading a Rolling Stone magazine at forehead level sporting an enlarged image of Michael Keaton as the new Batman. In fact, almost all of “Dead of Summer” ’s aspects seem to follow the new-old pattern of horror story behavior. Even the music mimics the original “Halloween” ’s score, giving variations in pattern and key, while the style of horror follows a “Conjuring” or “Poltergeist” style over that of a slasher flick, despite key thematic elements. This includes, but is not limited to, flashbacks Amy experiences following her arrival at Camp Stillwater, stemming from a traumatic event that occurred a few months prior.
Though flashbacks are useful in developing plot and understanding the titular character, they prove messy in “Dead of Summer,” adding to the pile of plot that accumulates at an accelerated rate during the first episode. Layers upon layers of character development and background information are jammed into every second of the 45-minute episode, turning an unthinking summer flick into a tangled mess of a pilot. The lengthy flashbacks are further highlighted by their sheer duration in the sequence of events, as one specific scene begins at breakfast and ends at the dead of night. It’s time lost that could otherwise be used to untangle the sloppy storylines.
Despite mixed and jangled stories and secrets, “Dead of Summer” displays a few traits worthy of the horror genre, found in the ghosts that haunt both the camp and Amy’s past. As a flashback reveals, Amy was unable to save her best friend from death after the two hurried to the roof of a house to avoid the police at an underage party. For a heart-stopping few seconds, Amy grapples to pull her friend to safety using their connected hands as a lifeline, something that comes up later at Camp Stillwater, when she is “attacked” by a number of vengeful apparitions who reach out at her with their eerily pale and very-much dead hands. The scene is especially horrifying as Amy is reminded of her failure in the present by the hands that reach out to her, grasping needily at her body as she scrambles farther back into a cellar. In moments like these, “Dead of Summer” shines. There are some, if very few, moments in the pilot that induce “jump scares” and pillow-hugging, something I’m positive “Dead of Summer” can keep up with now that the character introductions are coming to a close. Despite the poor acting and over-the-top thematics, “Dead of Summer” ’s campy, horror theme has the potential for a summer slasher series, so long as it can keep up with its own ambitions as it progresses. Until then, grab the popcorn and enjoy this guilty-pleasure of a “Friday the 13th” reboot — and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” reboot, and really any horror movie you can think of reboot.