Dead of Summer “How to Stay Alive in the Woods” Review (Season 1 Episode 5)

ELIZABETH LAIL, ELI GOREE

On the latest episode of “Dead of Summer,” the show continued to up the ante, this time with another surprisingly affecting tale revolving around would-be Scorsese, Joel (Eli Goree), and his somber upbringing, which was far more tragic than one might have guessed, given his relatively upbeat demeanor to date, in the wryly-titled “How to Stay Alive in the Woods.”

We also had our first outright major death, so be warned: spoilers ahead. For the record, that’s not counting the groundskeeper, who we barely knew, or Blotter, who could technically still be alive, as only his severed hand has been glimpsed.

This time around, though, there’s no doubt about it: someone major died. It might have taken a long time to get there, but the show definitely made it count, especially given it was someone I quite liked, character-wise, as opposed to someone a bit more disposable. (Looking at you, Alex.)

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If you would have asked me before, I would have told you that Joel’s own back-story was likely going to be something along the lines of “Super 8,” with the aspiring director spending his childhood making backyard opuses, not unlike the young Spielberg, or the protagonists of “Be Kind Rewind” or “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl.”

Instead, in keeping with the others, his was a shockingly sad tale, which I should have seen coming- and sort of did, after the disclaimer before the show even started, warning the viewer that the episode dealt with suicide. I mean, I get why the network-formerly-known-as-ABC Family did it, but it was still a bit of a spoiler in and of itself.

That said, it was still quite effective, as we learned that this was not the first time one of these campers had dealt with the mysterious Tall Man before. As it turns out, Joel once had an older brother, Michael, who not only had encountered him, but who hadn’t lived to tell the tale. And wouldn’t you know it, he had also attended Stillwater Camp in his younger days. (You’d think he’d have warned a brother not to go, but I digress!)

ELI GOREE, MARK DOZLAW, TAYLOR RUSSELL

In the by-now customary flashbacks, we saw as Michael went from a relatively upbeat, encouraging big brother to a full-on mess, who ended up killing himself by slitting his wrists with a razor blade in the tub on Prom Night. Joel was the one who found Michael, leaving a message in blood on the bathroom wall in his wake: “He will never leave me alone.” But who was “he”?

Flash-forward to Joel’s own Prom Night, where we see the still reasonably well-adjusted Joel about to go where his brother never quite got to, as he prepared for the typically uneventful teen event- save maybe in movies or shows like this, that is.

Here, Joel started having run-ins of his own with the Tall Man, at one point talking to his dad about it, who confirmed that Michael had his demons and struggled with depression and hallucinations, which was allegedly what led to his untimely death. Had Joel inherited his brother’s madness?

ELI GOREE, TAYLOR RUSSELL

Fast-forward to Prom Night itself, where Joel sees the Tall Man ominously threatening the life of Joel’s girlfriend, leading to his lashing out and attacking him…only was it really him? Instead, it proved to be a clueless classmate, who had no idea why he was beaten down. Left shaken by the unprovoked incident, Joel had no choice but to wonder if he was likewise losing it, just like his brother before him.

Meanwhile, in the present, Joel was floored when his advances towards Deb were rebuffed outright. Indeed, it seemed as if she had no memory of the incident that took place between them in the woods, where the two hooked up. Much to his shock, a look at the video he shot of that incident, as well as the previous encounter where he saw her in a state of undress at the window, proved to back up the fact that nothing had happened between them at all.

Had he imagined the whole thing? Even worse, was he cracking up, just as his brother had before him? Additional, current sightings of the Tall Man would seem to indicate that being the case, but this time, there was a request on his behalf: either Joel had to kill Amy, or someone else would die that evening.

PAULINA SINGER, LIA FRANKLAND, ELI GOREE

While Joel tried to ignore the encounters, they grew more and more persistent, and when the Tall Man seemed to threaten the life of the young Francie, who suffered from asthma, Joel was caught between a rock and a hard place. Rather than kill Amy, he chose to follow in the footsteps of his brother and kill himself, with a knife given to him by Cricket.

Fortunately for him, Amy intervened, having been worried about Joel’s behavior as of late and noticing that something was off about him. (The same could be said about Amy herself, at least insofar as Jessie was concerned, who witnessed Amy kissing Garrett, but was met with outright denial when she confronted her about it- or was it that she genuinely didn’t remember it, either?)

Confronting Joel, she managed to stop him from killing himself, not knowing at the time that the reason he was doing it was to avoid killing her. Once back at camp, it was revealed that Francie was now fine, and Joel finally confessed to the others his background and what had been happening to him.

ELIZABETH LAIL, ELI GOREE

Joel was shocked to find that the others had similar stories, and even more so to discover that the Tall Man actually existed. As Jessie proved with a picture she’d nabbed from Garrett, it was none other than the spooky Holyoke, the leader of a Jim Jones-esque cult who willingly poisoned themselves to become “one” with the spirit (or spirits) of the lake. But was he a good ghost or a bad one?

I’ve long since suspected that Holyoke was falsely accused somewhat, and that the townspeople instead framed him for his actions and he’s actually trying to warn the campers, not kill them all. I think that Amy is a vessel for some evil spirit that possessed her when she was struck by lightning in the lake, which would also account for her weird, atypical behavior that night.

I think Holyoke knows things are only going to get worse and that it can be stopped by killing Amy. Obviously, that’s not going to happen anytime soon, if it ever does, as she is the lead of the show, but I suspect Holyoke is actually trying to prevent more deaths by killing the one who could potentially make things even worse. Just a theory, but we’ll see.

TONY TODD

That said, it does seem like Holyoke was up to some shady business with his cult, but was the cult really his in the first place, or was he framed as such? I think it might actually be someone else who was the leader of the cult, and that Holyoke was trying to stop it then as well, but was subsequently framed as the leader and killed for doing so.

Now, his spirit haunts the premises, and the vicinity in general, as evidenced by his appearances to Joel and his brother. He’s desperately trying to stop a recurrence of past events, and prevent another mass slaughter like the one back in his day, but no one is listening to his pleas- probably because they involve killing someone!

But clearly someone is trying to revive the actual leader of the cult and is already well on their way to doing so, spearheaded by Damon and someone known as the “teacher.” Is it Deb, or someone else in town? I suspect that the town elders are involved, perhaps led by the Sheriff. Note that he’s let Damon off with a warning on several occasions, even after some dubious business involving Cricket, as well as Garrett’s suspicions that he’s involved with Satanism.

RONEN RUBINSTEIN, ALBERTO FREZZA

We also found out that Garrett’s father might be involved, as he and Jessie found one of his father’s cuff-links hidden in a trap door in the floor of the cabin that Holyoke once lived in. They also found a creepy doll, because of course they did, and a recording tube made by Holyoke himself, in which he talks about taking a “potion” to “step through” the other side to communicate with the spirits there. But was it to awaken evil- or stop it?

Meanwhile, Blair struggled to come to terms with the Drew situation, eventually asking for a second chance with him, but not getting much of anywhere with his attempts. In addition, Alex continued to do the same with Cricket, who still suspected that Alex was only trying to get laid, but later caved and agreed to meet with him under the “blood moon.”

This led to an unexpected sequence at the end, set to the excellent Echo & The Bunnymen track, “The Killing Moon,” which Blair informed Alex was Cricket’s all-time favorite song. I personally can’t hear it without thinking of the cult classic “Donnie Darko,” one of my own all-time favorite movies, but it was put to good use here as well, fitting for what ended up going down.

RONEN RUBINSTEIN, AMBER CONEY, ELIZABETH LAIL

As Cricket traversed the woods to meet up with Alex, one of the masked figures sprung out of the forest and pushed her out of nowhere. Cricket fell directly onto a previously-seen bear trap, which sprung accordingly, snapping down on her head and leaving her very much dead as a doornail, this time definitively, with no chance of coming back, save maybe as a ghost herself.

I will miss Cricket big-time, as her character probably grew on me the most over the course of the series. After her sad flashback story, she really seemed to have embraced who she was and come out of her shell, ignoring her unfortunate past experiences and becoming her own person.

Alas, it wasn’t to last, as she was marked for death, foreshadowed by the incident with her boots going missing and her constant nightmares of the masked figures coming after her. But is she the only one? I suspect she won’t be. If I had to guess, I’d say Alex and Jessie should watch their backs, especially the former, whose story has already been told.

PAULINA SINGER, RONEN RUBINSTEIN

Jessie should be okay in the short-term, with her still having a flashback coming up, as well as Blair and perhaps Garrett, at least until their respective back-stories are told. (Blair’s should ensure at least one more appearance by Cricket, given that they were friends before camp.) I suspect Deb’s will be the last story to be told, as she is easily the most mysterious of the bunch.

That’s four major characters, with five episodes to go, but one assumes the finale will forgo the whole half-flashback, half-present-day goings-on of the others, or at least not restrict itself to the one character. We’ll probably get some flashbacks of what really went down in the past, so in a way, one could say that the finale might end up being Holyoke’s flashback episode, but we’ll see.

Either way, I think the death is just beginning, and while the counselors are on the right track, in terms of sharing their stories and their hallucinations and the like, and will surely dig deeper into the area’s past and find out more, it would be hard to imagine there not being some more casualties along the way.

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After all, the show-runners have already said that, unlike “Scream” or “Scream Queens,” the next season will focus on an all-new cast of characters and be set in an altogether different time period, likely the 70’s. A young Deb could certainly make an appearance, to be sure, but beyond that, expect a whole new story-line.

That means, not unlike “American Horror Story,” anyone could go at any time, which raises the stakes considerably for our cast of characters. I must say, though, this show has gone a much longer way towards making a slasher-esque format work than the aforementioned shows, thanks to solid writing, acting and thoughtful depictions of all its characters.

Yes, some characters are more likable than others, but such is always the case in a given horror movie/show. The important thing here is that they’re not all cliches, which makes a world of difference, especially in an era in which that seems to be a dying art.

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Back in the day, as slight and predictable as many of them were, slashers had one thing going for them- characters that were fun and you didn’t mind spending time with, something which seems to be lost more and more in the current generation of similar types of films. Witness, say, any given Rob Zombie or Eli Roth film, for instance. I’m not saying I hate their work, but their characters don’t tend to be very memorable…unless it’s the villains of the piece, that is.

Because of that switch to finding the villains more compelling than the protagonists, which began with the iconic status of the most memorable slasher baddies- Michael, Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, etc.- there was a shift in thinking, in which the bad guys became more sympathetic than the “good” ones.

What ended up happening was that the other characters devolved into complete one-note stereotypes that one couldn’t wait to get to see slaughtered so the viewer wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore. Gone were the heroic “final girls” of yore, like Laurie, Nancy and Alice; and in their place, crass, coarse abrasive “heroes” like the Laurie of Zombie’s “Halloween” remake or vapid bitch-fests like the “Black Christmas” remake, where I couldn’t even tell who the main protagonist was supposed to be until there was no one else left.

RONEN RUBINSTEIN, ELI GOREE

“Dead of Summer” seeks to rectify that, and I say more power to them. The show keeps getting better all the time, and is once again proof positive that, more and more, the best horror is cropping up on the small screen, not the big one. (That’s not to say there aren’t still some gems out there these days- you just have to look a lot harder for them now.)

What did you think of “Dead of Summer” this week? Were you sad to see Cricket go? Do you like the show in general? Do you also think it’s getting better as it goes along? How would you rate it in comparison to big-screen horror? (For the record, I don’t actually hate Zombie or Roth’s stuff, it just leaves me a bit colder than the old-school stuff, and has limited re-watchability- whereas I can watch, say, the original “Halloween” every year and never really grow tired of it.)

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Sound off down below, and see you next week!