Wednesday, July 18, 2018

B-Movie Review: "Summer Camp Nightmare" (1987)

High school Bolsheviks take over a youth program operated by a religious fundamentalist, with plenty of rape and opaque allusions to Chairman Mao following suit ...

By: Jimbo X

At this point, it feels like I’ve seen all the summer-camp-themed slasher flicks worth watching. The Burning, the Sleepaway Camp trilogy, and, of course Friday the 13ths 1, 2 and 6 (which, mind-blowingly, are the only three movies in the Jason canon that actually feature the summer camp motif.)

So naturally, as soon as I stumbled upon Summer Camp Nightmare, my curiosity was more than piqued. I mean, how did a horror movie starring The Rifleman himself about teenagers murderin’ one another fly under my radar for so long?

Well, despite the namesake and the fairly suggestive VHS box art, Summer Camp Nightmare isn’t a slasher flick. Rather, it’s this weird combination of Lord of the Flies, Meatballs and that old British movie If… that’s too goofy to be come off as a legit criticism of authoritarianism but still too grim and violent to be passed off as a more risque Camp Nowhere.

Ultimately, the movie’s a pretty mixed bag, but on the whole, it’s a mostly entertaining little novelty from the late ‘80s that you might consider an overachiever, and you certainly have to give it credit for trying something different with the whole “dead teenager” formula.

So, how about we fire up the VCR player and take a trip down memory lane, why don’t we?

We start off with a fleet of yellow school buses en route to summer camp. They do the whole "Hail to the Bus Driver" song except the lyrics  are altered a little bit. We're briefly introduced to a few characters, including a black dude in a Cubs cab, this nerd that audio records everything and this one little cuck who pees on himself.

The counselors at Camp North Pines get on the PA system and everybody is introduced to their bunks. The kids immediately begin trading contraband, which primarily comes in the form of Baby Ruth bars and girly mags. Then they play two-hand touch football for awhile and the audio-recording nerd is confronted by a bigger "counselor-in-training" who threatens to cream him for calling him a "purple dork" or something along those lines. Then it's time for everybody to hit up the mess hall, and since this is the late 1980s, none of the kids are fat, which is just one of those things I can't help but notice in movies from way back when.

Chuck Connors plays the head camp counselor and he shows the kids his butterfly collection and he leads a lunchtime prayer. His second in-command, this Uncle Tom who looks like Tracy Morgan, gives him a formal introduction to the kids, and holy shit does that guy look like Willem Defoe. Apparently, he's a religious zealot who jerry-rigged the TV to only pick up the local preachin' channel. He also warns 'em to not use the old rope bridge, not just because it connects them to the girls' camp, but because it's old and dilapidated and dangerous. So, naturally, a whole bunch of kids go out to cross it and then Mr. Warren (that's Chuck Connors character) makes an edict that the kids have to go swimming everyday. Then the camp nurse shows up and she's a MILF and that one dorky kid with the audio recorder almost drowns and this one camp counselor everybody refers to as a rich boy pulls him out of the drink to make himself look all heroic and shit.

Then the rich boy counselor talks to this five-year-old kid and he tells another counselor he thinks Mr. Warren might be "a bigger freak " than they assumed and he convinces the audio-recording nerd to climb atop the roof and tinker around with the TV antenna so they can get more channels. And sure enough, he manages to unscramble the porno channels, just in time for Mr. Warren to waltz in, yank out the plug and read 'em the riot act. Warren sends the nerd and his camp counselor to "the meditation room" and Franklin (that's the rich boy counselor) makes another crack about him being a pederast and then it's time for the Camp South Pines girls to make their appearance at the talent show. The fat black dude raps and then a bunch of hoochies dressed like Cyndi Lauper do a song and dance number and the boys catcall 'em like middle-aged construction workers and NOBODY accuses anyone of sexism or "verbal rape" like they probably would if that shit happened today.

You know, it's only a fall of, like, six feet. I'm pretty sure that's probably not gonna' kill him, guys.

So the older boys and girls schmooze while a two-man heavy metal act called "The Horn Dogs" perform the shittiest song you've ever heard in your life while the fat black kid bangs on the drums. Of course, Warren is gravely offended by all this and suspends the talent show AND cancels the upcoming dance, because that's something Jesus probably wouldn't like or something. This leads to one of the kids stating "what a gonad," which yeah, is pretty dadgum funny.

Some of the older counselors rendezvous with some girls from the other camp and some of them make out for a bit then Franklin holds a fireside meeting where he tries to convince the other counselors to REVOLT against Warren's authoritarian regime.

Then the fat black kid makes a joke about Mr. Warren's second-in-command succeeding in a "white supremacist" world and everybody laughs because of how preposterous it sounds (my, how things have changed there) and all the kids start chanting "free Chris Wayne," who was one of the counselors who got sent to the "meditation room" earlier in the movie. Then all of the counselors tell Warren he's a "pedo" to his face, Franklin pulls out a handgun(!) and forces Warren to lock himself into his own prayer building, along with all the rest of the adult counselors.

Franklin and his Republican Guard then amble on over to the girls camp and pull a gun on the heads of THAT camp and we cut to a bunch of campers spying on some girls with binoculars. And that's our cue for a good old fashioned panty raid, complete with games of grab-ass that DON'T result in sex crime prosecutions. Franklin says he's going to merge the boys and girls camps as one and he tells all the other kids that all of the adult counselors "have gone on a trip" and left the properties to his oversight. He appoints a couple of skanks to his "supreme executive committee." Then he makes all of the kids take an oath to the "Supreme Revolution" and since he's promising them a social mixer, of course all the kids are going to go along with it.

The kids wheel Mr. Warren out and this one skank dances on him like a stripper. He tells the kids their actions are "sinful" and asks them to please think of the consequences. Warren tries to make a break for it in the woods (he even gets a few good headbutts in) but with his hands tied, he isn't able to put up much of a fight against this one ruffian, who produces a hunting knife and STABS HIM DEAD WITH IT. Welp, shit's getting deep now, ain't it?

Franklin gets on the PA system and appoints a couple of new kids to "Supreme Revolution Committee" positions and tells them to shun these two counselors that pissed him off, and sure as sugar, those kids get shunned something wicked. Then this sixth-grader girl tells the audio-recording nerd she'll teach him how to dance and then the counselors grease each other up and chase chickens and pigs around. Then they SYMBOLICALLY destroy Warren's butterfly collection ... no wait, they LITERALLY destroy it in a fire and then they roast a LIVE pig over a fire. Well, it only took us an hour, but it looks like we're finally getting into that inevitable "Lord of the Flies" territory now. And that leads to the audio nerd and his girlfriend stumbling upon one of Franklin's lieutenants RAPING another camper so Franklin has to put him on trial for his misdeeds. His victim says he deserves to die for what he did to her and Richard tells his police force to take him back to his administration office so he can sleep on it.

So, the rapist's punishment? Franklin makes him cross that rope bridge from earlier ... if he makes it all the way across, he lives. If he falls? Then I guess Franklin will shoot him or something. His final words? "Speaking of bologna, all you women can eat my beef bologna." Well goddamn, that was quite the zinger. Of course, the dude makes it all the way across and all the female campers grab him and carry him off into the wilderness, where his fate, to this very day, remains unknown.  Oh wait, never mind ... they literally lynched him like a runaway slave. How about that.

Franklin grabs his pistol and one of the counselors frees the nerdy audio kid from his makeshift prison. He tells him that Franklin made up all those stories about Warren molesting everybody and he kvetches about being made to cross to rope bridge, too. And sure enough, the little audio nerd is sentenced to cross the rope bridge. Then Franklin and Chris, the one camp counselor "shunned" earlier, get into a scuffle while nerd boy dangles off the rope bridge. And that's when the police show up, rather fortuitously. The detectives listen to the audio nerd's recordings (see, it had a payoff after all!) and the cops tell them to get back on the bus and go back home, as Franklin gets placed in the back of a squad car. Cue some REALLY awesome-sounding synth music for the outro, and that, folks, is all she wrote.

Because teenage communist revolutionaries with boom boxes are the worst kind of teenage communist revolutionaries.

Well, not that it should be a surprise to anyone, but the flick was originally released under Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures label, which I suppose explains the movie’s distinct “made for TV” look and feel.

The movie was directed by this guy named Bert L. Dragin, who went on to direct one more feature length film (1988’s Twice Dead) before calling it a career as an auteur. Interestingly, he co-wrote the screenplay alongside Penelope Spheeris, who also directed all of those great The Decline of Western Civilization movies and a whole bunch of mainstream 1990s comedies (Black Sheep, Senseless, The Little Rascals) that she surely wishes you’d forget about by now. Oh, and the movie itself was based on a real book, titled The Butterfly Revolution, that was penned by this guy named William Butler back in 1961. Obviously, the film adaptation takes a LOT of liberties with the source material, but a quick read-through of the Wikipedia article leads me to believe it’s more or less the same central story, so whatever.

Of course, the most noteworthy name from the flick is Chuck Connors, one of the few people to ever play in the MLB and the NBA and I’m pretty sure the only person to ever play in the MLB and the NBA and become a huge Western star on TV. Charlie Stratton, the guy who played Franklin, mostly stuck to TV work after his not-exactly-star-turning role here, including a stint on the ill-fated Dirty Dancing television show that NOBODY remembers actually happened in the late 1980s. Harold Pruett, who played Chris Wade, actually died in 2002 at the absurdly young age of 32, but hey, at least he got to make out with Jennifer Tilly in Embrace of the Vampire, which I guess kinda’ sorta’ makes up for the early demise. Adam Carl, who portrayed the audio-recorder nerd, also starred in cult classic The Monster Squad and provided the voice of Donatello in the The Secret of the Ooze, and he’s done pretty much nothin’ but TV work ever since. Oh, and if the actress who played Debbie sounded just slightly familiar, that’s because she was played by voice actor Samantha Newark, who is probably most famous for voicing the main character in the old school Jem cartoon.

Even now I’m not sure if the movie is supposed to be taken as a serious criticism of communist totalitarianism or if it’s meant to be some sort of sly parody ripping on Reagan-era Soviet paranoia. Needless to say, whatever message the filmmakers thought they were getting across definitely didn’t come out as clear and discernible as they thought, but then again, anybody going into a movie called Summer Camp Nightmare expecting an Animal Farm-caliber political parable DESERVES to be disappointed.

Obviously, Summer Camp Nightmare is a movie with some structural problems, but for the most part, I thought it was a fairly entertaining no-budget youth drama that, while never really doing anything to distinguish itself that much, never really became disinteresting, either. The acting isn’t great, but it’s good enough, and there’s at least one or two laugh out loud scenes. And as corny as they may be, those rope-bridge scenes are nonetheless semi-harrowing, and it is fun watching the junior high commie utopia slowly devolve into Pol Pot’s primary school … even if the ending leaves a lot to be desired.

Is it worth going out of your way to see? Eh, not really, but if by some mysterious turn of fate you do wind up catching it on TV, you likely won’t hate yourself for sinking an hour and a half of your life into watching it. All in all, it’s perfectly adequate seasonal fare, and a pretty good mood setter to prepare yourself for that splendid summer-to-autumn transitional phase; like S’mores, you probably won’t feel like catching this most times of the year, but for whatever reason, it nonetheless makes for an oddly filling snack while we’re asses-and-elbows-deep in all this humid, late July weather.


Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.