Written and Directed by: Harrison Smith
Starring: Eric Roberts, Felissa Rose, and Danielle Harris
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Pitch your tent. Dig your grave.
A cursory glance at Camp Dread reveals just about everything you need to know about it: a slasher movie starring slasher icons Felissa Rose and Danielle Harris, the film centers on a trilogy of fictional 80s slasher movies. As nostalgia for this era and subgenre has proven to be as indestructible as slasher villains, it follows that it’s become a self-sustaining cottage industry even decades later. For as long as there’s an audience that remembers that splatter flicks were once a thing, there will be films to capitalize on that adulation and the skewed perception that nostalgia and familiarity are a salve for this genre.
Back in the 80s, director Julian Barrett (Eric Roberts) was a cult hero responsible for a set of Summer Camp films, a notorious trilogy of slashers. Thirty years later, Hollywood is eager to remake the films, but Barrett holds out and proposes something more interesting: what if he took the helm and reimagined the trilogy as a reality television show starring a bunch of kids in need of rehab? He even returns to the set of the original films and recruits his former star (Rose) to be head counselor for the cast when they aren’t playing victim. With a prize of $1 million awaiting the eventual survivor, the game literally becomes a cutthroat affair when someone begins to actually reenact the original films’ murders.
For all its wrinkles and potential intrigue, Camp Dread is pretty straightforward in its insistence on retreading familiar ground. It’s couched in two layers of nostalgia while doing so: its most obvious reference point is Sleepaway Camp (the setup with troubled kids is even borrowed from the third film in that series), but it’s also slathered in a thin glaze of self-awareness. The latter layer is superfluous, as the heightened awareness doesn’t serve as commentary and is instead utilized for obvious gags, such as having a weird wallflower in the same movie as Felissa Rose. Also, Harris’s character says horror movies suck, which is funny because she’s starred in a whole bunch of ‘em, right? It’s not so much meta as it is faux cleverness meant to illicit a Pavlovian response: you liked this sort of thing in movies 30 years ago, so here’s someone clanging the dinner bell with a machete.
At least Camp Dread’s familiar cues are decent enough to make a passable camp slasher facsimile. And by that, I mean most of the cast dies horribly and rather frequently. Most importantly, they die practically. Maybe this just sounds like championing pure competence or common sense, but this is an essential slasher component. We don’t just watch most of these films to watch hordes of kids die—we watch them out of the hopes that they will die well and inspire some kind of awe while doing so (and we wonder why these films—and their fans—have garnered such bad reputations. Buncha sickos.). At any rate, writer/director Harrison Smith has a familiar arsenal at his disposal: arrows through the head, poisonous cleaning materials, the old barbed-wire-to-the-throat trick, etc. Some of these mutilations are captured less than gracefully, though, as things literally get shaky at times and rob them of their full impact.
Which is sort of a shame, because most of the cast practically invites audiences to delight in their horrific demise. That all of the characters are grounded in some cliché or another isn’t surprising, nor is the decision to play them at such obnoxious volumes (it’s the rigueur-du-jour for these slasher throwbacks). However, it’s not exactly the soundest decision because they quickly become just a disposable set of awful individuals with no personality beyond the character flaws landed them in this bizarre form of rehab in the first place. There’s an alpha male jerk with rage issues, a vanilla nice guy, a promiscuous girl, a lesbian, and the aforementioned shy loner, and none of them ever make their case for survival. Instead, they’re fodder from frame one, there only to add to the film’s body count as the plot escalates to ludicrous, twisty levels (this is one of those whodunnits of the Russian nesting doll order: culprits keep appearing as layers in a conspiracy until only one remains).
Any slasher that obliges with an ample amount of carnage is functioning on its most basic level. Nobody can take that away from Camp Dread: it delivers what is expected of it and even cloaks itself in nostalgia while doing so. Aside from this general competence, there are few highlights: Roberts’s ham-fisted turn carves up the scenery, and that scenery happens to be charmingly authentic, as an actual camp serves as the film’s locale. Mostly, Camp Dread just serves up the dark side 80s nostalgia because it’s a reminder that so many slashers were just pale imitators churned out by folks looking to deliver the bare minimum of blood and boobs.
Now we’re reliving the trend again, only now we’re supposed to be nostalgic for it. Speaking of the bare minimum: Image Entertainment has given the film a bare bones treatment on DVD, though, like the film itself, the presentation is fine but unremarkable. To its credit, Camp Dread doesn’t attempt to distance itself with irony—it’s a sincere attempt to recapture 80s slashers, which sometimes entails embracing mediocrity. I’ll still take that over a lazy effort that tries to excuse itself with a more glib approach. Rent it!
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