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Hipster Holy Grail: Summer Camp Nightmare (1987)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Summer Camp Nightmare is a unique blend of ham-fisted social commentary, YA dystopian fiction, youth in peril melodrama, and '80s slasher horror.  It's overblown, weird, and, to put it lightly, inaccurate in its guess as to how a bunch of dumbass kids would fare if left to their own devices.  If it had a bit more gradual of a pace to handle some of its tonal shifts a little better, I think this would've been a legitimate '80s classic rather than a weird cult movie.

My Rating: 3 / 5

The Part About the Book

I stumbled across this movie while lurking on some Internet discussion of the recent We Hate Movies episode on Camp Nowhere.  Originally I was going to skip past it - frankly, the thought of another "teens at risk" / YA rebel story does nothing for me, particularly if its set at a summer camp - but then I found out that Summer Camp Nightmare was a loose adaptation of this:

And suddenly I had that tingly sensation of familiarity in the back my head.

Sure enough, I had a copy of The Butterfly Revolution on the bookshelf, worn and read.  I can get into the whole "teen rebel" thing later, but what I found fascinating about this one in particular was that I read TBR so long ago that I have no memory of it other than:

A) I finished reading it; and
B) It involved kids killing people.  Or something.  I don't know.  Ooh!  Netflix has Sliders!

Basically, there was a pivotal era of about four incredibly formative years beginning with the moment I left elementary school and started realizing that world history is kinda shitty and when I was feeling the full force in puberty where the idea of being a "rebel" had a shiny luster.  The catch? I didn't really know anything about rebelling or what to rebel against.  Naturally, during this time, I'd buy into pretty much anything if you told me it had something to do with people rebelling against an authoritarian state.

This is the same block of time where I first read Lord of the Flies1984, and Animal Farm and tried to watch more "mature" movies like Red Dawn.  Of course, since I was reading these books without any context or understanding of actual political or social structures, the only one that properly resonated with me was Red Dawn because Lea Thompson was purty.

Fast forward twenty-or-so years and all I can actually remember about TBR is the emotional state of being a little wannabe-rebel in training.  "Ooh!  It's about kids who take over a camp!  This is gonna be so exciting!"

So, I can't really speak to how well the movie matches the book, but the more relevant question for me is: how does the movie stack up to that expectation?

Spoiler: Not great.

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Camp North Pines is getting ready for another summer of fun as busloads of young campers, ranging in age from 6 to 16, arrive on the scene.  There's an overlong prologue sequence in which we get to meet a few of the more notable campers, including Donald, resident nerd and narrator of the movie, and Chris, a fun-loving dude who kinda just acts like everybody's older brother.

But almost none of those people matter except for plot reasons later.  Really the only two folks you need to concern yourself with are Franklin Reilly (played by an actor named Charlie Stratton who I kept thinking was William Ragsdale), a teenage camper, and Mr. Warren (Chuck Connors), the new camp Director.

Y'see, Warren is a crotchety old bastard who represents everything that young people stand against.  He's ultra-religious and conservative.  He hates rock music, fashion, alcohol, and staying up late.  Boo!

Franklin, on the other hand, is a political genius and moody intellectual, as evidenced by the fact that he stews quietly on the sidelines and reads Civil Disobedience.  He's also got a lot of charm and makes friends easily, which allows him to pull off the central plot: leading the campers in armed rebellion and holding Warren and the other counselors hostage.

This premise is interesting, but it's really clumsily introduced.

For one thing, Warren is a pretty strange character to serve as the target of the rebellion.  For a plot like this to work, you need him to be a crazy-severe character.  Somebody outrageous and terrifying, who pushes you so far to the edge that you feel like you're going to snap at any minute.

But Chuck Connors plays him like a grizzled dean in a college comedy - in other words, he doesn't seem like an intimidating fascist, but rather an ineffectual grump.  Nobody takes Warren seriously the entire time.  From the very beginning, the kids are openly dismissive of him and scoff at his lame - and weakly enforced - attempts to instill discipline in North Pines.

On the one hand, this kinda works because you sorta see how the kids might think they're just playing a game when the rebellion starts.  But on the other hand, it creates this really stupid tonal shift once things inevitably go south.  The type of kids who would join a rebellion thinking it's a wacky prank are not the same kind of kids who would support out-and-out murder.

But before we get there, there's one scene in particular I wanted to examine, because of all the bizarre moments in this movie, this one takes the cake.

One of the first things the kids do is hold a cross-camp talent show, and there's two back-to-back acts that confound me.  First up is a song-and-dance piece from some visiting members of Camp South Pines, the neighboring girls' camp.  This act is basically a crappy burlesque sequence in which the girls plead for the boys to come visit them because they're so lonely and horny.  The lyrics stop just short of us, "We want your dick."

Warren doesn't seem thrilled with that act, but he lets it go on until it finishes.

The next act, however, is a heavy metal song without any cursing, references to Satan, or particularly aggressive crotch thrusts.  Two dumbasses basically just go "OOOOOWWWWW!" and wail on their guitars for about twenty seconds.  This prompts Warren to come up and unplug their amp.  He'll have none of that - in fact, this debauched display motivates him to cancel the talent show immediately and send everybody to bed.


So... Warren is cool with watching a bunch of barely pubescent girls offer their virginity under a spotlight, but if some idiot with long hair grunts into a mic, that's the path to damnation?  I don't get you, man.  You did this wrong.

Anyway, after the talent show debacle, there's some other minor offenses - including an introduced-then-ignored subplot about how Warren may have molested a kid, but actually didn't - and then Franklin convinces the campers to rebel.  It's actually a lot easier than it sounds because North Pines only has three figures of authority: Warren and his two lead counselors.

The plan is to lock them up in a little makeshift prison that Warren built (he calls it a "cool out cabin" or something similar) and... basically that's it.  Yeah.

So, anyway, Franklin has a gun somehow.

This is a plot detail that's introduced way too casually.  I know that this is America and you can barely go around a corner without tripping over somebody's 12-gauge, but you really gotta wonder why there was a handgun on the campgrounds in the first place.  The only expository shot you see is a moment where Franklin opens up somebody's desk - maybe Warren's? - and takes the gun.  How?  Who?  Why?

The fact that he has a gun is the only reason the rebellion works, because naturally Warren doesn't want to go into the cool out cabin willingly.  But once Franklin threatens to shoot him, the counselors are locked down and the kids celebrate.  Cue partying scenes.

And this is where the movie started to lose me, because it loses direction.  It's kind of like a metaphor for most demonstrations of teenage passion: a lot of promises and build-up followed by a whole lot of nothing.

The kids all hang out and drink while Franklin hands out titles to the kids like "Officer" and "General" and whatever.  There's some embarrassingly dated music and dancing.  And for about five or ten minutes, it just seems like a crappy kid power movie.

Then somebody drags a hand-tied Warren into the dance hall as a joke and we get one of the creepier moments in the movie.  There's some girl who's been seen dancing for the last few scenes, and when she sees Warren standing helplessly in the middle of the hall, she starts grinding up against him.

Why?  Does she just get a huge charge out of the power imbalance?  Does she think it's funny?  I just... I just don't get it.  I guess I went to a pretty lame high school, because I don't remember any girls whose idea of a prank was to dry-hump the principal.

So, Franklin catches wind that this is happening and demands that one of his Generals - the stupid one, whose actual name is "Runk" even though that sounds like a bullshit insult - take Warren back to prison.  Along the way, they get into a fight and Runk accidentally stabs Warren to death.  You know how it is, right?  You're just walking around, swinging your favorite knife, and then some idiot falls onto it and dies?

Runk and Franklin conspire to hide Warren's body and keep his death under wraps, but while they're trying to contain this crisis, another one breaks out: a musclebound dude takes one of the South Pines girls out into the woods and rapes her.

The next day, they arrest the rapist and debate what to do with him.  The girls want him killed, and the boys think that might be a bit extreme.  Franklin's solution is a trial by ordeal: they'll make the rapist try to climb across a rickety bridge, and if he succeeds, he's free to go.  If he fails, that's his punishment.

(Side note: this bridge is stupid.  They make it out like it's a terrifying thing, but even from the very beginning of the movie, the kids are walking on it and trying it out.  The bridge is supposed to be menacing, but it claims zero lives in the course of the film - what a gyp.)

The rapist passes his trial unscathed, and the boys all go back to camp thinking that's that.  The girls object, so they grab the rapist and carry him off somewhere to lynch him.

And here's where you realize that the movie's escalating way too damn fast.  Warren's murder was clumsily inserted into the movie, but it was at least believable because it was accidental.  But to go from that to "LYNCH HIM!!!" is like turning from a bumpy city street onto an eight-lane interstate.  The movie treats the rape, the trial, and the ensuing mob justice very matter-of-factly, with barely any "can you believe this shit?" moments.

Sadly, this is also where the movie's already-faltering steam engine completely run out.  Now that it's clear Franklin is kind of a bad guy and it wasn't a good idea to take over the camp, the hero, Chris - remember him? - enacts a brave plan to set things right.  The last twenty minutes or so involve him and Donald teaming up to steal Franklin's gun and call the cops, but after the craziness of the second act, it's a listless limp across the finish line.

The movie tries to keep its suspense going with a huge spectacle fight scene between Franklin and Chris, but even that doesn't have much gravitas.  It just kinda happens and ends.

In fact, as if to drive home the dullness, the cops don't even get to freak out when they arrive.  They just click their tongues and go, "Jeez.  Kids."  Then all the campers get on some buses and go home.  Roll credits.

In the end, it's hard to even know what kind of movie this was trying to be.  At times it's a comedy, at times it's a coming-of-age melodrama, at times it's a thriller.  And the title sounds like a horror movie.  I guess the identity confusion is appropriate for a movie about teenagers, though.

The Part About Rebelliousness

Teenage rebellion is a weird thing.  I know everybody has it to some extent, but can anybody really explain it?

It's more than "just a phase," but less than "part of me."  It's serious, but really goddamn hilarious.  It's founded in facts, ideals, and genuine outrage, but it comes across as false and laden with ulterior motives.  If you tell a teenager that they're rebelling "just to be cool," they'd get offended... but then again, they'd be offended pretty much no matter what you tell them.

"Say, Vladimir, that rebellious speech you gave yesterday was pretty cool!"
"Shut up, dad!"

I think everybody's got a pet theory.  My own is that rebellion is born out of the unfortunate coincidence of both a heightened state of emotions and impulsiveness thanks to puberty and the ridiculous decision by society that, yup, now is the time to start telling you about all the ways the world is screwed up.

Pretty much what happens is you go from learning that the Pilgrims and Native Americans were friends for a little while, then you get this terrible mood swing where you feel irritable and that's when somebody goes, "By the way... we completely butchered the Indians.  Yeah.  I mean, wholesale slaughter.  It was pretty bad.  Anyway, so, you doing your homework or what?"

I guess what I'm saying is, maybe rebellion would be dulled a bit if we broke the shitty news earlier?  That way you don't feel like you've been lied to when you're most primed to react poorly.

Anyway, whatever the specific factors are, the bottom line is that teenagers are DTF for rebellion.  You have a bunch of angry kids who are impressionable enough that you can bend them to your will and this can be exploited for really cynical reasons (marketing), really sinister reasons (child armies in Africa), or really hilarious reasons (Insane Clown Posse).

So, one of the things I thought SCN did pretty well was showing just how manipulatable kids can be.  Franklin is actually kind of a great movie villain this way.  It's not that he's got some brilliant plan - it literally amounts to "point a gun at the three adults on the camp" - but he's charismatic enough that he can appeal to all the different flavors of teen rebellion.  For most people, he's just promising a party.  For others, he's promising political and social change.  For a select few, he's promising justice for perceived (and occasionally actual) crimes.

I did think it was clever of the movie to play up the different rebellion angles.  When you put the nerdy Marxist-wannabe kids in the same camp (ha!) as the party-all-night punks, you realize they're cut from the same naive cloth.  It's a funny meditation on the awkwardness that comes with trying to parlay your frustrations with the world into actual change for the better.

Of course, the movie goes off the rails and falls apart a little when they actually rebel... but, you know.  Silver linings and all that.

The Part About Obvious Communism

We really like our communist metaphors, huh?

Yup.  Pretty clever, SCN.  Franklin promises equality and ends up becoming a dictator.  Uh-huh.  No, no, I got it.  No, that's okay... I don't need to see your notes.  You're going to show them to me anyway?  Ugh... yes... yes, I understand the symbolism of the broken bridge as a token of his false promises.... No, really, we can move on now.  What?  You've got poetry, too?

I guess I don't have a problem with the metaphor specifically.  It's just that I kinda feel like every other story about rebellion or political upheaval that's focused on kids basically just ends up being an overextended metaphor for the rise and terrors of communism.  I pretty much expect it now.  "Hey, that kid's taking charge?  Alright, when's the scene where they realize he's gone insane with power?"

At best, it's just another crappy entry in the annals of half-baked allegories, but at worst it feels like something treacherous.  Like there's some kind of enormous capitalist conspiracy to fill the world with shitty pseudo-thrillers so we all remember that communism is bad.

Can't we change it up a bit for once?  There's basically three rules that virtually all stories follow when it comes to rebellion:

1) If the rebels succeed by the second act, the leader is going to be a dictator and the rest of the movie will be a return to the status quo.

2) If the rebels haven't won by the second act, then they're the good guys.

3) The first American rebellion was pretty cool, but everything else was really sad.

So can't we have something different for once?  I understand that rising tension will be pretty hard if the rebels are the "good" guys and they win by Act II, but what if your conflict was more about the slow, sometimes frustrating pace of effecting actual change?  So maybe the first half hour is the kids taking over the camp, and then the remaining hour has Franklin realizing how difficult it is to meet his campaign promises regarding redistribution of bug juice?  And then in the end he releases his prisoners, but he gets to stay in charge because he's actually doing a bang-up job?  So the end result is that the kids don't necessarily get to stay in power, but they do get an extra half hour of TV time each day?  It's not a thriller anymore, but it could be kinda funny.

Either that or make this into the crazy slasher movie you want to be.  Just commit to a genre and run with it, SCN.

Where You Can Watch

If you hurry up and check it out now, you can find this on Youtube.

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