NOVEMBER 9, 2009
Another day, another independent anthology film that features an old man in the woods telling the stories. But unlike Zombie Chronicles, Campfire Tales is actually pretty good for what it is, until the final, overlong and somewhat horror-lite tale brings it down a notch. But still, 3 out of 4 stories are pretty good, and the wraparound carries with it some semblance of creepiness (a middle aged man appearing in the middle of the woods to sit by the fire with three young boys? Uh...), putting this one in the “win” column in the realm of low budget independent anthology movies.
I won’t lie, slogging through Zombie Chronicles just two days before is probably the main reason that I have a higher appreciation for this one, but even if I had just watched a classic like Creepshow for the first time there would still be some surprising merit to this film. First of all, it’s shot on film, so I am automatically in its corner. Of course it was released in 1991, back when using video was still considered un-professional (how I long for those days...), but it wasn’t an entirely uncommon option for low budget films back then (Redneck Zombies of course leading the charge), so it’s nice to be reminded of a time when a crew with little money would still use film so that their film would actually look decent when it came time to releasing it to the paying public. Along that note, they also got Gunnar Hansen to play the storyteller, back before he would appear in any old thing if it meant a few days in proximity to a catering truck (this was actually only the 3rd film he appeared in post-Chain Saw, despite the nearly 20 year gap). So the film works largely as a relic of a time when people still gave a shit.
I also liked how surprisingly gory it was, with disembowelments, beheadings, and lots of splatter. They’re not the best effects in the world (though the heart pulling was pretty nifty) but they are far better than half the shit I see even nowadays, almost two decades later. Again - this is before CGI took over, which meant that a special effects crew on a low budget horror film had to rely on their actual talent, not on who had the fastest computer and a cracked copy of After Effects.
As for the stories, they are the usual mixed lot, with the 1st and 3rd being the best. The 1st is just the standard “Couple on a date is menaced by an escaped mental patient with a hook” urban legend story, albeit with a nastier end than usual and terrific usage of pumpkins, both in pie and jack o lantern form. And the 3rd is a Tales from the Crypt-esque tale of a complete asshole who kills his mother on Christmas Eve in order to get an early stab at her inheritance. He is then killed by Satan Claus (for real), and his brother finds his corpse in what will undoubtedly be the worst Christmas in this family’s history.
The 2nd has a cool idea and is largely enjoyable, but is done in by an abrupt, completely non-concluding conclusion. As a non-smoker, I enjoy the idea that smoking pot will turn you into a pile of mush, but that’s pretty much all that happens here; there is no twist or stinger or anything that you’d expect out of a comedic anthology tale. There’s also a complete lack of information as to what the pot is or why it turns people into oatmeal-ish looking zombies.
The 4th though, yikes. It’s a pirate story, and the production value is decent. Plus it starts off a lot like The Terror, which is cool because that film is actually glimpsed briefly in one of the other stories (as are Haxan, Night of the Living Dead, and Reefer Madness, while we’re on the subject - it’s a smorgasbord of public domain classics!). But it just goes on and on and on, and takes forever to actually get to the horror stuff (it’s a ripoff of The Fog, more or less). The film is only 85 minutes, and this one story takes up nearly 40 of that, which is far too long to spend on a story that doesn’t have a lot of horror elements to begin with.
My favorite aspect of the disc has to be the audio commentary track, due to the fact that it’s not being done by the director, writer, producer, actor, or anyone else involved in the production. In fact, I have no idea who the fuck it is. He just starts talking and never introduces himself or even clarifies what it is he does. Is he the DVD producer? A big fan? The director’s buddy? Who the hell knows (I did some research and it turns out he is journalist but not bass legend Mike Watt). He reads most of his information from some notes (at one point he just reads Gunnar Hansen’s IMDb bio page), takes an unmotivated shot at James Marsden, and occasionally drifts into MST3k territory, but it’s a unique track all the same (it’s actually more like what I wanted to do with my commentaries) and worth a listen, especially when he begins to explain why so many modern filmmakers suck. There are also storyboards for you to enjoy, as well as a short film by Watt that has nothing to do with anything but is largely competent.
Oddly enough there is another anthology film called Campfire Tales, and Blockbuster apparently didn’t know which one I wanted so they sent both, something I didn’t realize until I sat down to watch the extras at work and was momentarily baffled by the New Line logo on the other film. So I think this will be the first time in HMAD history where I watch two films back to back that share a title and a concept but are otherwise unrelated. And hopefully the last, because that’s probably going to be annoying for you RSS feeders.
What say you?