Campfire Tales (1997)

NOVEMBER 11, 2009


I am really not sure who the target audience was for Campfire Tales (1997). Much like Deadly Friend, it’s essentially an R rated kid’s movie, where it would work best on those who were not yet old enough to watch it, technically. The tales are all based on urban legends (hook handed guy (again), girl reaches down to pet her dog and realizes it’s a killer, and, oddly, the farmer’s daughter?), many of the protagonists (including the storytellers) are young, and it’s not even particularly violent/bloody. Yet there are enough F bombs and nudity to ensure an R rating. What the?

It’s also a PSA disguised as a horror film. I’m actually somewhat embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see the end of the film coming, because in retrospect it’s pretty obvious that are heroes are all dead as the result of a drunken car crash (I had initially assumed that we didn’t see their wrecked car due to budgetary limitations). So the requisite twist ending for an anthology film is primarily “Don’t drink and drive, or you will have a dying hallucination that you survived and try to calm down your friends by telling them detailed modern versions of classic urban legends”. I also see that it apparently inspired the ending of the film Stay, as all of the people involved with the aftermath of the accidents are represented in the stories. For example, the folks from the 3rd story are actually the paramedics trying to revive our storyteller.

Anyway, the stories themselves aren’t that bad, actually. The first is a sort of variation on the “hook” story with the scraping on the roof and everything, but instead of a guy with a hook (who appears in the wraparound to the wraparound - again, this movie is sort of schizo), the villain are the zombie-esque folks who were killed by some sort of bird? Hey, whatever. This one offers the nudity, as well as a young Ron Livingston using a wonderfully terrible Jersey “Guido” accent. Also Sam from Speed! Love that guy.

Speaking of Livingston, this movie is a virtual buffet of early roles: Amy Smart, James Marsden, Hyde’s brother (the one from Malcolm In The Middle), Christine Taylor (actually this was post Brady Bunch, which I guess would make her the “name” in the film), Angel’s Glenn Quinn, and Jacinda Barrett. And while he’s hardly a big name, I enjoyed seeing Jay R. Ferguson as the main storyteller. He was the Fillion-esque star of the pretty sweet, under-loved (and 1st season canceled) Surface, which features my all time favorite “water monster eating people” shot. That show also introduced us to Leighton Meester, so thank you, guys who made Surface.

Anyway, the 2nd story is probably the best, and the strongest argument for my belief that this movie was meant for young adults. Our protagonist is like 8 years old and the whole thing is about her being scared about being left alone at home. Of course, as this was 1997, they had to include some nonsensical internet chat room stuff to “add” to the scares, but the familiar elements are all there, and it’s pretty goddamn creepy when the killer starts licking her hand (right before she sees the message in blood and dead dog on the other side of the room). There’s a sort of Amblin-esque quality to the tale that I dug.

The 3rd story kind of sucks though. Quinn breaks down on his bike and seeks refuge in a farm populated by an out-of-town cowboy and his really hot daughter. Of course, this being a horror film, the cowboy is a lot more than an angry father, but it’s still sort of a weak tale, and didn’t really fit the urban legend motif (as far as I know anyway; I’m only familiar with the story as the start of a sex tale). Plus it just sort of trails off and becomes the twist to the wraparound.

One other highlight is the delightfully out-dated “Alt-rock of the 90s” soundtrack, featuring a bunch of artists whose existence you had forgotten (in some cases, rightfully so). The Rentals? Imperial Drag? TRIPL3FASTACTION? Holy shit. I can only assume that Johnny Bravo and Belly were asking for too much money.

New Line included no extras with the disc, only a trailer reel that was almost as outdated as the soundtrack (the disc was manufactured in 2005 but all the trailers are for 2003 films). The filmmakers haven’t made much of note since, and I honestly believe I never would have even heard of the movie had it not been sent along with the other Campfire Tales (though Ms. Smart might have mentioned it during the recent Seventh Moon Q&A - she mentioned SOME horror movie she did but I can't remember the exact title she offered) . So it’s a movie with no discernible target audience that apparently never found one. I kind of like that.

What say you?

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  1. My friend randomly got this for his birthday from a guy who was too broke for anything else.... we thought it was gonna suck but I saw the first two stories and it's actually really creepy.

  2. I saw this about 10 years ago and I remember liking it. I don't know if I would say the same thing if I rewatched it now. I do have a soft spot for urban legends though, so I probably would.

    Funny that you would mention Jay R. Ferguson. I recently wondered whatever happened to him, but forgot he was in this movie until you mentioned him.

  3. I'm actually watching this movie right now...It's been years since I've seen it. I agree with everything you had to say! It's worth a look, at least for the first couple stories.

  4. My biggest problem with the movie is that three of the four anthology stories were too long. These stories are most commonly told in a few minutes around a campfire, so we all have some vague idea of what's going to happen. Yet they're padded out to twenty-plus minutes -- except for the first one, which clocks in at a trim six and is just about perfect. (Then it doesn't play into the plot at all, unless you count the double-twist on the twist ending.) You can't build enough atmosphere to pad out a three-minute urban legend into a 25-minute film segment. You just can't.

    Having said that, I had a lot of fun with the movie by spotting all the celebrities you know from other things. The box art heavily implies that the four teenagers in the main wraparound plot are Livingston, Marsden, Smart, and Taylor -- but the fact that only Taylor is in that group didn't ultimately feel like a cheat, since Marsden and Smart get the movie off to a great start and Livingston has a hefty role in one of the stories. And the filmmakers did (mostly) succeed at bringing some atmosphere to these worn-out stories, which is more than I was expecting.

    Overall, a tepid recommendation for anthology fans.


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