MARCH 22, 2016
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
In a way, it's almost kind of charming to watch a foreign horror movie that's kind of generic. We US horror fans (well, the more well-rounded ones) often look to foreign sources when American horror is in a slump, but the problem with that is that we're often selecting from the creme of the crop (via recommendations, since they're not exactly loaded with such fare in Redbox kiosks). Other countries make perfectly OK, forgettable horror movies too, though it's rare that they get theatrical releases like Summer Camp has. I'm not sure how wide the release is; it's on six screens here in LA but it's not listed on BoxOfficeMojo - using past, similar experiments as a guide I would guess somewhere in the 40-50 screen range in the US, a fine number for a foreign horror flick. The [Rec] films, to compare, played in fewer than ten theaters.
In fact that's a pretty obvious point of comparison, as Summer Camp is directed by those films' producer Alberto Marini, making his debut here. And Jaume Balagueró is the executive producer, so it's kind of a reunion (Paco Plaza is nowhere to be found, however), not to mention that the film belongs to the same sub-genre of "infected"/zombie movies (I'm sick of the idea that the difference is big enough to matter - it's like separating Jaws from Deep Blue Sea as if the details change the fact that they're both killer shark movies). Relax, though - it's not found footage! The similarities end with what I've listed, and there's also another big difference: the movie is actually in English, starring recognizable actors from American productions (the awesome Jocelin Donahue, Diego Boneta from Scream Queens, and Maiara Walsh, who is sadly best known to horror fans for playing the Emma Stone role in that terrible Zombieland pilot). The screening actually had Spanish subtitles throughout, which was a new one for me - and possibly the reason that the only other guy in the theater with me left after 10 minutes.
Had he stayed, he would have been rewarded with... an OK movie. There's a fun wrinkle to the usual "oh no he/she's turning!" zombie movie plot that I'll get into soon, but otherwise it gets pretty repetitive and even drawn out despite only being 80 minutes long with credits. And the title never really comes into play; the movie is about a group of counselors getting things ready for the arrival of the kids they'll be overseeing at the titular camp (yes, very early Friday the 13th), but it's actually being held at a house, so it never really feels like a camp at all - especially since the kids (spoiler!) only arrive in the final five minutes, at which point the far more awesome plot described on the IMDb finally kicks in (they say it's about the counselors defending themselves from the infected children). Those final few minutes are great, but it's one of those things where you can't help wonder why they didn't make it the thing that happened at the halfway point, as it promises more fun than the movie actually delivered. It'd be like if you knew From Dusk Till Dawn had vampires but the RV/Fuller family stuff lasted 90 minutes and then the movie ended after that first big attack.
Instead, we get an endless series of scenes where two of the heroes run or hide from the third one, as this is a unique virus in that it wears off after a while. Unlike a traditional zombie, killing the infected person isn't a good idea, because they will be back to normal soon, which adds a fun twist to the mix but ultimately doesn't really have much zing to it due to the limited cast (a fourth counselor is killed off almost instantly, which minimizes the possibilities). Marini gets some mileage out of Walsh not once but twice knocking out Donahue (whose infection had already worn off, something Walsh's character hadn't realized), but that doesn't sustain a 45 minute stretch where the only real difference is which actor is the one wearing the zombie makeup. There are some random locals that pop up from time to time, but none of them count as real characters and their appearances are usually limited to showing up for a scare and then getting killed moments later. This leads to the other novel idea, that our heroes legitimately feel guilty about defending themselves but also of the things they did while infected (which they can't remember, but obviously know they did SOMETHING once they see another infected in action). It's never as compelling as the filmmakers probably hoped, but it's at least something you don't see very often, and for that I laud them.
Less laudable is Marini's direction, as he utilizes shakey-cam almost nonstop, to the extent that I suspect it might even give Adam Wingard a headache. He also favors cramped, close-up action, so many of the big attack scenes are little more than a jumbled mess of flailing arms and shouted incidental dialogue like "Go!" and "Shit!" Like the plotting itself, it got mighty tiresome after a while, and I'd come to relish the quieter scenes because even if they weren't particularly exciting they'd at least be easy enough to process. And speaking of repeating tricks, it's kind of endearingly goofy the first time two of our infected heroes scream in each others' faces (it reminded me of football players smashing helmets together and yelling "HOOHH!" or whatever) but by the 3rd or 4th time it was just plain stupid to see. Worse, the narrative requires everyone to get infected a second time, which as you can guess certainly doesn't help the film's cyclical feeling. What I wouldn't give for two more characters to mix up the dynamic (it's pretty much always Boneta and one of the girls vs. the other girl) and give the attack scenes more variety.
And the repetition isn't limited to the infected attacks - Boneta loses his glasses twice, Walsh stops everything to make a phone call to her mother twice, Donahue does something self-serving twice... you get the idea. Again, this is an 80 minute movie - when you're repeating stuff in such a compressed timeframe, it's much more noticeable (you can get away with that sort of thing in Titanic, for example), though Marini DOES nail one element that seems like it's going down that same route, involving a sharp branch that's sticking out in the woods that people are constantly running around in, starting in the very first scene. He goes back to it a couple times, and it's not a matter of IF someone will eventually get impaled on it, but WHEN (and WHO, for that record). That opening scene, I should note, has a great payoff of its own but also has a fun little twist for people who have watched a lot of modern horror movies that start at the end and then rewind to how things got to that point (including Cub, another camp in the woods movie) - it seems like this is going that route, only to have a much better explanation for what's happening.
To be fair, twisting those expectations and cliches is something that carries throughout the film, with the infected people becoming human again, the characters who you think are heroic turning into spineless jerks, etc... but the obnoxious direction and endless repetition clouds those ambitious spins. At times it feels little more than a Cabin Fever remake (something we actually just got for real - I haven't seen it yet), and I couldn't help but wonder if I saw it at a festival with a big crowd (and perhaps a few adult beverages) that it might play better. Sitting alone in a theater didn't seem fitting for this particular style of movie (ironic since some of this team's other movies, like Sleep Tight, would be almost perfect for such a setting), and after glancing at a couple of (mostly positive) reviews I wasn't surprised to see how many of them were based on festival screenings. If you've picked up my book (hero!) you'd know I devoted an entire chapter to movies that I think would be better to watch at home, perhaps even alone - this is certainly not one I ever would have selected for that chapter. If I were to include it at all, it'd be in the August chapter - movies that are best watched when you're not really wanting to be blown away by a horror masterpiece. Again, it's an OK movie and I'm happy that it got a theatrical release, but unless those screenings are packed, I suspect you'll find its flaws too easy to notice.
What say you?