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Camp Daze Alex Pucci 2005

Dazed and Amused

Quick history lesson: in the past 5 years there has been an absolute shitstorm of shot-on-video horror garbage. In the good old days, the fact that film processing costs were prohibitive and equipment hard to come by actually may have worked in our favor: these barriers to entry made sure that the line between overzealous fanboy and filmmaker was only crossed with a great deal of effort, concentration, or family money. These days, for better or for worse (I’d argue it’s overwhelmingly for worse), any shmuck with a few hundred bucks can produce, shoot, and edit his or her own “movie”, burn it onto a disc, and mail it out to innocent, unsuspecting horror sites like this one (batting eyelashes sweetly).

Usually, these videos are graceless, uninspired, derivative crap – I receive mountains of the damned things and can usually hardly bear to get through the first 10 minutes without falling on a sword (a cocktail sword – but it’s the thought that counts). What many people don’t apparently realize is that video filmmaking is still filmmaking – it’s a craft that requires a certain amount of research, intelligence, and discipline. No, you CAN’T put the camera anywhere you feel like. Yes, you DO need a script. No, your friend’s band does NOT sound just like Marilyn Manson, and no – your girlfriend should NOT be encouraged to act or wear a negligee on camera EVER AGAIN.

But every now and then a sincere low-budget effort comes along that cuts through the crap (and one day, hopefully, these won’t be the exception and will not require such a lengthy dissertation before I talk about how enjoyable they are). Such a film is the ambitious, ingenious, and completely unique Camp Daze, a movie that wears its heart, its memories, and eventually most of its guts on its sleeve. Cleverly combining the slasher and ghost story subgenres, Camp Daze asks, “What would happen if a group of disaffected teens from the present collided with a gang of fun-loving (and apparently doomed) campers from the early 80s?” The answer, thankfully, is my favorite recipe for pure enjoyment: short-shorts and mass carnage.

The thing I liked most about Camp Daze is that it resurrects the moral ambiguity of the best classic slashers. In this situation, the good kids are not necessarily the ones who live, either in the past or the present. In fact, it’s pretty hard to tell who will make it through to the end, or who might be behind the killing spree that kicked the whole cycle into gear. While a layman's appraisal of the slasher genre may kick up the over-used black-and-white morality framework of "good kids live, bad kids die", completists know full well that this is a simplistic and untrue assessment: while this may be an easy architecture for the multitude of bad horror films to cop, it's not really what's at the core at many of the glimmering gems of the genre. Some of our best final girls are anything but blushing virgins, often times the most disturbing kills involve the innocent, and there are quite a few instances when the person behind the knife is not the backwoods loony that we might expect.

Camp Daze realizes this, and runs with it. Rather than throwing us a handful of easily-tagged (and handicapped) stereotypes that line up like ducks in a shooting gallery, it gives us a whole mess of folks whose moral standings are anything but cut-and-dry. Our seeming heroine is on her way to get an abortion, a decision that, when interrupted by the ghostly goings-on of Camp Hiawatha, is subject to some serious contemplation. There's a well-meaning and completely harmless modern-day gay teen who does his best to help a closeted kid from the past find his way -- or is he just a predatory queer looking for some hot pre-AIDS ass (not to be blithe, but the colliding of the two time periods invites this kind of discussion)? The sass-talking black girl would have a target in the middle of her forehead in any modern flick, but will she be the first to go?

That's not to say that we aren't served up some disposable booty on the way -- as far as the kids from the 80's go, they meet their ends in pretty much the expected order: the druggies and the fornicators get it first -- or at least they appear to at the onset. The most interesting thing about Camp Daze is that once the kids reveal their secret (they're doomed to relive their night of carnage over and over), the kids from the present set upon helping them break the cycle, which kicks into gear a sort of Groundhog Day with a body count. This act of the movie (the last 30 minutes) is great fun -- watching the kids try to make things right and fail miserably as more and more secrets are revealed is very clever and well-executed. Things come to an appropriate but not at all expected conclusion, and the coda at the end is a nice touch as well.

That said (and after all my raving), there are shortcomings. There are scenes in the early half of the movie that are waaaay longer than they need to be, and the killings -- while occasionally boasting plenty of blood -- are generally done using the effects-free (*cough* cheap *cough*) method of wiping a bloodied fake knife across someone's neck or having them clutch an arrow to their chest. Just one or two prosthetic effects or a really nasty wound would have made a world of difference here. Some of the young actors are better than others (the leads are uniformly pretty good), and some of the early disposable kill scenes would have been better off unused (there's one too many "kids making out in the woods" scenes -- I think the point is made quickly, and the kills aren't interesting enough to merit more than one similar setup). There's also some uneven sound and composition in the early scenes -- I'll admit that I didn't have the highest hopes when the movie started, but I'm quite glad that I stuck things out until the plot kicked in. The overall production values were pretty good -- there are even several crane shots that signal that these folks mean business.

The film is also quite queer, in a number of ways. First, we've got an openly gay character from the present (Mario, played by lovable Matt Dallas), and his "pet project", a conflicted (and really cute) teen from the past (Ruben, played by Miles Davis. No, not that Miles Davis...). This alone is a major step for a slasher flick that doesn't otherwise present itself to be particularly gay. Then there's the shorts. Oh yes, the short-short-short-shorts. There are so many young, tanned, fit guys in butt-huggers in this film that you'll think you were watching a Greenwood Cooper exercise video. There's even a nice shirtless basketball scene and a swimming massacre that showcases some fine male flesh. The sex quotient is actually much lower than I was hoping (there's no nudity in the sex scenes -- it actually feels rather chaste, considering), and there are no shitcans on display, but oglers won't be disappointed.

Thanks to a fantastic concept, a final act that explodes in manic glee, and some well-rounded characters, Camp Daze is a surprise delight. Given a bigger budget to polish up the rough spots and perhaps a less forgiving editing hand, this would be one of my favorites of the year. As it is, it's a fun, love-letter to the genre that's definitely worth checking out.

Rating (out of 5):