Welcome back! We switched the format up a bit towards the bottom, but the first three entries appear as they normally would. Without further ado:
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
By 1983, the public’s obsession with slasher films that dominated the late-70s and early part of the 80s had started to considerably wane. Halloween (1978), may have been the beginning of the trend, but it was the success of 1980s Friday the 13th that spawned a thousand imitators. Sleepaway Camp, coming near the end of this subgenre’s 15 minutes of fame, took everything about the 1980 film everyone had been emulating and turned it completely on its head. It’s one of the kookiest, most nonsensical films ever made. Remembered for its twist ending (the final shot is a legitimate WTF moment), Sleepaway Camp has gone on to amass quite the cult following in the 32 years since its release.
Maybe the second word of the film’s title is a cleverly hidden clue, but it’s impossible to gauge whether the pure camp of the movie is intentional or a product of low-budget, just plain bad, filmmaking. It’s almost as if writer/director Robert Hiltzik set out to make the weirdest, most fucked up version of Friday the 13th he could. All the standard elements are here – kids away at summer camp, an unknown killer wreaking havoc, sexuality as a theme – but the combination of those elements is presented is the most inane manner possible. The exploration of sexuality present in many slasher films is the oddest, most disturbing part. Its less teenagers discovering sex and more pedophilia, homosexuality, and transvestites.
It’s tough to make heads or tails of anything in Sleepaway Camp. Is it trying to say something about sexual awakenings, or is it just trying to be weird for the sake of being weird? The characters are caricatures by design, and the whole thing (down to the bad acting and ridiculous character actions) feels a lot like a slasher film with air quotes around it. The only thing separating it from the glut of slasher films produced in the same time period is its weirdness, but the result is an experience akin to watching a car crash – you know you shouldn’t be watching, but you can’t quite make yourself turn away. I suppose that counts for something?
In contrast to Sleepaway Camp, there’s Re-Animator, a gloriously campy take on the H.P. Lovecraft novella Herbert West-Reanimator. How devoted to silliness is the film? Take the Talking Heads poster in the bedroom of one of the main characters, Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott). The poster, seemingly innocuous and probably only noticed by the most attentive of viewers, is given a literal manifestation in the latter stages of the movie. It’s subtle foreshadowing in service of the lovely absurdness that is to follow.
This lovely absurdness takes place at Miskatonic University in New England (a favorite Lovecraft location), where Cain is working on his doctorate degree. When Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a former medical student in Switzerland, arrives in town with strong, harsh feelings towards the Miskatonic staff and a serum that brings animals and humans back from the dead, Dan’s life is upended. Combs’ performance is the key to the film, as he plays West with a psychotic edge that never veers into parody. He’s essentially a mad scientist ( minus Doc Brown-like hair and AARP card) and Combs makes him feel at home in this story. West is someone who’s funny without knowing he’s funny, and that’s an enormous credit to Combs’ presence.
As you can imagine, things don’t go according to plan, and much of the fun of Re-Animator is watching Dan dig a hole for himself that’s continuously getting deeper while simultaneously taking a perverse interest in West’s plan. Director Stuart Gordon doesn’t shy away from the gory ramifications of bringing cadavers back to life, resulting in an extremely gory movie with more than a handful of gross out moments. Re-Animator might just be a cautionary Frankenstein ripoff, but it’s undeniably effective and enjoyable as such. It’s camp done right.
More dramatic thriller than full on horror, Backcountry is an excellent man vs. nature tale that uses both the visceral and the intellectual to condemn false masculinity. Loosely based on a true story, the film follows a couple, Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym), as they embark on what is planned as a weekend-long hike through the mountains. Instead, they’re greeted by a bear with bad intentions.
Alex is showing Jenn this section of Canadian forestry because he grew up hiking the trails. His plan is to take her to a picturesque lake he remembers from his childhood and propose. He’s so confident in his ability to navigate the area he refuses a trail map from the park ranger upon check-in. He then proceeds to drop a canoe on his toe as the couple makes their way to the first night’s campsite. You can’t help but sense that Alex’s opinion of his abilities doesn’t quite match the reality of them. Meanwhile, Jenn comes prepared with a cellphone (that Alex intentionally leaves behind), flare, and bear spray.
The two meet Brad (Eric Balfour), an accomplished outdoorsman, after he stumbles upon their campsite and invite him to dinner. Brad is outwardly contemptuous of Alex, openly fond of Jenn, and creepy towards both. As tensions rise, the film starts to feel like the couple has hiked their way into a murderous horror scenario, but Brad eventually departs after unsuccessfully trying to pick a fight with Alex. He’s an overt challenge to Alex’s manhood, and the film’s stroke of genius is how his presence hangs over the remainder of the movie. Between their meeting with Brad and their meeting with the bear, Alex and Jenn encounter a handful of obstacles and eventually get lost when the trail Alex has been following ends on a cliff instead of the intended scenic lake. All the while things are going bump in the night and the two are unsure if Brad has come back to finish them off, or if something else is out there in the wilderness. The idea is to put Alex’s false confidence on trial by linking Brad’s threat to his manhood and the bear’s symbolic superiority. By the time he ultimately fails he’s become a tragic figure, his good intentions outweighed by his inability to admit when he’s royally fucked up. And getting lost in the middle of nowhere certainly qualifies as a royal fuckup.
The inevitable bear attack is gruesome and deeply affecting. It’s one of the more disturbing scenes in recent memory because it’s both graphic and thematically resonant. The film does an exceptional job portraying those mostly hidden issues all couples have that only bubble to the surface when things go horribly wrong. Alex is a good guy trying to do right, and the price he pays for his misguided bravado feels both too harsh and perfectly fair given how indifferent nature is to such things. The remainder of the film plays out like virtually every survival movie does (hint: Jenn’s previous preparation pays off in her favor), but seeing those scenes between the couple and the bear coalesce into something bordering on the philosophical, both in terms of what they say about relationships and how they portray nature as indifferent to human desires, is worth more than what you get from most films in their entirety. Backcountry’s understated poetry is a thing of profound beauty.
And now for something completely different (but possibly kind of familiar):
Justin and I enjoy each other’s company and like to spend at least some of our time together watching movies. So, we figured why not incorporate that into this column? Now, considering we live roughly 3000 miles apart, together is forced to turn into “together” (read: we literally hit play at the same exact second) but the basic concept still applies.
Justin is a fan of Kevin Smith. I am not. So, we chose his 2014 horror film Tusk for this endeavor in the hopes of it spurring on an interesting back and forth between two people who disagreed on a movie. Well, I’ll go ahead and kill the suspense and tell you that’s not what’s about to happen. We both passionately hated this movie, and the following email exchange will clue you in as to why (we initially devised a plan to copy and paste our “live” chat of the film, but that consisted of a lengthy string of phrases such as “I hate this,” “please end this movie now,” and “oh my God, this is somehow getting less funny”):
For those unaware of the history of Tusk‘s path to the big screen, the impetus came from an episode of Smith’s podcast where he and his friend/producer Scott Mosier discussed an ad where a homeowner promised free room and board to a fellow human being if said human being agreed to dress up in a walrus costume. The final product is exactly the kind of movie you’d expect to come about from this kind conversation, minus the few million dollar budget that causes it to look and feel like a real movie. And that’s because it is. Any low budget, campy charm the film could have earned is gone because Smith cast quality actors in addition to clearly investing in production value.
I don’t know about you, Justin, but for me the whole hour and 45 minutes felt like one big in-joke that I didn’t find funny AT ALL. That’s it’s biggest crime – Smith wants the movie to be more black comedy than frightening and it just isn’t successful in generating laughs. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s one of the least funny, “funny” movies I’ve ever seen. The story is incredibly simple (and also uninteresting), so the entire movie hinges on being funny. I thought it completely failed in that regard. What about you?
I would rather be known as a former fanboy of Kevin Smith than a current one. I do very much enjoy the Clerks movies (yes, both), Dogma, and even to a lesser extent Mallrats and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back although it has been many years since I’ve watched them so I won’t claim a deep affection for them as an almost-thirty-year old. Early twenties Justin thought those things were the shit, though.
I actually very much preferred Kevin Smith the entertainer instead of the director. I listened to close to 100 of his Smodcast episodes (totally guessing on that number but it’s a lot), read several of his books, and have watched his “Evening with” DVDs multiple times. The allure I always felt he had was being a genuinely funny person and a tremendous storyteller. His tale of writing a Superman movie and the dealings with a goofy producer is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard and he tells it masterfully.
That being said, he’s grown to be just… too much. His “will he/won’t he” game with retirement has grown super old, his self-proclaimed “media whore”ness has reached an all-time high and his insane affection for weed has turned him into someone who now is his own favorite comedian (which may have always been true anyway). Your idea of this movie being an in-joke is then spot-on, because he is absolutely content making Tusk just for himself and he finds the whole thing hilariously dark (or darkly hilarious, although neither actually applies).
So now to actually answer your question… (*goes back to email to see what that actually was*) No, it’s not funny. And no, it’s not scary. It’s an absolute waste of time… except for two moments in particular. The first shot of Justin Long as a walrus caused me to laugh harder than I’ve laughed in a long time (evidenced by my HAHAHAHAHA that I put in the text to you as soon as it happened). It is the most absurd sight I’ve ever laid eyes on and if that’s what Smith was going for then he nailed it. The second moment is when you see a shirtless Michael Parks floating around the pool with his new best friend and you just hope to god you’re not about to witness Smith’s second foray into putting bestiality on screen and thankfully, what occurred between man and walrus is left to our own imaginations… kinda.
I’ve actually had a change of heart and decided that I’m glad that I watched Tusk. The reason is actually very simple, too: I can now say with complete confidence that I have a least favorite movie of all-time. It’s not really close, either. I have hated some movies in the past… but this one is abhorrent in every single way.
Which leads me to my question for you (since there’s only so many ways I can express disgust): what would YOU have done with this material? I contend that there is the potential for a creepy movie here seeing that, you know, a guy transforms another guy into a FUCKING WALRUS. I’m just curious about where you would have taken this material way more than I am discussing the horrendousness of what I just spent 100 minutes watching.
Fantastic rant, ended with an equally fantastic question. Before I get into it, I have to say, I’m not terribly familiar with Smith outside of watching his movies, so your fandom makes a ton more sense to me now. And I do still like Dogma. That’s a smart, funny movie. I also think you touch on an interesting point about Smith (at least as a filmmaker): are his movies only appealing to a very specific demographic? Thinking back to his movies, it seems like they’re all aimed at men between the ages of 18-25, give or take a few years either way. Maybe we’ve just outgrown his style?
As for what I would have done with Tusk, I actually think there’s a really good movie buried in there. First, I agree with you that the general idea of turning another human being into a walrus is sufficiently creepy. And weird. Possibly too weird to play as straight horror a la The Human Centipede, but certainly an intriguing enough hook to lure an audience in. It just, you know, needs to actually be funny. Second, the movie begins to go down an interesting road with the early faceoff between Justin Long and Michael Parks where the former is exposed by the latter as a charlatan of storytelling. The idea that Parks, a man with an abundance of life experience who can spin a yarn based on that, is a “true” storyteller and Long, a douchebag with a bad podcast that interviews people so they can tell their stories, is a fraud, is an interesting one. But the idea is abandoned in favor of silliness and a Johnny Depp supporting performance I assumed was just a cameo but unfortunately isn’t. I would have focused more on that and given the movie a clear theme rather than just trying to be weird.
As is, we have a really, really bad movie. Not quite “worst ever” for me, but definitely a worthless one. Or a worthless nothing, because I give it zero hearts on the MILF rating scale. Give us some final thoughts and let us know if you’re prepared to give it the rare zero rating.
Ok, I want to hit on two things before I (unsurprisingly) ditto your zero hearts rating. The first is when you discuss Smith’s demographic… I talked to someone who actually liked the movie (it’s true – these people exist) and he said he viewed it from the stoner’s point of view (a la Smith) and found an appreciation for it therein. I’ll say this much: I have never once tried the substance, but if I was ever to truly consider it, the fact that it could possibly make me interested in/enjoy a movie like Tusk might be the worst advertisement for a recreational drug I’ve ever heard.
And lastly, let me mention again that there is a hint of an interesting concept here somewhere. About an hour in (when you first see Long as a walrus) the movie could have ended and been a disappointing short film, but something that made you cringe just enough to remember fondly. Instead, it DRAGS for 40 more minutes, incorporating pointless scene after idiotic scene featuring the worst Johnny Depp performance outside of Mortdecai (assumedly) and an ending that actually caused me to use the sentence “Just put the walrus out of his misery already” which I’m fairly certain has never been uttered in the history of sentences. It’s deplorable. It’s objectionable. It’s reprehensible. It is an absolute crime against the art of filmmaking. And I am in no way exaggerating. Do not see this movie under any conditions… I guess, unless you’re high. Then, enjoy all the bad French accents and “walrus head” this flick has to offer.