And the hairy monster in the woods found footage train continues – The Lost Coast Tapes, The Woodsman, Bigfoot County, Exists, Willow Creek – with the latest film to hop aboard coming, inexplicably, from producer Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films. All the ingredients are here, from the small town wary of outsiders to the RV filled with outsiders who come rolling into town with digital cameras filming their every move, from the deadly mystery to the cheesy denouement, from the endless bickering to fill screentime to the questionable camera footage. Welcome to Happy Camp.
The opening onscreen text tells us that Happy Camp, CA has reported over 627 missing people in the past 25 years, the highest number in the continental United States, and clearly that’s more impressive than simply saying there have been 628. One of the missing is a young boy named Dean Tanner who disappeared in 1989 while playing with his adopted brother Michael. Twenty years later (the film is set in 2009 for whatever reason) a now grown Mike (Michael Barbuto) has planned a trip with three friends to document his attempt to face and hopefully remember the details of the past. We all know what comes next.
Happy Camp takes just about all of the elements that give found footage horror a bad rap and then puts them onscreen for our viewing pleasure.
Mike’s joined on this hopefully therapeutic journey by his girlfriend Anne (Anne Taylor) and their friends, Josh (Josh Anthony) and Teddy (Teddy Gilmore). They set out in an old RV, pass the town’s Bigfoot stature, and quickly make it clear that there’s no cell phone coverage around town. “We are in the middle of fucking nowhere,” one of them says, ensuring we know that they’re far from anyone or anything resembling help. What they do have are a group of locals evenly split between those who want these “flatlanders” to take a hike and those happy to talk to the camera and share their recollections of missing locals, mysterious abductions, and guttural screams echoing through the woods.
The enormous number of disappearances is the big mystery here, but it’s personalized by Mike’s empty recollections as to what happened to Teddy. He couldn’t remember as a child, and several of the locals actually blamed him, and he still has nightmares about it as an adult. He’s traumatized, understandably, especially as they return to the scene of the incident, and it’s here where the drama and characters become extremely tiresome. Mike starts taking some alone time, and Anne and his friends give him mountains of shit for it. Sure he could be a bit more communicative, but the man watched his brother get scooped up by a monster when he was a kid, so maybe cut him some slack?
The specifics are different, but that kind of incessant, illogical bickering is a calling card of found footage films. The first hour of these movies is pure setup and filler as the filmmakers know they have to save the actual revelations and action for the final fifteen minutes or so. Since there’s rarely story to be explored we’re left with “characters” interacting and creating false drama. On the bright side at least the four main cast members aren’t bad actors (a common found footage malady), and the dialogue works until the arguments start.
Other style issues remain as well including a music score, complete with audio-enhanced jump scares, that feels out of place in a supposed collection of found footage. And speaking of the footage, not only are there scenes that have us wondering why they’ve been filmed, but we’re also victimized by nonsensical edits. The RV has cameras built-in, inside and out, but we’re repeatedly shown the after effect of events that should, you know, have been captured on that same camera. And then there’s the end sequence that tries to play like these events are real (before rolling the real credits) by dedicating the film to the 628 disappeared people. A list of names, the disappeared, scrolls past, but not only do far too many of them look made up, but several of them are repeated too. That or two different women named Queen Roberto went missing.
Happy Camp promises a fairly fresh setup with a story that mixes the town’s legend with a personal loss, but it’s all squandered pretty quickly. Even if you manage to stick with it through the bitching and moaning of all involved the final scenes will have you angry that you’ve wasted 75 minutes of your time. It’s not fun bad, it’s not fun, it’s just bad.
The Upside: Setup teases an interesting and fresh storyline; some better than expected acting
The Downside: Third act is terrible, both poorly conceived and poorly executed; no, seriously, the ending is ridiculously bad
On the Side: Bobcat Goldthwait’s upcoming (and far superior) Willow Creek is also a found footage horror film involving a real town and its legend turned tourist attraction. The two California towns are roughly 100 miles apart.
Happy Camp is available on VOD starting today.