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The Scouts Guide to the Unconventional Camp Film

Who likes “Kumbaya” anyways?!
camp film Stage Fright
Magnolia Pictures
By  · Published on July 11th, 2018

For many, summer camp is an integral part of childhood. For a month, you are whisked away far from the comforts of home and family, to have fun, make new friends, and discover any number of firsts. From your first kiss to a first crush, to your first taste of independence away from your parents!  

For me though, I never went to those summer camps. At least not the bucolic ones you see in films. And to me, that was lucky! Despite my parents being very into the isolation that the Texas countryside provided, they never forced me to attend a sleepaway camp. I was given the choice, but when you present a child who already lives far from city life an opportunity to spend more time in the woody outdoors? Let’s just say I opted out pretty fast.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t still interested in what was happening at these camps. How could you blame me for a life lived on films about sex-crazed teens, Color Wars, and hockey-masked killers? I may have been introverted and would have hated camp, but I was still intrigued!

And while there may not be a movie that fully encapsulates all of our collective summer experiences, oh non-campers, here is a slate of films that take an alternative approach to your atypical camp experience. For better or worse!

Camp (2003)

Around the time I fell in love with horror cinema, I also happened to fall in love with another genre: musical theatre. So if any film can begin to describe the closest thing to my personal summer camp experiences, it’d be Todd Graff’s Camp.

While my experience was no Camp Ovation, the fictional camp based on the famous Stagedoor Manor in New York, the lessons I learned were the same. Not only how to act, sing and dance but also how to build a community of friends and artists. Seemingly impossible tasks for someone who feels out of place in their own high school.

Less of a narrative and more a patchwork of moments, ideas, and memories Camp follows Vlad, Ellen, and Michael all coming to Camp Ovation for their own personal reasons. Ellen is shy and struggling with body positivity issues. Michael is young and openly gay, coming to Ovation after being assaulted for wearing a dress to prom. And Vlad, well, he is the first “honest-to-god straight” camper they’ve seen in ages. What do they have in common? A passion for the stage.

Filled with in-jokes and references meant solely for the theatre nerds in the audience (“Don’t you remember me? We were in ‘Night, Mother’ together!” says Fritzi (Anna Kendrick), a joke that doesn’t work unless you realize the play is a two-hander), Camp is forever caught in the, well, camp of the early 00’s. But what it excels at is capturing the exuberance, commitment, and most importantly the talent of young musical theatre actors. Actors who, at this point in their lives, are the living embodiment of hopes and dreams.

Camp Nowhere (1994)

What would you say to a summer camp that was free from the shackles of rules, arts and crafts, and counselors? To a gang of rebellious and inventive 12-year-olds, you call it paradise. To a 30-year-old watching 
Camp Nowhere for the first time since 1994, it’s just one accident away from turning into a fascinating Disney-fried take on Lord of the Flies.

Made of the stuff of Junior High legend, a rebellious camp run by kids flush with their parents’ registrations fees, Camp Nowhere delightfully eschews the common tropes seen in other summer camp comedies while leaning into its own reckless spirit. Rather than the iconic imagery of a kid jumping off a dock into a lake, we have future cult leader Andrew Keegan jumping off of a roof into a pile of discarded mattresses with the same exuberance. Keegan’s appearance in this film is magnified by the screen time he shares with another notable cult leader Allison Mack! Childhood: burned.

None of the kid-centric camp films work unless the cast is grounded, somewhere. An adult that gets it. And for someone who is both grandfatherly and whimsical, Christopher Lloyd bridges the gap between the adult and child actors.

Is Camp Nowhere just a vehicle for Christopher Lloyd to play a rogue’s gallery of kooky characters? More than likely! But it’s also a kids film that doesn’t talk down to its audience and broaches potentially sensitive topics like gender stereotypes in an accessible way for pre-teens.

SpaceCamp (1986)

SpaceCamp feels like a Disneyland or Universal Studios ride that was retooled at the last minute into being a narrative feature, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Astronaut Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw) is passed over for a NASA shuttle mission because #ThePatriarachy and finds herself stuck assisting her Commander husband (Tom Skerritt) running a summer space camp attended by a ragtag group of kids.

After a somewhat sentient robot befriends an extremely young Joaquin Phoenix, the space-campers along with Capshaw’s Bergstrom find themselves accidentally hurtling into orbit! Using their camp skills, the budding astronauts have to work together to navigate their way back to Earth before they run out of oxygen.

In a camp film devoid of machete-wielding maniacs, SpaceCamp is a unique spin on a children-in-peril story. But less than five months before the film was to be released the Challenger explosion occurred, forever altering how we view space flight. It’s understandable that audiences wouldn’t want to see another shuttle, this time filled with children, in danger of exploding on take off.

Despite that, the film is still held up by the charm of its young cast especially Tate Donovan and Lea Thompson. But as a family adventure film, we know the kids are going to make it home safe so it can’t build quite the same tension that other space set dramas do. For the budding Sally Ride’s of the world though, there is still a lot to appreciate in SpaceCamp.

Fired Up (2009)

Two caricatures of oversexed high school jocks decide to forego Football Camp, which promises two sexless weeks of sweltering heat and zero girls, for the allure of three hundred cheerleaders at Cheer Camp!

Let’s be clear: Fired Up isn’t a hidden gem from the creator of the superior Easy A. But it skates so close to being a bizarre send-up of camp movies and well-tread tropes of teen sex-coms that it deserves recognition.

Fired Up luckily though isn’t a Bring It On carbon-copy. The film does wear its Peyton’s Reed-spiration on its sleeve, even down to a scene featuring a Bring It On “quote-a-long”. Though unlike the latter, Fired Up isn’t as in on the joke as it wants you to believe. It feels more like the final stake in the heart of the threadbare trope of 30-year-olds playing teens in high school comedies.

But for the most part, the film plays this age-disparity straight, despite some instances where the creatives allude to being in on the joke. Take for example how the films heel, Dr. Rick, loves the 90s band Deep Blue Something. Or how our male leads declare their heterosexuality so much it can almost be taken as an audience dog whistle. Maybe, just maybe, the action on screen isn’t supposed to be taken as straight as we’re led to believe.

If you are looking for an attempt to capture the charm of late 90s teen comedies, Fired Up is a valiant effort. But ultimately it’s a film that should just be – more clever – be be – more clever!

But I’m A Cheerleader (1999)

It should be stated that there is nothing intrinsically funny about conversion therapy, the pseudoscience that believes one’s sexual identity can be altered from bi- or homosexuality to heterosexuality. It’s a black mark on our modern history that infuriatingly is still only prohibited in 13 states (plus D.C. and local municipalities).

Yet in Jamie Babbit’s But I’m A Cheerleader she’s takes all of the inherent terriblenesses about conversion therapy and, with a nod to John Waters, looks at it through the lens of vibrant, campy absurdism to become a hallmark film of early 00’s LGTBQ+ cinema.

The film follows Megan (Natasha Lyonne) a high school cheerleader who isn’t as interested in her quarterback boyfriend as she is in the other girls on her squad. Sent away to a reparative therapy camp by her parents (Mink Stole, Bud Cort), Megan soon discovers friendship and love, despite the strict methods of “ex-gay” Mike (RuPaul) and founder Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty).

The movies tongue is planted firmly in cheek as Babbit uses motifs of summer camp films and a vivid heteronormative color pallet to mock the absurdity of what these “camps” say they do. We can’t change who we are, no matter how many babies we’ve swaddled or footballs we’ve caught.

While you should never model your camp after the one in But I’m A Cheerleader, the film still retains the beating heart at the center of every camp-set classic. The sense of self-discovery we can only have as teenagers. Not just of who we are as individuals but how the world perceives us as a community.

Stage Fright (2014)

What we can forever thank 2014’s Stage Fright for doing is introducing countless unsuspecting modern audiences to a laser-sharp ’80s Giallo featuring one of the greatest images of a killer ever. But trade in your owl head for a kabuki mask and you really don’t have a story too different from this movie-musical featuring Meat Loaf.

Well, I take that back, it’s a lot different. Mainly, we’re back again at another musical theatre camp inspired by Stagedoor Manor in New York State! But rather than a bunny boiling Anna Kendrick stalking stuck up divas, this time we have a rock tenor with a severely sharp ax to grind. And he’s set his sight, Phantom-style, on an employee of the camp, Camilla, who aspires to be an actress. But Camilla’s dreams of acting are about to come true as the camp is staging the musical in which her mother lost her life years before, and just guess which role Camilla’s just won!

While too bloody for the pure musical theatre nerds and too kitschy for the horror hounds, the film feels tailor-made for the subsection of fans that find an equal home in both worlds. Stage Fright is a delightful synthesis of genres that feels made by, and for, horror/musical theatre fandom.

Heavy Weights (1995)

The idea of a “fat camp” for kids feels like a product of a bygone era when body positivity wasn’t so globally embraced. But rather than being a relic of the past, weight loss camps are surprisingly still found all across the country today. But we can only hope they are nothing like the camp featured in Heavy Weights.

Faced with bankruptcy, the owners of Camp Hope (Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller) decide to sell their camp to fitness guru Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller). Perkis changes the culture of the camp radically, much to the chagrin of the campers who decide to fight back!

Directed by the creator of The Mighty Ducks and future Adam Sandler stalwart Steven Brill, who co-wrote the script with Judd Apatow, much of the humor that these two would be known for later in their careers can be seen clearly in Heavy Weights. There’s a manic strangeness to the comedy that at times feel intended solely for the parents, while also working perfectly with the energy a young audience brings to it. Heavy Weights is a slice of 90s kid nostalgia that still stands the test of time.

Addams Family Values (1994)

While it doesn’t necessarily fit into the theme of alternatives, I’d be remiss not to include Camp Chippewa, the camp Wednesday and Pugsley Addams are forced to attend by their murderous nanny Debbie in Addams Family Values.

Chippewa, of course, means orphan as Wednesday so drolly reminds the family as they drop the kids off on their first day. And for those of us who never went camping we instantly recognize ourselves in these familial indoor kids, aggrieved by their cultish camp counselors played to perfection by Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski.

Is it a kids movie? Yes. Does it excel in being scripted so supremely for the adult audience that the kids will be delighted by the physical comedy alone? You’re damn right. The Addams Family and this sequel, above all else, are perfectly crafted family films.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)