Pay attention to the warning signs, and enter at your own risk. This is a true zero-budget, straight-to-VHS horror about sorority sisters getting preyed upon in the woods, made by a one-credit-wonder writer/director. Clichés and hideous caricatures run rampant through the repetitive and ridiculous story, and the production quality is just appalling. Needless to say, Camp Fear is pure garbage, yet I would’ve been bitterly disappointed by anything else. After a sleazy intro, the droning lack of substance and quality is broken only by occasional moments so silly you may hurt yourself laughing. I’m talking surprise sea monsters, deformed, troglodytic druids, and a redemption story so powerful you won’t believe it (because it’s unbelievable). The trash level consistently mounts as the stupid-yet-predictable events spiral out of control towards a totally crazy ending.
What a debut for writer and director Thom E Keith. One so insurmountably trashy he just couldn’t top it, bowing out of the industry altogether afterwards. That, or he started using an alias. Whether you see it as failure or success, it seems safe to say he’s the only reason this gem exists. To that end he’s pinched bits from a host of cheap horrors, most obviously Cheerleader Camp – to which there’s a suggestion this was something of a successor to, featuring some of the same actors and all. The usual tropes are all here, from the group of college girls planning a remote getaway, to the redneck gas attendant, giving advice while filling the tank with a cigarette in his mouth. They help propel a dull and dim-witted, yet bizarrely creative narrative to places you’ll totally see coming, but injected with moments of insanity that will shock you along the way. Boy is the dialogue shocking too.
After an abysmal title sequence – a blurry still of a pink moon with heavy breathing overdubbed – the opening scene is an incongruous, Playboy-style sequence of our sorority girls getting out of bed and into the shower. Supposedly the illustrious Fred Olen Ray lent his expertise here, re-shooting Keith’s original opening to make it more, uhh, appealing. That does make a lot of sense, as we meet characters who have no further part in the movie here, and some just seem like script double-ups. Seriously though, how does a sorority house with that many babes exist, let alone co-exist with only one shower? I’ve dwelled on that too long now, but it’s probably the most interesting thing to happen until 20 minutes in when we meet the service station owner I mentioned. Between are a bunch of pointless scenes of poor character development, including a garbage song-and-dance routine, and lengthy exposition to get us up into the mountains. Props, though, to Keith and future Baywatch actor Vincent Van Patten for providing a little of that information and foreshadowing as a somewhat compelling lecture on religion throughout the ages. Van Patten is the hunky professor Mike, organiser of the mountain trip in question, travelling to an ancient Native American camping ground in search of anthropological artefacts.
Once up in the hills, things start to go properly wrong. Bikers appear and the girls are visibly excited, yet they surprisingly turn out to be loathsome caricatures, and the source of much danger to come. We also meet an alcoholic prospector, who warns everyone to stay away from the demons in the mountains, then comes along for the ride anyway. That’s Buck Flower by the way, a guy who’s played a hobo in everything from Back to the Future to They Live. At least he gets the fantastic line “I gotta have a beer, I don’t wanna die with an empty bladder.” The first real instance of the supernatural coming out to play is an ominous shot of a Native American chief, presumably a ghost, looking down at the group. It’s really just good for a laugh though. The group are further warned off by a medicine man performing a ritual, and once again ignore the wisdom. Things really hit the fan when the group gets split up through a series of silly circumstances, and a bizarre array of threats appear – including those horny bikers, the giant druid, and a massive snake head in a lake (also a total crack-up). I don’t want to spoil too much, but the druid has super strength and is into ritual sacrifice. Also, the pissweak redemption tale I mentioned happens to the leader of those despicable bikers, James Kratt in his debut role of not many to follow. But I won’t ruin how.
One of the few things in Camp Fear that has almost come out well is the acting. By no means is it good, but the standard far exceeds the rest of the production. It’s mostly thanks to Van Patten, who’d been working in television for decades and also starred in Rock and Roll Highschool before a real lean patch in the 80s. He seems to nail the young, passionate teacher role, but also gets into the action a little. I can’t say much for his hilariously bad sex scene with Betsy Russell though, he makes an unintelligible Paul Bunyan joke and they roll around in their jeans for a bit. Russell herself is okay, but hardly gets any screen time, despite a decent list of teen movie credits, including Private School.
More responsibility falls to the less accomplished and less capable Peggy McIntaggart, a Playmate who was actually in Beverley Hills Cop II, as a stripper no less. I think my favourite girl was gym junkie Mellissa, played by first-and-last-timer Mindy Myer. Even then, probably only because she was the least stereotypical character, which isn’t saying much. The highlight of the movie is definitely former basketball player Tiny Ron Taylor as the ancient druid. He doesn’t really do much but chase the girls around, yet he’s utterly hilarious to watch with that ridiculous costume and hideous makeup. Particularly when he communicates with the sea monster. You might know him from Road House or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but you certainly won’t recognise him.
I’m going to touch on the stylistic elements of Camp Fear just because, without their utter tackiness and unintentional comedic value, this movie would be, ironically, totally unwatchable. The lack of budget permeates every shot, from the tight and confusing sequences of our protagonists running through the bush – which looks like it was probably just a tiny patch re-used again and again – to the copious amounts of night scenes shot under blue lights. Hey, it’s miles better than day-for-night. There were apparently two cinematographers on board, and two filming units, but it looks more like barely one professional. Everything is shot so tightly, presumably thanks to the sets and locations, that it all seems claustrophobic, and the framing is frequently off. The cluttered and silly script comes out even worse thanks to some painful editing by Terry J Chiappe – who went on to work on a couple of Shannon Tweed flicks. Though that could be a chicken and the egg thing. Seriously though, it often seems like lines have gone missing between cuts, and scenes jump around with incomprehensible causality. Then there is the criminally small amount of action, which is so stiffly shot and cut together, and just horribly choreographed and executed. The jump scares take the cake though, more like jump laughs, and provide some of the best moments of the movie.
Camp Fear is one of those movies that only holds value unintentionally, and yet hold it it does. The terrible production and ridiculous script provide the entirety of the entertainment, and purely in a negative capacity. Still, there are some seriously good laughs to be had here, and the outrageous caricatures, and dialogue they proffer, are a scream in every sense of the word. It’s seemingly a mix of deliberate and accidental. “I’m part Indian, I hate shoes.” Casual 90s racism and offensive stereotypes aside, there is a lot of stuff that drags here, and it only barely makes it into the ‘fun to watch’ category. Even then, you definitely need an appreciation of cheap horror to make it out alive. There is the occasional reward for those that do, namely that stupid, sea monster muppet, and the gumby druid – especially when he pimps himself up for the ritual killings. Oh yeah, the ending is as nonsensical and awesome as you may or may not expect.