Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80’s format warthe motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90’s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about.

Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like me, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a showcase for the lost charms of VHS box artwork. With this column it is my intention to highlight these “lost” films and the only rule I have for myself is that they cannot be available on DVD. 

Title: Summer Camp Nightmare
 Dear Mom, The camp director is dead. The counselors are locked up. And the kids are out of control. Having a wonderful time. Love, Marvin
Released by:
 Embassy Home Entertainment
 Bert L. Dragin

click to embiggen

Plot: A group of campers revolt against their puritanical camp director, locking both he and the rest of the counselors up for the summer. They then take over the camp for themselves, but things start to spiral out of control very quickly.

Thoughts: “Dear Mom and Dad, camp is great! We’re learning how to use knives and guns and the boys and girls are sleeping with each other. It’s the greatest summer camp ever!” – Summer Camp Nightmare

I’ve never been to summer camp. Physically. I’ve been there in my mind from all the summer camp movies I’ve seen over all these years, but as a kid I never went and I have mixed feelings about it. Who knows, I might have loved camping out in the woods by a crackling fire and toasting marshmallows while singing, “Koom-by-yah” with my fellow campers. Archery, arts & crafts and skinny-dipping could have been a lot of fun, but this was just not meant to be for me. And movies like Little Darlings, Meatballs, and GORP made camp life look like a great place to hook up with your fellow female campers for some unsupervised shenanigans in the great outdoors.

Then you also had the summer camp slashers like Friday the 13th, The Burning and Sleepaway Camp, which made it seem like a very dangerous experience that could possibly leave a few psychological scars and maybe even a couple real ones. I know that camp is supposed to teach us things, but I preferred learning about it at the movies. Besides, how would I have been able to see any of these films if I was stuck off at a camp somewhere?

The other thing about the summer camp dynamic that didn’t sit well with me was that you were basically trapped in the middle of the wilderness, far away from your family and friends, with a group of strange kids that you’re forced to interact with, while following orders from a group of adults entrusted with your well being. What if it sucked? What if the kids didn’t like you and the adults were even stricter than your own parents? What then?

Deceivingly marketed and titled like a slasher film of the era, Summer Camp Nightmare concerns a revolution led by a group of kids at Camp North Pines for boys. It is aimed against Mr. Warren (Chuck Connors), the ultra-conservative camp director who forces the kids to watch religious programming and listen to endless talks about his butterfly collection.

If that isn’t boring enough, he puts an end to all television watching when the boys are caught using the camp-nerd’s electronics skills to tap into the soft core channel on the camp’s cable box. Things get worse at the talent show, when the nearby Camp South Pines for girls stop by to perform a rather provocative original composition full of sexual innuendo called “Down South” and the boys counter with a number by their band The Horn Dogs called “My Beef Bologna”. This drives Mr. Warren into a puritanical rage forcing him to stop the show and cancel the upcoming dance. But the boys sneak out to meet up with the girls from South Pines and unfortunately one of the kids is caught. Mr. Warren sticks him in the “meditation center”, which is actually a locked cabin the boys call “the pen”.

This is when a rebellious teenager named Franklin Reilly (Charles Stratton), who wins everyone’s respect by crossing a dangerous rope bridge, initiates an uprising against the camp’s authority. After a meeting with the rest of the older boys in the woods, Franklin convinces them to take control of Camp North Pines. He steals a gun, accuses Mr. Warren of being a pedophile and jails him along with the other counselors in “the pen”. Then the boys take a trip over to the girl’s camp and “liberate” them by locking up their headmistress and counselors, too. Now that the kids are in control of both camps they can finally have their dance!

But without any authority figures around things quickly deteriorate into a psychotic version of Lord of the Flies. Before long, Mr. Warren is murdered for trying to escape. Then there’s a rape, which is followed by a lynching of the accused by hangman’s noose, as well as a whole lot of other bad, unsupervised behavior. Oh yeah, they also roast a pig from the camp’s petting zoo while it’s still alive.

Some of the kids start to question Franklin’s plan and the Koresh-like hold he has on the rest of the camp, especially when he starts wearing army fatigues and demands to be called General. These “instigators” are accused of treason and Franklin forces them to walk the deadly rope bridge as punishment. This results in a battle between Franklin’s disciples and the more sensible kids, with the police finally arriving to save the day. What a summer!

Summer Camp Nightmare is like a cross between Meatballs and Taps, or for you younger kids, it’s like a cross between Wet Hot American Summer and The Beach. It was co-written by Penelope Spheeris, the talented writer/director of The Decline of Western Civilization Parts I & II, Suburbia, Dudes, Wayne’s World and many more. The kids are all very good, especially Charles Stratton as the Col. Kurtz-like Franklin, who slowly escalates his devious plan of camp takeover from the very beginning. Also, Tom Fridley (Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives) is perfectly cast as John Mason, the smug, mesh t-shirt wearing rapist who sings the insanely juvenile “Beef Bologna” song during the talent show. Chuck Connors is a lot of fun to watch as well, especially when he’s acting humiliated while he’s bound, gagged and forced to watch a young girl perform a sexy dance at his expense to the amusement of the camp.

This movie does a shift about a third of the way in from your typical summer camp comedy to a very dark and twisted tale involving death and rape, with teens and pre-teens involved. In other words, nobody would ever be able to get a film like this made today. Which is too bad, because it’s really very good and there’s actually a pretty deep message here about how power corrupts all and that every society needs an authority figure to maintain order. It also reinforces my feeling that it was a good thing I never went to camp for the summer. Way too much drama for me, man.

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