Summer Camp Nightmare

Director: Bert L. Dragin   
Chuck Connors, Charlie Stratton, Harold Pruett

As a youngster, I didn't have that much luck when it came to being in extra-curricular activities. Whether I joined something of my own free will, or I was forced into a particular activity by my parents, it seemed that practically every time I had a lousy experience. I thought that playing the piano would be something fun to do, but several months after starting piano lessons I came to the conclusion that it wasn't fun, at least for me. My parents didn't share my conclusion, and forced me to continue my lessons for what seemed to be an eternity. (The same thing later happened when I took violin lessons - though I was forced to learn that particular instrument.) Then there is my experience with camp. In my past review of Stuckey's Last Stand, I illustrated just how horrendous I found being forced to attend day camp every day of the summer for several years in a row. But that was not the only bad camp experience I had growing up. Several times I had the misfortune of attending real camp - the kind of camp that has many of the same activities of day camp, but where you sleep over for several nights in a row. I could make an endless list about all the things I disliked about camp. Obviously, the fact there was no TV or movies was a problem. Also, my bunkmates were annoyingly chatty and noisy, so when it came to bedtime I found it extremely difficult to get to sleep. The low point of my camp experience was during one lunch hour we were served soup. As I was eating my soup I found a fly floating on the surface. When I complained out loud about what I had found, my fellow campers thought that my misfortune was amusing.

Yeah, I too wondered why the other campers were laughing when they were eating soup that came from the same source that my soup came from. Anyway, come to think of it, my experience at camp could have been worse - I was fortunate enough to not be placed in the cabin where someone urinated in the cabin's woodstove, causing a foul stench that plagued the cabin right up to the day it was time to go home. Still, I had without question a lousy time every time at camp - I had to visit the nurse's station several times for various accidents I got into. When I was resting in the nurse's station and licking my wounds, and also during many times when I was not in camp, I would imagine what it would be like if I had my own camp and ran it my way. I remember drafting up a crude blueprint of such a camp in fifth grade, a camp that had such things as private rooms, video arcades, and computers - now that's a classic camp, if you ask me. (Though some may think the idea is a camp classic.) Also when I was growing up, I came across a children's book that at the time I thought was one of the funniest things I'd ever read, Gordon Korman's I Want To Go Home. It concerned a teen who hated camp as much as I did, and all the tortures he put the camp counsellors through with his repeated attempts to escape and go home. Anyway, at one point through certain circumstances, he manages to become camp director for a day, and he proceeds to run things his way, putting the counsellors through various new tortures as he gets them to participate in special sport activities that he has concocted for this occasion.

That book gave me a lot of rosy memories. You can imagine I was happy when one day recently in a book store I found the book had been reprinted (at least in Canada.) But picking up the book and flipping through it to reread my favorite parts, it sparked other memories concerning a teenager who got his own way when he was attending camp. I was thinking of the movie Summer Summer Camp NightmareCamp Nightmare, a movie I first saw as a teenager. I might not have seen it if it hadn't been for my mother, who would often go to the video store and rent for me promisingly-looking B movies for me while I was stuck in school. (Thanks, Mom!) Although I have long forgotten many of those other B movies my mother rented for me, Summer Camp Nightmare stuck in my mind for more than two decades after I watched it. Finally recently, I decided to track down a copy of the movie to see if my memories of it were justified. The plot: At Camp North Pines, a new summer of camp has started, this year with a new administrator, Mr. Warren (Connors, Skinheads). It doesn't take long for the boys and teenagers to resent Mr. Warren's leadership. First, he makes clear that cigarettes and alcohol are strictly forbidden. Next, he tells the boys and teens that the nearby girls' camp is off limits. Then when the campers screw with the TV cable box in the recreation room so they can watch sexy ladies instead of religious programming, Mr. Warren closes the recreation room. Later, during the talent show night when girls from the nearby girls' camp are invited, Mr. Warren gets so angry when two teens perform the punk band Fear song "Beef Bologna" (complete with suggestive hand gestures), he not only sends the girls immediately back to their camp, but cancels the upcoming dance. Well, the campers can't take it anymore, especially one camper named Franklin (Stratton). He gathers several of his fellow campers one night, and proposes a revolution, which they all agree to. The next day, Franklin and the others take Mr. Warren and the other adults prisoner, and they declare camp will now be run their way, with Franklin their leader. It seems camp will now be enjoyable for the youths... won't it?

If you read between the lines of my plot description in the previous paragraph, it's likely that you would have concluded that I have little sympathy for those young people in the movie who think they are suffering from Warren's rules and enforcement. And you would be right. In fact, I can remember feeling the same way about these youths when I first watched this movie as a teenager. But there's a bigger thing about the movie that not only could I not believe as a teenager, but as an adult. I simply could not believe that practically the entire band of youths would revolt against the adults in such an extreme way. Oh sure, I did some pretty stupid things in my youth that makes me wince when I recall any of these things... but I always knew there was a limit and there would be possible (and probable) consequences if I did something really big. And yes, I have read the novel Lord Of The Flies and I did indeed believe the youths in that novel turning savage... though I should point out the youths in that novel were completely cut off from society through location, and that there had been a nuclear war that suggested no one would ever rescue them. Compare that situation to the one in this movie, which I will now get back to. In the movie, there is only one youth (at least initially) who is against the idea of rebelling against the adults. Incredibly, it seems no other youth in the movie got the idea of potential problems with having a revolution. How would they eat, with no one to prepare meals? Wouldn't outside people contacting the camp and getting no answer soon get the idea that something was wrong? And how would the rebelling youths deal with the fact that eventually they would have to go home? How would they explain what went on to their parents and other authority figures?

My disbelief with the youths of the movie didn't just end with the fact that practically all of them were for the revolution - it continued until the closing credits started to roll. Over the next few days, things break down so quickly that ugly crimes such as rape and murder start to pop up. (Oh, and they also torture a live pig before eating it in what I guess is supposed to be a reference to Lord Of The Flies, but it comes across as plagiarism instead of being a tip of the hat.) I simply could not believe that all of these youths would turn into savages so quickly. Also add the fact that the one youth who was immediately against the idea of revolution decides to stay and hang around watching all of this savagery instead of doing something sensible like, you know, immediately escape from the camp and make his way to the nearest police station. And then there is the ending of the movie. You probably have guessed more or less what happens to the youths, so I won't bother writing what happens, except for the fact that one of the youths who was in Franklin's group and voted for revolution gets to go home with seemingly no threat of any kind of punishment being placed on him anytime in the near future. I could go on for a long time about the other unbelievable things I witnessed in this movie, but I'll only go on for a short time. There's the little boy who tearfully gives the impression to Franklin that Mr. Warren behaved in an inappropriate way to him, but later says (offscreen) that nothing happened. There's the fact that Mr. Warren keeps a gun in his office with all those kids around him. And that budget cuts have reduced the camp staff to a skeleton crew, but the camp is still open.

The script of Summer Camp Nightmare (co-written by Penelope Spheeris, who made the much better youth drama Suburbia) is obviously the main reason why it sinks, and sinks deep, but director Bert L. Dragin (also the movie's other co-writer) gets additional blame for his direction as well. Now, I know the producer of the movie was Roger Corman, and his traditional efforts to save a buck must have hampered Dragin somewhat (like how the population of the camp fluctuates heavily throughout the movie.) But there are other parts of the movie where Dragin has only himself to blame, like how early on mentioning a nearby bridge (a key plot element) is only to be used for emergencies, but when it's seen it's so run down, with really wide gaps on its floor, that it's obvious that no one could cross it, at least in the traditional way. It should come as no surprise that Dragin seemingly thought directing the actors was hopeless and left the actors to do it all on their own. Top-billed star Chuck Connors (who appears in less of the movie than you might think) gives a passionless performance, seemingly just thinking of his quick paycheck. Most of the youths are pretty forgettable, but there is one performance by them that is worthy of merit, and that is Charlie Stratton's performance as revolution ringleader Franklin. Reminding me often of a young Christian Slater, Stratton not only is trying, but is doing it effortlessly. He really gives the impression that his character, while intelligent, has a diseased mind with reason long gone. He is so casual with his menace that he's genuinely scary at times. It's too bad Stratton apparently quit acting, because he had the right stuff. Maybe he thought that if this project was the best he could get, why bother?

(Posted April 20, 2015)

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Check Amazon for source novel "The Butterfly Revolution"

See also: High School Hellcats, Hot Summer, Stuckey's Last Stand