Tempe Video // 2002 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // June 3rd, 2005
Tune in, turn on, drop dead.
Here's a novel concept: take five teenage friends, send them on an overnight trip to an abandoned campground with a bloody history, get a few of them topless, and unleash a mysterious killer on their pot-smoking asses.
Back in the '60s, a hippie named Timmothy Bach (Stephen Pearcy, former lead singer of RATT) set up a commune, which he dubbed "Camp Utopia." We glimpse the goings-on of his free-love campus in a few flashbacks, as long-haired, tinted-sunglasses-wearing, reefer-puffing flower children blow bubbles, make out, dance, and plan for future careers at CBS News. Drunk with power, Bach goes nuts, and in one night of bloody rage he slaughters his followers.
Fast-forward to the present day and four friends are preparing for a night of presumed debauchery at the former site of Camp Utopia. Gretchen, Lance, Brittany, and Vesper are joined by newcomer DeeDee (Alexandra Westmore). The quintet jumps into Lance's cool VW van and takes to the mountains. Once they arrive, Lance tells the story of the Camp Utopia murders over a campfire, freaks everyone out, then retires to his sleeping bag so he can frolic with his girlfriend, Gretchen. So too do Vesper and Brittany, leaving DeeDee as the odd woman out.
But when the new day begins, everything changes. One by one the kids expire in mysterious circumstances, and when their van inexplicably dies, they are faced with nightmare of being trapped in the woods while a fiendish leftover from Bach's rampage so many years ago is determined to continue the bloodbath.
Here we have another stab at the low-budget campground-murder genre. Camp Utopia comes courtesy of Tempe, a studio specializing in distributing this kind of grassroots, zero-budget horror movie. I've endured a lot of this studio's offerings, and for the most part they're about as enjoyable as invasive oral surgery.
This flick is leaps and bounds better than most anything else I've seen from the studio. It's still not a particularly good movie, and it falls apart in the storytelling department, but a mix of surprisingly good acting, a coherent script, and the director's embrace of the traits inherent to a hard-R horror film elevate Camp Utopia above the abysmal.
Let's begin with the story. Derivative as all get-out, sure, but these slasher flicks lost their originality after the original Halloween and, specifically for the camp-centric breed, after Jason Voorhees jumped the shark twenty-odd years ago. The twist in this film is the whole hippie-cult angle. I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for those murderous cult movies (Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions remains a guilty pleasure of mine), and Camp Utopia runs with the premise of a murderous legacy that has survived after four decades. Unfortunately, it runs too long with it; once the killer is revealed, be prepared to trudge through about 20 minutes of climax and talky exposition.
Where the narrative lacks, though, the dialogue excels. It's not Shakespearean, but the lines are clever, and about a teraflop better than other Tempe flicks. This is all bolstered by some effective performances by the cast, an ensemble of attractive and capable young actors. Speaking of attractive, director Robert Damero doesn't shy away from the nudity, making sure all but one of the female actors in the film are at least topless. On the other end of the "R" spectrum, though there are a few decent gore effects, particularly in the first and final scenes, I found the violence surprisingly tame -- and sometimes lame -- for a movie of this ilk. Damero was interested more in setting up the characters and the storyline before unleashing the mayhem, and to his and the actors' benefit, this preamble to the nitty-gritty was far from painful.
What Camp Utopia is not is an exercise in technical wizardry. The full-frame transfer is uneven and plagued by serious lighting issues. Several scenes seem overexposed and look washed out. On the aural end, the 2.0 stereo mix is decent, but when decoded with Pro Logic II is distractingly messed up. Discrete effects vacillate between surrounds, and ambient sound sometimes wavers in and out.
Bonus materials, usually a strong staple of these Tempe releases, are limited to a brief behind-the-scenes featurette comprised mainly of the cast fawning over each other, a production still gallery, and some trailers.
Camp Utopia doesn't offer anything original, but the filmmakers have managed to put together a slasher flick that does no disservice to the genre. The necessary ingredients are present, and the actors don't embarrass themselves. A forced, prolonged ending and some pacing issues hamper the overall effect.
Not guilty, by a hair.
Review content copyright © 2005 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Tempe Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind the Scenes
* Still Gallery