Judge Patrick Bromley got a merit badge in "dread."
Pitch your tent. Dig your grave.
What do you get when you cross a summer camp slasher, reality TV and Scared Straight? Disappointment, that's what.
Facts of the Case
Filmmaker Julian Barrett (Eric Roberts, Depth Charge) has fallen on hard times. In the '80s, he was the director of the wildly popular "Summer Camp" series, but the well went dry and he's been scraping by ever since. He comes up with the idea to revisit his series as a reality show in which delinquents compete to solve a murder mystery in the style of his films. Unfortunately, someone takes the show a little too seriously and begins killing off the campers for real. Because of course that happens.
The horror genre is arguably in its best place in 30 years. Theatrical horror is a viable entity again, while independent labels and VOD have given birth to smaller movies and new voices. Streaming and Blu-ray have allowed older films to be rediscovered, while online journalism and podcasts foster constant discussion and education about horror. If you're as big a fan of the genre as I am, you're living through a golden age.
That makes it all the more confounding when something like Camp Dread comes along and fails to be interesting or unique or even particularly well-executed. The best that can be said about it is that it is competent. The worst is that it is cynical, attempting to cash in on several different "hot" trends but failing to comment on any one of them. It invokes reality television but fails to say anything about it save for the fact that it means there are cameras on (Joe Lynch's Wrong Turn 2: Dead End did the reality TV angle much better). It sets up a Scared Straight scenario that it totally ignores, setting up characters who are "troubled" but then using that as license to make them "awful." There is only one likable character in the entire film and the movie has no idea what to do with her.
Camp Dread also thinks it's saying something about the horror genre. It isn't. Eric Roberts, playing a formerly successful genre filmmaker, breaks the fourth wall by making direct reference to familiar tropes, as though that isn't something that Scream was doing almost 20 years ago (also, it has been almost 20 YEARS since Scream). I like the idea of a filmmaker attempting to return to the site of his successes and shifting from one medium to another, but none of that comes through, either. It's just the setup for the plot, forgotten after a few minutes of exposition. Every once in a while, writer/director Harrison Smith cuts to Eric Roberts staring at a bank of video monitors. That's about it.
The way the movie invokes current trends and loses interest is cynical, but so is the casting. It's mostly made up of unknowns, none of whom are able to distinguish themselves beyond what they look like (one has a fake leg, so I guess that helps). Eric Roberts collects a paycheck for a couple days' worth of work. Even worse is the prominent placement of scream queen Danielle Harris (Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers) to sell the film. She's featured on the DVD cover. Her name is prominently placed at the top. She's second billed in the credits. Her role is nothing more than a cameo; she appears at the beginning and the end for a combined screen time of less than five minutes. It's a cynical and misleading marketing ploy.
Also potentially cynical is the casting of Felissa Rose, who got her start playing Angela in the legendary Sleepaway Camp. Ford is certainly not the first filmmaker to try and get mileage for his film by casting past icons, but even that has become a hacky trope and just contributes to the cynicism. The casting of Rose, however, winds up being the best thing about the movie. She's playing the former star of Eric Roberts' "Summer Camp" movies who has now become a therapist and is on hand to counsel the tough reality show contestants. What? Why is she a former scream queen? To explain why she's on hand? Just make her a therapist. Or make her a scream queen and that's why she's around. Pick one. But that's all beside the point—Felissa Rose gives the best performance in the movie, creating a believable and sympathetic human being where one is not written on the page. I haven't seen her in much since Sleepaway Camp; I know she has regularly appeared in independent and DTV horror films, but I have missed them. I was delighted to see that she has grown up to really be a good actress. It's more than just stunt casting. I wish she was better served by the film, but I can't fault Rose for that.
The rest of the film is purely perfunctory. Terrible people are killed off in terrible ways. The summer camp setting, while picturesque, fails to matter in any real way. The movie never comments on the summer camp horror genre of the '80s. The identity of the killer is a mystery but doesn't matter even a little bit once it's revealed. A few of the kills are brutal and gory (the movie is being released "unrated"), but most are uninspired and/or filmed in such a way (usually very tightly) that it's impossible to see what's going on.
RLJ's DVD of Camp Dread gets the job done but nothing more, offering a decent 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that's a little on the bland side. The digital photography washes out the colors somewhat and the darker scenes sometimes succumb to crush issues, but it's fine overall. The 5.1 audio track offers clear dialogue and occasionally tries to augment a scare with some surround effects, which is the best that can be said about it. There are no extra features—not even a trailer.
The last five minutes of Camp Dread almost make it worth seeing when the weaponless Final Girl has to improvise and make her own weapon. Without spoiling anything, I'll say that it takes the movie to a new level of crazy and shows me something I've never seen in a movie before. It doesn't earn the craziness, however, and destroys any goodwill the scene earns seconds later with cheap, lazy twists. One inspired scene does not a good horror movie make.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: RLJ Entertainment
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