Hell might freeze over before Judge William Lee goes camping again.
The ways of the Lord, the perils of the flesh and the horror of the Devil.
Lionsgate's marketing department has put some effort into selling Camp Hell as a horror movie starring Jesse Eisenberg. The movie's title has been changed from its original "Camp Hope." The red-band trailer highlights the paranormal action and hints at plenty of blood and violence. The DVD cover art sports a scary-looking close-up of Eisenberg and The Social Network actor's name appears above the film's title. If you're in the mood for horror or Eisenberg, the actual movie delivers little of either.
Facts of the Case
Every summer, families in a New Jersey community send their kids to Camp Hope where they learn to lead wholesome Christian lives. A typical day involves Father Phineas (Bruce Davison, X2: X-Men United) warning the teens against masturbation and telling the young girls they're acting like whores for talking to boys. His stooge counselor Christian (Christopher Denham, Shutter Island) makes sure the campers are not corrupted by "youth culture" products like comic books and rock music.
Tommy Leary (Will Denton, Robots) is one of the boys at the camp whose parents are members of a covenant community. An opening graphic explains that these are religious groups whose members bind themselves to one another in a solemn agreement. It also warns that covenant communities are everywhere, perhaps even where you are. Tommy has a crush on a girl camper but their feelings for each other run contrary to the rules of the community. Tommy has also been having nightmares and hearing voices. He thinks he is having visions of a demon. As more and more campers are physically affected in mysterious ways, Father Phineas believes Tommy's sins have opened their doors to the Devil. Supposedly, this story is inspired by true events.
If Camp Hell was intended as a horror movie, the filmmakers have failed in their effort to scare their audience. By over-emphasizing the few horror-like moments, their marketing strategy amounts to a bait-and-switch. Nothing that even approximates scary happens until the one-hour mark. The moment that would signal the start of more spine-tingling events is a good and creepy one but that level of excitement is short-lived. In the end, the weird happenings aren't entirely resolved to a satisfying degree.
The other movie that's in Camp Hell concerns covenant communities and whether they are positive or abusive environments. This material is more interesting than the limp horror movie but writer-director George VanBuskirk doesn't find a consistent tone for it. I was unsure about the movie's attitude on these communities for most of the running time and I don't think it intentionally meant to be ambiguous.
The acting is all over the map. Andrew McCarthy's (The Good Guy) one-note portrayal of Tommy's dad as an unsympathetic covenant hardliner lacks subtlety completely. "Act like a man or don't come home," he tells his son after Phineas reveals one of his confessions. In contrast, Dana Delany (Baby For Sale) is almost unnoticeable in her scenes as Tommy's mother. Davison and Denham look like creeps from the get-go (one slickly charismatic, the other not so much, respectively) so they smell like villains from a distance. Yet, they say things that sound like they're levelheaded faithful just as often as they spew true-believer-zealot nonsense. The young actors playing the campers are each assigned a single personality trait to make up their ensemble: Jack (Connor Paolo, Stake Land, quite good actually) as the angry kid and Jimmy (Sasha Neulinger, Shallow Hal) as the sickly kid are the most memorable. As if director VanBuskirk still wasn't sure what kind of movie he was making, the extended sequence where Tommy and Melissa (Valentina de Angelis, Off the Map) have a midnight make-out session in the woods is a more honest and tender teen sex scene than deserves to be in a movie like this.
Camp Hell can't decide if it's a supernatural horror movie or a drama about the psychological damage of oppressive religion. Half-heartedly trying to be two different movies, it disappoints on both fronts. When the story reaches its conclusion, there remain some unanswered questions about the odd events at camp. However, attributing the weird behaviors to either the Devil's influence or the result of religious brainwashing is problematic.
The DVD's so-so technical presentation is nothing to write home about. The picture lacks the sharpness in detail for the visuals to make an impression. Blacks are deep and murky, which isn't a terrible quality for a movie like this, but combined with the slight softness and quick edits, it just serves to hide the fuzzy special effects. Passable surround audio does what it needs to do for by-the-numbers horror movie beats. Gary DeMichele's music is a little non-traditional and other viewers might enjoy it more than I did.
The disc contains three deleted scenes that run under five minutes. Two of them show more activity at the camp and they're fairly dull. The third is an extended scene with Eisenberg, which was just a brief flashback in the movie proper. There is also a trailer for the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sometime in the early genesis of this movie, there may have been a sincere effort to tell a story about the kids growing up under the harsh religious doctrine of covenant communities. There are hints of that purpose in Camp Hell and the most interesting moments of the film involve the teen campers talking about how the community life affects them and their families. The movie is most exciting when the kids question their religious teachings but it stops short of really addressing those issues. Simply pitting the kids against the will of Phineas could have been a good story on its own.
If the protagonist's psychological unbalance and his strange visions in an altered reality were blended more skillfully, the result might have been something similar to Jacob's Ladder or 12 Monkeys. Unfortunately, Camp Hell can't decide what movie it really wants to be and selling it as a horror film will surely invite disappointment. There are a handful of good scenes from the uneven cast. If you're looking for an undiscovered Jesse Eisenberg movie, he's also okay in his two fleeting scenes.
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