Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Kids Have Taken Over!

Summer Camp Nightmare(1987)
Director: Bert L. Dragin
Cast: Chuck Connors, Charlie Stratton, Harold Pruett

William Butler's The Butterfly Revolution was a brilliant mixture of Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, in it's story about a summer camp takeover reflecting on the fears of totalitarian control. Ironically, I was given this book by a friend when I attended summer camp and it left an indelible impression upon me.The book's subtle fears of control and alienation, as seen through the eyes of the young protagonist, who records the events in his journal, made for one of the best real horror stories. This was a reflection on humanity at the base level, raw and honest, showing us all how quickly order and civility can break down through blind allegiance. If you want to explain to people how such things as the Holocaust could happen, this may serve as the perfect example. The book owed itself to a film adaption and sure enough got one, over twenty years after it's initial publication in 1961. The title was changed to Summer Camp Nightmare, a title more suggestive of a slasher than a youth rebellion picture. The marketing was also a bit misleading, one poster depicting a young blonde smiling with a butcher knife(!), yet this was The Butterfly Revolution. Virtually forgotten by all but the most ardent videohounds, since no DVD release has yet been made available, this 80s curiosity is a mixed bag for sure.

Summer Camp Nightmare begins with a group of kids singing terrible songs on a school bus on the way to camp. We are introduced to the protagonist, a kid named Donald Poultry(Adam Carl) who records his stay at the camp with a tape recorder. Several other kids are introduced as well, nearly all sporting lamentable 80s fashion and spouting ridiculous slang talk, while still oddly remaining relateable to the summer camp experience and it's melting pot of diversity. The camp has recently been take over by Mr. Warren(Chuck Connors, The Rifleman, himself!) who controls the camp with a focus on sterness and obedience, disallowing any swearing, drinking and smoking and only allowing the religious channel for viewing on the camp's television. Donald and Chris Wade(Harold Pruet) try to fix the TV and are able to get some Lingerie music video(?), which the boys go crazy for, before Warren finds out and throws them into a cell. They are let out for the talent show, which includes the girl camp as well and which consists of some outdated rap, performed by a chubby black kid who is the Mc, and some horrendous music numbers, the highlight being the song, "Beef Bologna" an awful punk song that is performed by two kids with guitars and the suggestive lyrics and onstage nonsense causes Warren to cancel all communication with the girl camp.

Meanwhile, a junior counselor, Franklin Reilly(Charles Stratton) has been quietly plotting a takeover of the camp, quoting strategies, reading Thoreau(!), playing chess and saving Donald when he almost drowns in the lake. He is well liked and charismatic and when a small boy who has gone on a butterfly hunt with Mr. Warren suggests a possible molestation, Reilly has his ammunition ready for a takeover. After the talent show, Chris is locked up after seen making out with a girl and Reilly brings the kids together to demand his release. This upsets Warren who demands that they all be sent home. A minor scuffle ensues, but Franklin pulls a pistol out and forces all the counselors into a shed and they are locked up. Cutting off all means of communication, the kids take over the camp and proceed to invade the girl's camp as well, uniting the two and they begin creating a goverment and party. At first it appears almost harmless, untill more restrictions are placed on the kids and the partying dosen't stop, resulting in sickness, drunkedness and sex. Warren is let out and shown the revelry and demands that a stop be put to it. He is ordered to be taken back and en route is stabbed by a kid named Runk(Stanley Rogers) who kills him. Franklin orders his body be taken to a cave and hidden and soon the camp begins to resemble something out of the Hitler youth. Chris and his girlfriend, Heather(Melissa Reeves) are shunned, because they questioned Franklin's authority and are labelled as traitors. Orders are given that if anyone attempts escape, they will be considered traitors and executed.

Things continue to get worse as one of Franklin's officers, John Mason(Tom Fridly)is caught raping a girl and is forced to go across a destroyed rope bridge. He succeeds, but his punishment is not seen as severe enough and the girl camp retaliate and take him to the woods and hang him. Donald cracks and attempts to intercept the radio and get help, but is locked up and sentenced to walk the bridge as well. Chris forms another rebellion and tries to get help as Donald's punishment is carried out. The police arrive just in time and Donald's tape diary is kept as evidence and Franklin is last seen smirking in the back of a police car.

Summer Camp Nightmare on some levels works. It has a good plot, retaining most of the story elements from Butler's narrative and is constantly entertaining. However, it also is very cheezy, with it's mindset firmly entrenched in the 80s and this has aged it some. The inappropiate music just detracts from the film's drama and adds unintentional humor to the proceedings which lessen the overall effect. Yet, some of the more nostalgic minded way see these as assets as well, since the film works very well as a time capsule of the period. The acting is mixed, though for the most part, the child actors are not nearly as grating as they usually can be in such fare. Connors brings his usual amount of stiff conviction to the part of Warren, though it's not a very developed part. Of the kids, Stratton comes off best as Franklin seemining much more mature and in control than many other young actors would be in a role like his. His sly intelligence and forceful, yet calm delivery, ground the film and help the believability factor considerably. The direction is sort of stale with some poor editing and not is not always as suspenseful as it could have been. It's strange that given the popularity of the book that this was the only version of the novel made and is in relative obscurity. It really dosen't deserve that. It's basic premise is captivating and eerie and at times, it can be very effective. Of course, characters like "Runk the Punk" and songs like "Beef Bologna" and it's terrific lyrics add to the kitsch factor, but shouldn't these two things also ensure a larger audience? Whether you are interested in the sociological aspects of the novel or the cheeze elements of the production, Summer Camp Nightmare should be returned to more often. Now where is that DVD release?

P.S. You can watch the entire movie in ten part segments on Youtube!

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