Written by: Alberto Marini, Danielle Schleif
Directed by: Alberto Marini
Starring: Diego Boneta, Jocelin Donahue, and Maiara Walsh
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Fear is contagious.
A title like Summer Camp almost immediately conjures up thoughts of psychos hacking up nubile, irresponsible counselors, but Alberto Marini’s film is an entirely different beast altogether. This is either a disappointment or a relief depending on how much you really need to see another slasher movie. On a conceptual level, I may have been more open to that than the route Marini takes, which results in another infected/zombie movie, albeit one with just enough of a wrinkle to feel vital. Its brisk, sub-80-minute runtime helps, too, it must be noted.
The film opens with the revelation that four American college students have gone missing in Spain, where they were to serve as English language counselors for children at a summer retreat. Something ominous has happened to them, however, and we flash back a couple of days to those happier times, when the quartet is training and participating in trust exercises. It’s not the most glamorous work, nor is it the most glamorous camp, what with the lack of running water and pollen covering everything. Christy (Jocelin Donahue) is especially finicky about the whole thing and is hoping to score one last trip into town. Unfortunately for her, all hell begins to break loose when her fellow counselors succumb to mysterious fits of zombie-like rage.
Essentially, this is a more low-key take on the likes of The Crazies and 28 Days Later, though Marini does introduce a distinguishing feature: not only is this virus easily spread, but its effects are also temporary. As such, it’s not easily contained and roves about the four counselors, who phase in and out of lucidness—well, so long as they manage to survive each other, that is. It’s a clever little hook, one that has audiences constantly shifting loyalties to different characters: one minute, Christy and Will (Diego Boneta) might team up to fend off Michelle (Maria Walsh), while the next moment might reveal that one of the former has suddenly become infected. If nothing else, it keeps the audience on its toes and allows Marini to easily exploit the obvious tension and dramatic irony that arises as a result.
The sort of shell game nature of the infection helps to keep Summer Camp just above water and compensate for its otherwise flat, nondescript filmmaking. Marini is obviously competent enough (as evidenced by the endorsement of producer Jaume Balagueró), but much of the film’s strength is derived from its whirling dervish script and the director’s willingness to keep up with its breathless pace. There’s something lacking in the film’s generally drab look—this awesome, secluded, desolate camp is sort of flatly rendered and washed out in dull, earthy hues—and Marini’s choppy, haphazard lensing (it’s rarely a good idea to employ so much shaky-cam in darkly lit set-pieces). Even if it’s fine, you sense that there’s a stronger, more entertaining film to be mined from such a fun premise—hell, if nothing else, it could certainly use more gore. (Filmmakers: when in doubt, always add more gore.)
Occasionally, there are some flashes of genuine brilliance that truly highlight just how special Summer Camp could have been. A slight playfulness guides the proceedings but only peeks through a certain times, such as during a wicked, black-hearted climax. Even this, though, doesn’t land quite as well as it could because the characters are so underdeveloped. In exchange for its rapid pace, it Summer Camp sells the actors and characters a bit short, almost to the point where they’re all practically interchangeable. With just a little bit more character work up front, the climax may have packed a bit more of a punch; instead, it almost comes off feeling like a darkly comedic turn of events.
Then again, it can very much be argued that it’s supposed to come off that way since the epilogue leaves little doubt that we’re supposed to take Summer Camp as something of a gag. I’m not being cheeky when I say the film is at its best just before it ends—there’s a truly great, twisted turn of events that’s been brilliantly foreshadowed (including a great employment of Chekov’s Gun). Had the rest of Summer Camp proceeded with such reckless, fucked-up abandon, it may have served as a more fitting spiritual successor to the likes of Cabin Fever (certainly more so than, say, the actual Cabin Fever remake). But alas, these closing moments are perhaps just enough to keep Marini on the radar; hell, I wouldn’t be opposed to him picking up where this one leaves off to deliver on the brief, batshit promise. How fitting that title that sounds like it belongs to a slasher movie leaves you wanting a sequel.
Summer Camp arrives on DVD August 2nd from Pantelion Films and Lionsgate.
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