Burning Wet Hot American Meatballs: Summer Camps on Screen

A setting as much a part of the American teen movie fabric as the drunk and disorderly road trip, the spring break vacation, the homecoming prom, and the “big football game”, the summer camp movie is a subgenre of a subgenre that attempts to capture an adolescent experience that remains just as strange and foreign to me as the other aforementioned staples. It always struck me as a bit peculiar that families would happily ship off their kids for weeks on end into a pseudo-military system, particularly in a country without a particularly strong boarding school tradition, a wide range of ages all awkwardly stuck together. Moreover, I was always uncomfortable about how it all seemed to be indulging in a spot of mildly offensive cultural appropriation, a weird attempt to get back to nature via Native American cliché, something effectively skewered in to my mind the best summer camp movie, and one of my absolute favourite comedies, Addams Family Values. But as a sub-subgenre, you can see the appeal, both as film-maker and audience. They’re clearly pretty cheap to make (with picturesque locations readily available out of season) but they also offer plenty of opportunities for ‘hijinks’ as well as an excuse for lots of young flesh on display – y’know, something for daddy.

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And so, with summer having well and truly arrived, I decided it was an appropriate time to stack up a triple of bill of summer camp cinema I’d not seen before, starting with Meatballs. A low-budget Canadian comedy that went on to be a huge hit (leading to three barely-to-completely-not-related sequels), it marked the first starring role for Bill Murray, and with Ivan Reitman directing and Harold Ramis co-writing, it’s effectively a dry-run for Stripes, and in many ways is the quintessential summer camp movie. A bunch of stereotypes (the fat character eats a lot of food, the dorky one is literally called ‘Spaz’) get into various loosely-connected shenanigans and try to triumph over a rival summer camp, and that’s about it. There’s a lot of sub-par slapstick. There are constant grating songs. There’s an unsurprising amount of offensive perving. Most of all, it’s just plain annoying. The saving grace is Murray as camp counsellor Tripper, as you would expect, who has already perfected his shtick at this early stage, and his natural charm shines through. And Kate Lynch as Roxanne has a bit more to her than you might expect a romantic interest in a film of this type to be. But any fun is hampered by a weird sentimental plot involving Tripper befriending shy camper Rudy (Chris Makepeace), which is initially kind of touching, but not even Murray can cut through the treacle, which feels at odds with the half-arsed bawdiness elsewhere, resulting in a film presumably designed for everyone but appealing for no-one (box office success be damned). Spare yourself the headache-in-waiting.

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If there’s one film then that could perhaps offer a more entertaining take on the formula, it would be cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. With a prequel series forthcoming on Netflix reuniting its starry cast (plus some extra famous types for added thrills), David Wain and Michael Showalter’s movie is an affectionate parody of the likes of Meatballs, set on the last day of camp in the summer of 1981 as actors playing far younger than they could ever realistically pass for (itself a clever take on teen movie casting, even more pronounced with the prequel) desperately try to hook up with each other before everyone parts ways for the year. Unfortunately, despite my liking the performers, the film itself is sorely lacking in hilarity. Spoofs are prone more than anything to be hit-and-miss with their gags, trying to get by through quantity if not quality, but there really aren’t that many jokes here at all. Scenes coast by without a titter and performances fall flat, resulting in an anaemic, inconsequential series of sketches, with a script that feels like it was written in a day. It barely attempts to engage with the period and setting beyond superficial details, with its few laughs (mainly from Christopher Meloni’s Gene and Paul Rudd’s goofy ineffectual bad boy Andy) largely disconnected from the subgenre its mocking, so it seems like a pointless exercise, more so when its squandering such fertile ground for comic potential (hopefully something the series will do more with, at least judging by the trailer that offers more laughs in two-and-a-half minutes than this managed over plus 90). I imagine it benefits from repeated viewing, and that it did the rounds extensively on the college circuit, hence the clamouring for a follow-up, but Wain’s They Came Together does a far better job playing with its targets while being very funny too. Disappointing.

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My final film of the three was a dip into a separate but significant subgenre with a summer camp setting, that of the summer camp horror flick. The Burning may have the whiff of a Friday the 13th rip-off and so has subsequently found it hard to escape its forebear’s shadow, and doesn’t have the what-the-fuckery notoriety of Sleepaway Camp, but it is still significant for its cast and crew. Co-written by Bob Weinstein and produced by Harvey Weinstein, The Burning was a very early Miramax film production (and would be released in the UK by Handmade Films and end up a ‘video nasty’), with music from prog keyboardist Rick Wakeman of Yes, and Tom Savini expanding upon his practical effects work from Friday the 13th. And in their first starring roles, we are introduced to future Oscar winners Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens (no, not for his performance in Short Circuit 2, but his producing, specifically on documentary The Cove), plus George Costanza himself Jason Alexander, playing a kinda cool party guy in the Seth Rogen mould . But more than all that, it might actually be better than Friday the 13th itself.

Inspired by the Cropsy legend, a cantankerous caretaker is accidentally burned alive by angry campers when a prank goes wrong, and years later seeks bloody revenge with the aid of a pair of garden shears. It’s a simple set-up, but The Burning takes time with its characters too, giving them if not three dimensions, than at least two and a half, as they go about the standard summer camp activities, oblivious to the killer in their midst. The dialogue and relationships between them feel natural, even if they fall into some pitfalls of stupidity as is to be expected, and there’s enough distinct about them to make you care a little more for them when they variously get sliced, chopped and stabbed. And it doesn’t just succeed through Savini’s impressive gore and make-up, but its scares and jumps (largely taking place in the day time) are well deployed and feel earned. In fact, I dug it quite a bit, and the Hysteria Lives website offers a good overview of the film’s making, release and legacy.

Are there any other must-see summer camp movies out there? Let me know!

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One response to “Burning Wet Hot American Meatballs: Summer Camps on Screen

  1. Pingback: 2015: TV of the Year | Viewing Gum

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