Happy Camp (2014) d. Josh Anthony (USA)
It’s hard to believe that The Blair Witch Project, the flick that launched an infinite number of copycats, was released 15 years ago this summer. Harder still to believe, however, is that modern filmmakers think they can follow that phenomenon’s template and recapture the same lightning in a bottle, or that cinema fans with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the genre won’t call them out for it. Witch writer/directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick had the advantage of the then-novelty of “found footage” working to their advantage, not to mention a brilliant sense of how to build tension and execute chills. In this age of reality TV and every living, breathing moment of any individual on earth being uploaded to YouTube a billion times a day, artists have to think outside the box.
Instead, we have a young female documentarian (sound familiar?) heading off into a mysterious, secluded, wooded locale (uh huh) with her two, no, sorry, three male companions/crew members (sigh) to get to the bottom of the mysterious spate of disappearances that occur every year, their story pieced together after the fact from their various cameras’ footage and the testimonials of the colorful townsfolk. I mean, really? REALLY? Sitting around a room, as writer/stars John Anthony (who also directed), Michael Barbuto, and Anne Taylor surely did at some point, they must have realized that they were bound to draw comparisons to a certain microbudget blockbuster. Their innovation? “Instead of a car…we’ll have a recreational vehicle with cameras mounted inside and out of it!” “Wow, what a great idea!” “High five!”
I’m sure that Anthony, Barbuto, Taylor, and co-star/co-producer Teddy Gilmore are nice people, but their onscreen versions range from annoying to agonizing. You thought 90 minutes of Heather Donahue was tough to sit through? Angel choirs compared to Taylor’s OMG endless bubblegum whining. Barbuto, whose character is the focal point of the story (his brother was kidnapped while the two were children playing together in the backyard), is called upon to pull off some heavy emotional lifting and well, he’s just not up to it. Meanwhile, Anthony and Gilmore are given the thankless task of running around, bitching and moaning in manly fashion, whilst shooting completely unjustified footage of, well, everything. I know this is a stumbling block of the subgenre, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow, especially not after a decade and a half of shaky-cams growing shakier and iPhones phonier.
The fact that Drew Barrymore serves as executive producer provides the increasingly concussion-inducing forehead-slapping icing on the cake. It’s one thing that a first-time director decides he’s going to try to make a movie, naively thinking he can get away with aping Blair Witch; it’s quite another when a Hollywood veteran backs the venture. Because things then go from naïve to calculating, and viewer patience – already stretched thin as the improvised, F-bomb-laden dialogue – must snap.
The final F.U. comes in the final 10 minutes, as the unexplained-mystery-of-the-sinister-woods saga turns into a poorly executed CGI creature feature…followed by a final credits crawl in which we have testimony from the aforementioned colorful townsfolk that THEY KNEW ABOUT THE CREATURE ALL ALONG. Wait, WHAT? The audience has been denied this information for the entirety of the running time, even though the documentarians – by the very virtue of this credits footage – have been undeniably aware of the legend of the hairy beast. Yet, somehow, they never talk about it? All we are privy to are scenes of Michael trying to conjure up some foggy, tearstained memory of what happened to his brother lo those 20 years ago, as opposed to, oh, the long-standing mythology that everyone else in town seems to be happy to talk abou?. I guess whomever “edited” this “found footage” must have thought that they’d save that to the end, clever lads.
I don’t mean to spill the Vitriol Valdez here, especially since for a blatant rip-off, it’s competently shot, edited, and at 75 minutes, mercifully brief. But if you go messing about in these particular woods, young filmmakers, you know the risks you’re taking. And as for you, dear Drew, I’m going to need to watch the opening scene of Scream a few more times to get the bad taste out of my mouth.
Happy Camp is available nationwide On Demand, iTunes, Time/Warner, Comcast, and other platforms starting March 25.