Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Campfire Tales

    If there's one thing that I love more than a good horror movie, it's a good old short scary story. I feel that with brevity comes the potential for true horror, something that can stick with you like a catchy song and spring to mind just as you're trying to get to sleep. This is horror in its truest form. So of course I jump at the opportunity to catch any and every anthology horror film I can.

    Oh I could talk about one of the classics. We could discuss the amazing Creepshow, which I'd honestly call the single greatest film I've ever watched. We could even discuss the classic Amicus take on Tales from the Crypt, an amazing classic. Hell, we could go into Tales from the Darkside, it's not often you get to talk about a -good- Christian Slater movie. ...but no. No, today I want to discuss a forgotten film. Not a good film but still, a film that, like all films, is deserving of being remembered.

    Campfire Tales, a 1997 anthology film not to be confused with 1992's Campfire Tales or the later Campfire Stories starring Buster Poindexter, was an interesting clusterfuck of high production values mixed with low budget character actors and crewmen who were more experienced with TV than anything, and a script that called for every single segment to end as a traditional, existing campfire story. It was directed by the team of Matt Cooper, Martin Kunert, and David Semel, three men who had no film direction experience and were primarily producers and TV show directors, and boy does it show.

    We open up on a classic, before we're given anything else. It's black and white, 1950's music is playing, two teenage lovebirds are getting all daterapey in the back of a Johnny Everyman American motor, Eisenhower is off-screen taking care of the country and mom's old fashioned apple pie is steaming right off the screen and into my nostrils. Of course, as one would expect, the music is interrupted by the broadcast that a man has escaped from an asylum, has a hook for a hand, and you horny teenagers should be scared.

Color hadn't been invented yet.

    My issue with this opening segment is that it sets the mood for the rest of the film, just not in its intended way. I should stress "daterapey." The guy keeps forcing himself on the girl after the hook hand report, and it feels like a really weak way of trying to, well, sexify a story that is corny, silly, and known by everyone watching. Not that I normally take issue with gratuitous sex or nudity or anything like that in a horror film, but it feels like the only card this film has up its sleeve in order to have anything interesting, and it can't even play that card correctly, so we just get skeevy James Marsden and some awkward sex scenes.

"Hey babe, before you say no again I should warn you I have laser eyes."

    As you'd expect, the two lovers drive off, and eventually realize that they've accidentally torn the hook hand off of the crazed lunatic using their car door. There's always something kind of hilarious about this part of the story to me, because it makes me wonder if either the hook was attached poorly, or if maybe they dragged the killer for a few miles like the dog in National Lampoon's Vacation, kicking, screaming, and crying the whole time. Sadly we'll never know, as it's time to cut to our genre mandated wrapping device!

"Poor little guy. Probably kept up with you for a mile or so."

    Drunk teenagers! And they're driving! Oh boy this always ends up well in movies! Oh I hope they don't end up running over a man with a hook and forcing me to watch the worst slasher film series of the 90's! Thankfully they don't, and the car's population of TV actors (including Francis from Malcolm in the Middle and Sally Sitwell from Arrested Development) gets into some miraculous completely offscreen car accident that doesn't injure anyone, make any loud noises, or stop the other vehicle from getting away completely. Boy I bet that won't come into play later.

This is literally the whole crash scene.

    The teenagers all remark about the car accident, but without really making that big of a deal about it, because y'know. It's just a thing that happens, really. I had five car accidents just typing this, and I've never even driven. Thankfully there's a spooky clearing where they can all sit around until help arrives, and so they can become the first Midnight Society! But before you can think too much about how stupid the past few minutes were, let's get a story on!

Thank god Hollywood set designers left this here.

    Ron Livingston (who you will hopefully remember as Peter, the lead from Office Space) has just gotten married to the love of his life, Lt. Robin 'Flint' Peters from Wing Commander 3. Good on him, I would have gone for Malcolm McDowell. They're a happy couple, singing along to... 1950's music again, because budget, and they're going to spend their honeymoon like any red blooded American would: Following the trail of a cannibal family. ...No, I'm not joking, that is the actual intent.

I guess she's a trade up from Anniston.

    They have gratuitous and awkward sex, share some laughs, have some more gratuitous and awkward sex... and I mean awkward, really awkward. Ron Livingston just looks uncomfortable, like he doesn't know what to do while acting out fucking his wife doggy style. It's like he's flashing back to that Bill Lumberg sex scene the whole time, like it just continues to haunt him. I think he knows a terror greater than the directors of this film could ever bring to the screen.

"Yeeeaa.... I'm gonna have to ask you to censor that."

    Eventually their sexy time gets interrupted by one of the Geico Cavemen who warns them that they're all doomed and such, how there's things in the woods, basically your standard creepy old men warnings that he probably learned from his OoGhiJ MiQtxxXA. I'm sorry if I'm being mean, but this man's bone structure just completely caught my attention more than anything else in this film. It's just... odd. No wonder they don't listen to his story about cannibals and crows, they're too busy wondering if  he got a law degree after getting unfrozen.

It's so easy, even the directors of Campfire Tales could do it.

    Sadly for Ron, his wife happens to be a woman in a horror movie, and while the Encino Man wanders off to be killed by the very cannibals he warned them about, she manages to injure her ankle. It's always the ankle. Also their fuel has apparently been syphoned! Obviously this calls for Ron to march through the dead of night, out through the wilderness, after being warned of cannibals, after dealing with a man who creeped him out and probably robbed him of fuel, so that he can get something for his wife's ankle, and some peanut M&M's. He really should have stuck to taking ideas from Superman movies.

This is seriously the clearest, best lit outdoor action sequence of the segment. Enjoy.

    They work out some special code of knocks, because apparently nobody ever speaks to verify who they are, and he wanders off to die within a minute. Goodbye Ron. No, seriously, he basically walks right off into death. There's very little setup, there's not much to be seen as the film is overly dark and the crew show absolutely no understanding of how to light scenes. He wanders off, he finds Captain Caveman's car, finds his bloody jawbone, and dies. This takes absolutely no time at all, and just feels sad compared to how much filler this segment has had. Rest in peace, best actor to appear in this movie.

"Yep, that's a jawbone. Don't know why I had to pick it up and hold it for two minutes."

    Back at the couple's RV, She With Wimpy Ankle is still listening to cheap to license 50's music until she hears a knock at the door. Obviously they're going to set something up where she thinks it's her husband, right? No, that's what a better film would do. The cannibals immediately go from knocking to trying to break into the RV. Bashing on the doors, breaking the windows, busting through the top. But thankfully they all retreat after she triggers the RV's alarm. Yeah. Again, not much buildup, not much actually done, it just happens and it's over in an instant. More time was dedicated to Ron Livingston's o face.

That's her action face, the whole scene.

    But how is this a campfire story, you might ask? Well don't worry, eventually the writers were asked that too. It quickly cuts to daytime wherein the cops find the wife and pull her out of the RV safe and sound. She tries to tell them that her husband will be back any minute, because she's an idiot and apparently has no concept of time or distance, or maybe just doesn't really care much about her husband, and the cops keep doing there best to tell her to just follow them and not turn around. She turns and, with a look of pure inability to act, sees that her husband is dead, strung up above the RV, his corpse scraping against the roof. Because that's... sorta... mostly... kinda similar to a campfire story. Yeah. We spend a few more minutes with the wraparound stupid teens who are still waiting for someone to realize they crashed, but nothing much happens, because really they only exist to pad out the film. So let's move right into our second story!

Sure was nice of them to spend the three minutes they were there rigging that up.

    Segment two focuses on a little girl named Amanda, played by Alex McKenna (Petunia, the daughter from The Stupids) and her dog, Odin. She has the usual little kid interests. Playing in the backyard with her dog while pedophiles videotape her, wearing soccer uniforms, chatting with pedophiles online, and repeatedly asking everyone about bikes. Y'know, the norm. In a sea of flaws, Alex McKenna is one of the few positives in this film: A good child actor. Seriously. Normally I hate children in horror films, but she does a surprisingly good job, especially given how awful most of the film is.

Though that slinky is the true star of this segment.

    The story is fairly straightforward as it doesn't have as many characters as the previous segment (her parents are onscreen for about a minute, and she has an older sister who is there for about three. I can't tell you a word of dialogue that she says, only that her breasts jiggle in an over the top way that gives me Dead Or Alive flashbacks) and because the writing and directing team aren't exactly good at time management. Due to this, the segment ends up largely being dominated by her... hanging out with her dog, briefly chatting with totally a kid her age, hanging around in a towel, stripping down, putting on one of her mom's dresses, playing with the dog... wait, what.

The... terror?

    Like I said earlier, the film sometimes feels hijacked by awkward sexuality, and this kinda takes the cake. For a segment that features a pedophile as the main antagonist, this segment really, really gives me some pedophile vibes from the director of the segment. It's something I tend to forget about, but then it happens and it just makes me uncomfortable watching the segment. I can remember watching this film with friends years back around this same time of the year, and how everyone was riffing on the film until she strips, and then everyone gets uncomfortable. You end up just hoping something else will happen, something stupid, something funny, something scary, but there's really not much going on till the end of the segment, save for some cuts to a creepy pedophile's room as he goes over tapes of her, and even then the only entertainment I got out of those was thinking how much the pedo looks like Iggy Pop, which makes me realize how much the girl reminds me of Nona from Pete and Pete, whose dad was played by Iggy Pop, and dammit this film just put Pete and Pete into a creepy, creepy light.

And you thought Endless Mike and Paper Cut had issues.

    Thankfully the story finally comes to a close as her sister returns home and gives her a jump scare. But, all is well! You can forget about that pedophile it kept cutting to earlier, everything is fine. Oh wait, we need all of these to be campfire stories, right? So she lays down in bed, lets her dog lick her hand, when suddenly she notices that the mirror has the words "Humans can lick too!" written on it! Oh no! Also she can see Not Iggy Pop in the mirror licking her hand... that probably should have been the first thing she noticed in the mirror, really. She runs out, her older sister inspects the room to find the girl's dog has been killed and the pedo has escaped out the window. End of shitty, shitty story. Again we cut back to the teenagers, nothing has changed. They're in the woods, they're telling stories. What, you wanted plot? Fuck your stupid face, you don't get plot, you get the worst segment yet!

"Uhm... woof?"

    The third and final story opens with Mark from Roseanne, motorcycling through America. Eventually he ends up at an old timey house where he falls in love with a woman in old timey clothes, with old timey hair, and an old timey collar around her neck. Old timey. She can't speak, but the two fall in love anyway and they have awkward, poorly shot sex. At least they're both of legal age, and neither of them look quite as uncomfortable as Ron did earlier.

"Sign language? What beyeth that, english?"

    Eventually after a whole lot of nothing the director and writers remembered this was part of a horror film, so we're treated to a fairly boring, though thankfully short, tale of a woman who is stuck in a loop where her father angrily catches her with a man, kills her, and then dies. There's not much to it, it happens fairly quickly, and it ends the way you'd assume: Mark rescues her, they run off from the house, happy ending. If it seems like I'm being overly brief, it's because that's seriously how little there actually is to this segment. It feels like an afterthought. Honestly, each segment feels like it has less thought put into it than the previous, so you can imagine how the wraparound must end up.

That's -his- action face. ...Roar.

    Now saved from their ghostly loop, Mark and Mute Girl hang out under a tree in the bright of day, relaxing, her asleep on his lap. But wait, this is campfire stories, dammit, we've done it again! Quick, thing up a campfire story ending! So remember how she had a collar on? I wanted to bring that up specifically, because it's honestly not a noticeable thing in the film. He takes it off her neck, she wakes up, and her head falls off. I'm not fucking joking, that's the ending. Out of nowhere. Her head just falls right off. There's no setup, no buildup, it just happens. All because every segment in this film had to end on a cliche campfire story note for some reason.

She did the same thing after seeing the finished film.

    With the contractual three tales being over, the teenagers from the wraparound decide to finally conclude their own story. Are you ready for it? They all died. Yep. They died in that car accident. Are you surprised? I mean nobody could have seen that coming, at all. Truly a surprising twist, really. The characters from the stories were all people that were present at the car accident, and they all move into the light as everyone that paid money to buy this movie grits their teeth in anger. Enjoy your fucking ending.

Oh no, person I didn't really know! I was so emotionally invested in you!

    But wait, there's more! The credits cut away after a few minutes to show a car pulling up to the scene of the accident... and the man driving it has a hook arm! Oh my god what a twist! Back to credits.

If this got any dumber, it'd zoom out to an autistic kid staring into a snowglobe with a campfire in it.

    Fuck this movie. Seriously, fuck this movie. It had potential, it really did. It'd be nice to see a good anthology series built around ghost stories, urban legends, etc. But that's not what this is. This is a bunch of meandering, poorly written stories that go nowhere until a cliche ghost story ending occurs and the segment ends. It had a big budget, and it shows as the prop, effects, and film quality in general are pretty damn good despite being being filmed, lit, written, and directed by completely incompetent people. It's awkward, it's uncomfortable, the only creepy moment comes not from something intentional but from some weird, needless scenes filmed for the second segment.

    This isn't a film I could ever personally recommend to anyone, but it's still a film that I'd like to pull from the pit of forgotten horror films. It's a film I remember renting a few times as a kid, sometimes under different names as this tends to get confused with similarly named horror anthology films, and as such I do have a sort of nostalgic connection to it... but it's still not a good film at all. There are worse anthologies out there (VHS2, ABCs of Death, the 1992 Campfire Tales), but this is still pretty far up there.

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