I’ll never be one who joins the ranks of haters ranting and raving about how “found footage” horror is single-handedly destroying horror cinema as we know it, because for every atrocious, microbudget genre cash-in blindly praying to be the next Paranormal Activity, we have a Cloverfield or [REC]. “Found footage” shouldn’t go away because someone is always willing to reinvent the wheel eventually, as a movie like V/H/S did – but Happy Camp isn’t that film. Coming from Drew Barrymore’s production company Flower Films, we’re given a simple rehash of typical genre norms, stringing us along for what feels like an eternity’s worth of mockumentary filmmaking only to end with a weightless payoff. There are hints of originality and vision, teases of something wicked coming our way, but ultimately our investment goes unwarranted – like going to band camp and not coming home with an awesome flute story.
In the heart of Klamath National Forest exists a logging community called Happy Camp, a location known for a horrifying amount of missing persons cases which now totals 627 unsolved mysteries. While people have their own ideas as to what’s causing all the disappearances, Michael Tanner (Michael Barbuto) is determined to find out once and for all what attacked his brother Dean one fateful afternoon, making Dean one of the lost souls vanishing from Happy Camp without a trace. Accompanied by his girlfriend and two buddies, Michael intends to shoot a documentary about Happy Camp while looking for the truth, but unfortunately finds more than he bargained for when locals warn of the dangers awaiting. Will Michael and his team become just another statistic while snooping around Happy Camp?
This “found footage” snoozer is honestly created with the best intentions, and I respect the hell out of Flower Films for supporting indie horror, but a blatantly obvious lack of scares generates absolutely zero tension or intrigue while building Happy Camp‘s urban legend. Running at a manageable 75 minutes, so much of our story still seems like an undesirable chore as our characters bicker, hear noises, and attempt to distract from the obvious lack of real horror. Leaves rustle, twigs snap, and darkness surrounds – but nothing worthwhile ever grabs our attention, sends an unnerving chill down our spine, or elevates our heartbeat in a fit of screeching terror. Unless you find disgruntled mountain folk telling sad stories about missing children to be quality horror fun, you’ll be treated to nothing but droll subgenre formalities used to mimic success – not achieve new highs.
Michael’s doomed exploration could have been salvaged by a fast-paced, action-packed culmination, something movies like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project understood, but budgetary restrictions ended Happy Camp on a note that’s become a gigantic pet peeve of mine – animated monsters. Once the first “creature” enters focus long enough to make out undefined features and a lifeless design, my brain completely shut off. I get that CG can be cheaper and more efficient for indie horror movies, but taking the easy way out never provides the same excitement. Troll Hunter works because the monsters are on a massive scale and look astoundingly real, but more importantly because the budget was there. Happy Camp throws together some generic, faceless creatures in slapdash fashion, churning out a weak, flaccid, bounty-less “climax” – like the movie fanatically remembered its actually a horror film, but no one died yet or found anything truly spooky.
Our main cast are actually a likeable bunch at times, as Josh Anthony, Michael Barbuto, Teddy Gilmore, and Anne Taylor banter about like old chums, but it’s their development that absolutely left a baffling misunderstanding as anger spewed out of nowhere. Michael isn’t exactly in a comfortable position, returning to his childhood home where a brother he loved mysteriously vanished, yet he’s berated mercilessly by an overly pushy girlfriend basically torturing him with every question. As dramatic relationships are meant to be built, Happy Camp becomes sillier with each increasingly irrational response from Michael’s companions. You drag a man back to the most traumatic point in his life, pry deeper than he’s ever been subjected to, and expect him NOT to have an emotional reaction? Either Anne is up for the Worst Girlfriend Of The Year award, or – no, I actually don’t have another comparison to make there.
Happy Camp struggles mightily to fight off the same lackluster fate of so many other generic “found footage” copycats, but once again audiences are given a talky, flat horror film that follows the same overused blueprints – aided in no way by an equally disappointing finale. An RV vacationer rigged with security cameras? Right, they’ll rig security cameras on just about anything these days if you can make a horror movie out of it. Oh well. Another day, another dollar – another forgettable “found footage” horror film that only supports an end to such a genre – making my optimistic backing that much more difficult.
Happy Camp is yet another hopeful "found footage" darling, joining the ranks of like-minded dreamers that have attempted the same overnight success - yet only found the bargain bin.