Mediocrity doesn’t always spell doom for a horror flick. Sometimes we can merely be entertained by the most obvious and oblivious of genre movies simply by knowing exactly where the plot is moving, because when stories and death sequences briskly waste no time, a certain amount of respect can be shown. Camp Dread is one of those late-night watches that may mirror shoe-string budget quality featuring a handful of “nobody” actors, but in exercising slasher genre normality, a few fresh ideas produce something more than drunken bedtime fodder. Writer/Director Harrison Smith exhibits enough horror understanding to feed hungry fans with the equivalent of comfort food – it may not be pretty, but who can deny a heaping helping of biscuits smothered in gravy? Camp Dread is pretty much actor Eric Roberts smothered in gravy – and that’s where I’ll leave this intro.
Roberts plays filmmaker Julian Barrett, a man known for constructing the 80s horror franchise Summer Camp – a trilogy that fizzled out and removed Barrett from relevancy soon thereafter. Years later, Julian has a new idea for a horror television show that could re-launch his famed series, turning to the magic of reality TV. Bringing a group of troubled youths to the very setting of his Summer Camp movies, the miscreants are offered $1 million to be the last camper standing, as a “killer” will be waiting to “eliminate” them one by one. Being nothing but a game, the contestants gear up for the challenges and competitions that await, until the first “eliminated” player is revealed to actually be dead. Changing the gravity of the situation, can everyone involved escape this cursed production, or will these campers fall one by one in a Summer Camp sequel with grave consequences?
Camp Dread succeeds as a homage to cheesy, throwback splatter-fests like The Burning or Sleepaway Camp, while also purposefully introducing stereotypical characters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen “the jock,” “the nerd,” or “the horror geek” re-purposed for the same tired arcs, be it the jock’s arrogance or the horror geek’s always untimely death, but with Julian pulling the strings as puppet master, the stereotyping becomes necessary because each personality completes a devious, sinister puzzle. Otherwise normal characters start to adapt the persona they believe they should be embellishing for television, not sure whether reality still exists or if the game is all they should know – a twisted psychological aspect adding depth to Camp Dread.
Harrison does his best to squeeze every bit of gore from an obviously understated budget, but some effects have to be zoomed in and edited around to keep the illusion of death apparent. Camp Dread wasn’t granted a Saw level budget, but it does include a large amount of gruesome kills and gushing blood – even when a kill or two are laughably, logistically impossible. A stabbing here, a slashing there, a body-part launching catapult – wait, what? Yes, Smith does his best to keep every moment fresh, inventive, and outside of budgetary restrictions, something this indie horror experience does rather well.
Eric Roberts and his surveillance command center are the saving grace of Camp Dread, as Julian Barrett is the most memorable character based on his zany idea. Modern-day “Scream Queen” Danielle Harris shows up for an incredibly brief role despite being featured on every inch of marketing material possible, and young stars like Montana Marks and Joe Raffa tout their Abercrombie-model bodies, but a few blasé homosexuality jokes and lines of dialogue that throw around different usages of the term “cum” give our actors limited material to work with at times. Hell, I’d probably have that little to contribute if I was stuck in that “cumstain of a town” myself (I needed to share that scripted bit of gold with you all).
Camp Dread could have been another sloppy helping of sludgy summer camp gruel, but more refined flavors and spices enhance the mundane. I’ve seen a billion and one slasher films, most of which blend together in some lackluster supercut of moronic teens marching blissfully to the slaughter – but Harrison Smith has something a teensy bit more.
Camp Dread opens its doors to yet another group of weenie-roasters, and while Harrison Smith most certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel here, we’re given a script that understands horror mechanics, likes to have fun, and harkens back to a time when every overnight camp was plagued by some type of undead groundskeeper, reanimated hellspawn, or demon of the night. Plus, anything that pokes fun at reality television is aces in my book – throw in a few grizzly murders and I’m a happy horror fan.
Being a low-budget rendition of 80s campfire slashers isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as you have enough of your own creative ideas, like Camp Dread does.