In Resident Evil 4, Leon S. Kennedy is dropped in a Spanish village. He’s an all-American hero (by way of Japan), but his enemies don’t speak his language. The characters talk, but they speak Spanish.
To a Spanish speaker, this may not mean much, but to someone who was halfway decent at Spanish in high school but ultimately retained little to none of it, having enemies speaking a different language makes them more terrifying. They might be planning something, but I couldn’t know, because I’m a dumb and ignorant American.
Summer Camp is about dumb and ignorant Americans at a sleepaway camp in Spain who also forgot what they learned in high school. Locals both good and bad speak Spanish, and the film doesn’t bother to use subtitles. If you don’t know Spanish, you’re on your own, just as they are.
There’s something pretty cool about that.
[Summer Camp screened as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Scary Movies 9” series. It’s still going on, and you should definitely check it out!]
Director: Alberto Marini
Summer Camp is sadly not a spiritual successor to the Sleepaway Camp films. Rather, it’s a twist (sort of) on the zombie narrative. This is ultimately a zombie film, even if it would like you to think that it’s not. After being subjected to some kind of substance, people (and animals) develop a nasty habit of bleeding from the mouth and attacking their fellow citizens (but not their fellow infected). The programmer who introduced the film said that it was a rather mean film, and it’s hard to disagree. For a lot of reasons, what is ultimately a black comedy comes off as needlessly cruel to its main characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of.
In the opening moments, we’re told that four camp counselors have gone missing and are probably dead. We’re then introduced to four camp counselors, and the film consists mostly of the audience waiting for them to die. And I don’t mean “Waiting” as in “COME ON, JUST DIE ALREADY” (though I expect some people did feel that way) but the waiting that comes from knowing how something will turn out but not how it turns out that way. One dies almost immediately, which is fine because he’s the worst. Then we follow three mildly more interesting characters as we watch them meet their ends.
Watching that, though, is a fairly exhausting proposition, because Summer Camp‘s cinematography is brain-numbing at times. Shaky cam is everywhere, and during the action sequences, camera motion and rapid editing take the place of coherent choreography. What happened during those scenes? Heck if I know. I generally waited until after the scenes were over and then assessed the damages. “Oh, so she got hit with a rock but he was actually etc. etc.” It’s not awesome, but I can’t say it doesn’t make the scenes more tense, at least at first. The confusion inherent in that style fits with the confusion in the sequences, but it can only hold that attention so long. After 10-15 seconds, it just becomes tiresome. Eventually, you need to know who’s doing what to whom, and Summer Camp doesn’t really give that.
It does, however, give a fair amount of blood. If that’s what you’re looking for, Summer Camp‘s got you covered. (That’s a pun, because people get covered in blood. Get it? Hilarious.) There is some inconsistency in the actual damage caused by weaponry, and characters eventually seem to get over most non-fatal attacks, even if they should be crippling. Then they walk (or limp) around covered in blood but not bleeding out or really in danger of death from wounds. They’re still in danger from the zombies and the inevitability of their fates, but it’s hard to be truly concerned when some duct tape essentially fixes a drill through the foot.
The one thing that really makes Summer Camp stand out is that thing I talked about in the introduction: The Resident Evil 4 thing, the Spanish thing. Even though it’s a Spanish movie, most of the film takes place in English. It’s set at an English-language immersion camp, and as such, the group is made of native English speakers. Even so, I assumed that any Spanish dialogue would be translated, because that just seemed like an appropriate thing to do. But no. The first time someone spoke it, for just a moment I thought it might have been a mistake. Maybe he was mumbling or another character was going to translate it and we were supposed to be in the dark in the meantime… but no. We just don’t get to know.
The characters’ lack of knowledge is actually pretty fundamental to the plot, though. Like me, they recognize specific words or phrases but can’t communicate in any meaningful way. And because of that, people die and signals for help get misunderstood. It’s actually pretty awesome in a twisted sort of way. And I imagine knowing Spanish would completely undermine its effect. But if, like me, you only speak English, you’ll get a harsh but interesting lesson in why multi-culturalism is so important in our increasingly globalized world.
So ultimately I’m conflicted about Summer Camp. It does one thing really, really right (for a specific audience), but much of it is just kind of generic. It’s got jump scares aplenty, some decent laughs, and plenty of groans, but not really moreso than any other horror black comedy out there. It’s kind of generic but with one gimmick, and that gimmick serves to make it stand out just enough to be worthy of your consideration and perhaps even your time.