Only 33% percent of the writing staff at spunkybean are on-board with the idea of “summer camp”, but 100% of us agree that movies about summer camps are awesome. It’s perfect! There’s adventure, rival camps and campers across the lake, sometimes there’s sex or heavy-petting, and in the case of at least one movie on this list, a lot of casual drug use. In the end, the bullies always “get what’s comin’ to ‘em” and our nervous hero or heroine gets the last laugh, makes some great friends, and learns something about life and about themselves, things they could’ve never learned under the watchful eye of their parents.
So, in honor of our nation’s 236th birthday, let’s grill some dogs, drink some beer and countdown the Top 10 movies set at camp before it’s time for fireworks!
10. Camp Rock (2008) and Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam (2010) – I like the idea that there are summer camps devoted to the pursuit of the arts and music. But I hope those camp directors put a little more thought into it than what we saw at Camp Rock, the fictitious camp where Demi Lovato’s character “Mitchie” went for the summer to pursue her love of music, writing songs, and singing. It’s hard to say what bothered me more …that the movie was bad, that the music didn’t “rock”, or that the writers and directors didn’t take advantage of the fact they were at a “rock camp” to make the musical numbers actually fit within the structure of a musical camp. I get it …Disney had just enjoyed mounds of success with the High School Musical franchise so they took another one of their blossoming child stars and gave her a vehicle to get famous and then sell a bunch of concert tickets, t-shirts, and CDs. Oh, and they had the Jonas Brothers, who were in the midst of their pre-Beiber supernova status. Maybe if Camp Rock was “a musical about band camp” it would have been more awesome. And don’t get me started on how Demi Lovato has since become the Disney version of Amy Winehouse with her “cutting” and “exhaustion”. Poor Demi Lovato, unlike Taylor Swift, just couldn’t write awesome songs about her problems. See? This is why I don’t send my kids to camp. (dk)
9. Poison Ivy (1985)–No, not the horrible Drew Barrymore/Tom Skerritt movie from the early 90s. This is the NBC made for TV movie about summer camp that aired back when Michael J. Fox and Nancy McKeon were two of its biggest young stars. It was a very standard issue camp story, all sanitized and safe for TV…something Disney Channel might make today…if they could cut out the references to girly magazines. Michael J. Fox is Dennis, a cool counselor and ladies man who chafes at having to report to Camp Pinewood’s head counselor Ike, played by spunkyfave Adam Baldwin at a time when he was best know for My Bodyguard rather than Firefly and Chuck. Robert Kline also stars as camp director, Big Irv. Dennis falls for Nancy McKeon’s Rhonda, the new camp nurse, who doesn’t immediately succumb to his charms, mostly because she’s engaged. Throw in a variety of campers with various issues (homesickness, fear of water and the outdoors, first pangs of young love) and the big Color War that frames the story, and you have the recipe for a fun, harmless flick that should get more summer replays than it does. (mw)
8. Camp (2003)–Writer and Director Todd Graff made this small but wonderful film about his own experiences at a real theater camp called Stagedoor Manor, a place that boasts some successful alumni, such as Ironman himself, Robert Downey Jr. This movie focuses on those who shine at camp, but are flat-out misfits at home, living for the summer and the chance to be stars. Look for Anna Kendrick, who rose up through the Twilight ranks and broke out starring next to George Clooney in Up in the Air. She’s delightfully devious here as Fritzi. I’ll admit the acting isn’t all stellar, but the singing is exceptional, and the messages of the story are poignant enough to make it worth your while. (mw)
7. Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977) – In this theatrical release, the Peanuts gang head off to summer camp. It’s also the first animated project for Charlie Brown and the gang that didn’t feature music by Vince Guaraldi. Summer camp is a bit of a weird fit for Peanuts, since the ban on adults means that Camp Remote appears to have no counselors or troop leaders or any sort of supervision whatsoever. (And I always get irritated by the scene of Snoopy driving a motorcycle. I’m all for Snoopy having a rich fantasy life, but if he’s too human, it sort of ruins the interactions.) The focus of the story is on the big river rafting race that three bullies and a cat win every year. (Through cheating and sabotage, of course.) This is a pretty good snapshot of Peanuts in the 70s – lots of Woodstock, Peppermint Patty in a starring role, and even some prominent placement for Franklin. But it’s jarring to see Charlie Brown and Linus in action scenes. The character design does not exactly lend itself to thrilling tales of wilderness adventure, you know? I do, however, really like the way Charlie Brown finds himself in a leadership role and embraces it. It’s a nice moment for him, one that’s undercut when the bus home leaves without him. Which means more of Snoopy’s motorcycle. Good grief. (EJ)
6. Kamp Krusty (1992) – In this fan-favorite episode from Season Four of The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa spend the summer at Kamp Krusty, the only summer camp endorsed by Krusty the Klown. Unfortunately, this is another example of Krusty lending his name to a shoddy project and/or service. Mr. Black bribed Krusty to endorse this deathtrap. The cabins are falling apart, the lake is deadly, and all the kids get to eat is Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel. (Again, shoddy product and/or service.) The camp counselors (school bullies Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney) set up a sweatshop to force the kids to make wallets for sale on the black market. Finally, Bart leads the other campers in an overthrow of Mr. Black (who will not let the campers call him “Uncle Blackie”) and the bullies, an event that makes the news and ruins Homer’s summer. This is one of the most popular (and most-merchandised episodes), and has some really memorable scenes and interaction. Take Barney Gumble as the off-brand fake Krusty, or Krusty saving the day by taking the kids to “The happiest place on Earth – Tijuana!” And then there’s Lisa’s dramatic (and accurate) letter home, which reads like a letter from the front lines. It’s a great episode, and it’s how those of us who missed out on camp picture the real thing. (EJ)
5. Friday the 13th (1980) – All I can remember as a kid about Friday the 13th and Camp Crystal Lake was, “hey, there’s hot chicks at this camp, but also a bloodthirsty murderer! On the one hand, having sex with girls when the camp counselors aren’t looking or are killed would be great, but getting killed myself would be a total bummer summer, dude.” Basically this movie played out the fantasy that every kid tries to bury deep when heading off to camp – that without their parents there to protect them they’ll be vulnerable to a guy with a chainsaw. Heck, it’s why I was scared to be in my basement alone or with no lights on. As far as camps go, as long as you weren’t murdered, this would be pretty cool and you’d have a great “what I did this summer” story when you got back to school. The moral of the story is, just don’t sign up to be a camp counselor here. This one is actually a pretty decent horror flick on its own, but the increasingly cheesy litany of sequels tarnished its rep a bit. Nevertheless, it ranks so high on our list because of its enduring contribution to the pop culture lexicon and the fact that it starred a young Kevin Bacon. REALLY OLD SPOILER ALERT! Jason Vorhees was not actually seen until Part 2, as Mrs. Vorhees was the killer in the original, seeking to avenge her son’s accidental drowning. Also, Jason–who never actually drowned– wore a burlap sack on his head in Part 2 and the iconic hockey mask didn’t show up until Part 3! (dk)
4. Little Darlings (1980)–When this movie was made, its stars (Kristy McNichol, Tatum O’Neal and Matt Dillon) were at the height of their fame. Nowadays, I assume a good part of our readership might have to google at least one of them, possibly all. Regardless, this is a very sweet, funny tale of coming of age and falling in love, all set against a summer camp backdrop. Both Ferris (O’Neal) and Angel (McNichol), two 15 year olds of radically different backgrounds, set out to lose their virginity, since they seem to be the only girls in their cabin who haven’t yet. Ferris sets her sights on Gary, a much older counselor played by Armand Assante. Angel finds her streetwise match (and some would also argue her hair twin–look at those feathered locks!) in fellow camper Dillon. Lessons are learned and the girls turn their initial hatred of each other into a great friendship along the way, so we all come out a little wiser. Plus, wait, hey, isn’t that a very pre Sex and the City Cynthia Nixon as Sunshine? (mw)
3. Indian Summer (1993)–This one’s a bit of a hidden gem, despite its roster of talent. Set at the very real Camp Tamakwa in Canada and starring Alan Arkin, Kevin Pollak, Diane Lane, Bill Paxton, Elizabeth Perkins and more, this one focuses on a reunion of a small group of Tamakwa campers from its “golden age”. Arkin’s Unca Lou, the longtime director (and based on a founder of the actual camp), has gathered his favorite group of former campers for a weekend to reminisce and break the news that the camp may shut down due to lack of funding and dwindling attendance. The camp alums are also dealing with many personal dramas–unhappy marriages, deaths, divorce and just general anxiety about getting older. It’s funny, it’s dramatic, and it makes me happy every time I see it. Some trivia: One of the leads, Matt Craven, also played one of Bill Murray’s young C.I.T.’s in Meatballs. Also, look for Spider-Man director Sam Raimi as Stick, the camp handyman. Raimi, a Detroit native, actually attended Tamakwa as a child, along with writer and director Mike Binder. (mw)
2. Meatballs (1979)–A true summer camp classic. Bill Murray, at the zenith of his SNL fame, stars as Tripper, the head counselor at low-rent Camp Northstar. Tripper’s hilarious wake up and lights out announcements over the loudspeaker are but one highlight of this quintessentially zany look at camp from the perspective of both kids and their teenage counselors, primarily those labeled C.I.Ts–counselors in training. (“Attention all campers, it’s 9:30… and that’s lights-out time here at Camp Northstar, as you know. Tomorrow is parents day, and you must look rested or Morty will be sent to the state penitentiary.”) There are all kinds of hijinks, plus Chris Makepeace as Rudy, a confused young camper Tripper takes under his wing, providing some actual heartwarming scenes amidst the raunch. The movie culminates in the Camp Olympics, which Northstar perpetually loses to the much more exclusive Camp Mohawk across the lake. Tripper’s “It Just Doesn’t Matter” speech is as classic as the movie’s theme song. (mw)
1. Wet, Hot American Summer (2001) – This movie reunited the cast of The State (except for the ones involved with Reno 911!), as well as Paul Rudd, pre-fame Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and Bradley Cooper, and H. Jon Benjamin as a can of mixed vegetables. And it is amazing. It’s 1981, and the last day at Camp Firewood. Everybody’s trying to find somebody to kiss before it’s all over, whether it’s Camp Director Beth and Henry the astrophysicist (who’s trying to save the camp from a falling piece of Skylab), or nerdy Coop and his crush on Katie (who has a terrible boyfriend). Every camp movie cliché shows up here, taken to a ridiculous degree – Coop learns to be cool from the clearly unhinged Vietnam vet Gene. The counselors head off to smoke weed… and also cocaine and heroin. Virgin Victor’s quest to get laid involves a motorcycle chase and nearly sends a raft full of campers over the falls. The talent show includes a camper who can control the weather. A financial and critical failure when it was released, it’s grown into a cult hit and word is that director David Wain is planning a sequel, with the cast reuniting to play the same parts in a movie set earlier that same summer. So they’ll be ten years older, playing the characters they were ten years too old to play the first time. I can’t say it’s true to the camp experience, but there’s one scene involving a hay bale that makes me laugh harder than just about anything else I’ve ever seen. (EJ)
So, there’s our list! Did we miss your favorite? Rank something too high or too low? Sound off in the comments, and have a great 4th!