I never went to Summer camp, at least not the kind where you sleepover in cabins in the middle of nowhere. Where that may have sounded like a joy for some, I thought being out in the middle of the forest in some cabin sounded like the opposite of fun. I recently sat through the parody "Wet Hot American Summer" earlier this year, a dismally unfunny picture that confirmed my worst thoughts about what an irriating place Summer camp must have been.
"Happy Campers" is a different picture altogether, and one that I took an instant liking to. First-time director Daniel Waters gained fame about thirteen years ago writting the very dark teen comedy "Heathers". Since then, he's focused his talents on less interesting material, such as the Bruce Willis bomb "Hudson Hawk" and decent actioners such as "Demolition Man" and "Batman Returns".
Waters has smartly decided not to attempt to parody a genre whose films eventually became parodies of themselves. Instead, the film pays homage to Summer camp, while also offering engaging characters, sharply and darkly funny dialogue and even beautiful cinematography. The film stars former "Lolita" Dominique Swain as Wendy, a ridiculously perky counselor who greets her young campers with phrases like "isn't fun great?" and has the energy of a few cases of Pepsi. Swain isn't afraid to make herself look silly and has the required comedic timing to make the character's perkyness funny and not simply irritating or dumb.
Elsehwere, there's the shy Talia (Emily Bergl, who some may recognize from "Carrie II"), Wichita (Brad Renfro) and hippy Pixel (James King, who played a nurse in "Pearl Harbor"). Peter Stormare is also pretty amusing as camp director Oberon. When Oberon gets hit by lightning, it's up to the counselors to run the camp. Relationships and personalities begin to shift as the camp is hit by a hurricane and continue to change as the camp starts to decend into chaos.
I'm still pondering why it is that "Happy Campers" never made it to theaters. It is a teen comedy with an indie sensibility, but it still could have been at least a minor success in a limited release, as it is, in my opinion, better than most of the teen fare currently out there.
VIDEO: "Happy Campers" is presented by New Line in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen or pan & scan. The anamorphic widescreen presentation is not perfect, but it's up to the studio's usual standards of excellence. The film's cinematography (by Elliot Davis, "Forces of Nature" and Antonio Calvache, "In The Bedroom") is quite attractive, as are the locations. This may be a low-budget picture, but it has a slick, professional appearance that shines here. Sharpness and detail remain strong throughout, with only a couple of minor instances of softness.
The picture offered only a couple of tiny flaws. Given that this film never received a theatrical release, I was expecting the print to be in perfect condition, and it was. A couple of slight moments of grain were seen but, other than that, no specks or marks were seen. A trace or two of pixelation and edge enhancement were seen, but these instances were hardly noticable and certainly not distracting. The film's crisp, natural color palette was quite well-shown, appearing nicely saturated and not at all smeared. Another very nice New Line effort.
SOUND: "Happy Campers" is presented by New Line in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film is mainly a dialogue-driven piece, but there are instances of nice ambient sounds coming from the rears, as well as some limited, subtle moments where the surrounds are employed for more noticable sound effects. Music, dialogue and sound effects remained crisp and clear throughout. Overall, nothing too remarkable, but a fairly nice soundtrack production, nonetheless.
MENUS: Some minor animation livens otherwise rather ordinary backgrounds.
EXTRAS: This is one of a small group of direct-to-video titles from the studio (see also "Highway" and "Prime Gig") which contain no supplements.
Final Thoughts: "Happy Campers" is a clever, dark and funny teen comedy that I found very entertaining. It's going direct-to-video, but it will still hopefully gain the audience it deserves.