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Happy Camp (Movie Review)

Mar. 25, 2014by: Jake Dee

PLOT: 20 years after his brother mysteriously vanished, Mike and his three friends (with cameras locked and loaded) return to find answers in the tiny mountain town where the alleged abduction took place.

REVIEW: Hey, who's up for another needless no-budget found-footage flick with all setup and no payoff? Well then, HAPPY CAMP is your destination! Truth be told, going into this flick cold with absolutely zero foreknowledge, I was kind of expecting - if not secretly hoping - HAPPY CAMP to be what it sounds like, a fun little self-conscious slasher joint set at a familiar campground. No such luck. Instead, what we get is an amateurish 70-minute single-act scenario, where very little happens for the first hour or so, before suddenly springing not just a narratively random, but visually insulting and completely unconvincing Bigfoot finale. Seriously, I saw better videogame footage in the 90s. And of course, all of this "found footage" is intercut between shaky POV and RV surveillance cameras to give it that documentary feel. All too typical of its ilk, offering nothing new or even remotely inspired, HAPPY CAMP only gets credit for making HAPPY CAMPERS - starring Brad Renfro and Dominique Swain - look like a masterpiece in comparison. No f*ckin' beuno!

So, the eerily quaint little town of Happy Camp, California has a population of just over 1100. Since the late 1980s, more than 600 people have vanished from the town without a trace. One of those kids was Dean Tanner, who, while playing with his adopted brother Mike outside one day, suddenly disappeared. Mike woke up in the hospital two days later without a clue of what happened. Dean was never found. Now, 20 years later, Mike (Mike Barbuto) has recruited a small group of friends to go back to Happy Camp and investigate what really went down that ill-fated evening. This includes his girlfriend Anne (Anne Taylor) and two pals Teddy (Teddy Gilmore) and Josh (Josh Anthony, who also directs from a script he wrote with Barbuto and Taylor). The foursome hits the road in an old RV equipped with three mounted cameras for hunting, which really just function as a cheap way to justify the found-footage aesthetic. Also, both Teddy and Anne rock a video-camera of their own to document the trip, largely providing for Mike's emotional confessionals as he struggles to deal with this haunting past. It really doesn't matter though - shaky found-footage, docu-style or shot from a completely still tripod - the script here is way too sleight and far too one-dimensional to be saved by technical gimmicks.

Never-mind the trampled framing device, the limited resources and the resulting technical style - the real problem with HAPPY CAMP is nothing happens. Nothing! Once the crew arrives in town, they talk to a bunch or local yokels who warn about "flat-landers" not being suitable for this twisted neck of the woods. They find a cemetery with erect white-crosses overlaying empty graves. They happen upon a seemingly abandoned sheriff station with a giant wall strewn with missing-persons fliers. All dead ends and feckless leads. No answers. No action. No terror. Just a bunch of hissy-fit throwing by Mike and fatigue-fueled infighting between he and the others, namely Anne. Mike goes on long emo-walks to clear his head, and his pals are left to wonder where the hell he went. At times Anne wanders around in search for him, with camera in tow, as it swings to the ground and out of focus as if she (and the director) was unaware it was even recording. Example after example like this cement HAPPY CAMP as little more than an inert, overstretched short film. Even when the action does finally ramp-up in the last 10 minutes or so, it's far too little and way too late, replete with such bad CGI that the "monster" could only be framed, in whole, in extreme long shots. For real, I've seen better fake-bigfoot footage on the internet!

I could go on about why HAPPY CAMPERS is worth a skip, but allow me to say a few kind words. I actually liked the cast quite a bit. If the three main principals who also helped write and direct the flick didn't have so many irons in the fire and could just focus on the performances, I think they would have all been better off. I get that you have to, as actors, go out and create your own material, but it can also work against you in some cases well. What I'd like to see is Anthony, Barbuto and Taylor get a chance to act out better written material, preferably someone else's. Seriously, these guys all have a natural presence on camera and even with atrocious dialogue at times, do a decent enough job of making it believable. Call me a horny perv-ball, but Anne Taylor, yeah, let's see more of her please. She got skills!

In sum, HAPPY CAMP is anything but. It's neither the slyly irreverent slasher you may expect it to be, nor is it remotely effective as the somewhat veiled bigfoot tale it turns into. It's basically an overwrought single-set, single-act search and rescue effort that amounts to a hill of squat. The shaky hand-held visual style only reinforces its low-budget amateurishness, never transcending the format or even advancing it in any way. Not that it needs to, or is intended to, but if a script this bereft of action and depth of layer isn't wildly augmented through camera gimmicks, then what's the use? My word...go see WILLOW CREEK instead!

Extra Tidbit: HAPPY CAMP hits VOD March 25, 2014.

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