Joanna and her husband Johnny (who just celebrated their 10 year anniversary in July – congrats, kids!) run the wonderfully-named site Bloody Popcorn. And from what I can tell via their social media presence, we share a lot of similar interests – including cult movies, nostalgia, and a fondness for punk tunes. I knew they were the goods when they sent me an Xmas card with Jason Voorhees on the front last year. Needless to say, I was thrilled that Joanna wanted to contribute a piece to…whatever this is. And she did not disappoint! Without further ado, here is Joanna with a double feature to die for!
SUMMER LOVE: A tribute to weird kiddie camp movies (and puberty)
Living in rural Virginia as an impressionable youngster in the ‘90s meant the video store was vital to accessing life experience (or the tropes therein). Don’t get me wrong, I had a real life—school, friends, hobbies—but living miles away from civilization without a car (or driver’s license) just called for overly-organized social planning. And more than often, I was content to just exist in my bedroom with my TV, VCR, and hundreds of duped tapes. (Don’t tell the FBI.)
To compound the situation even more was my age. Preteen years are kind of the worst—and best. It’s where your hormones explode; your body changes; everything is heightened to the point of life or death; and you cling to the silliest details.
But with that being said, adolescence also signifies the development of tastes. So, as an all-too-receptive 11- or 12-year-old girl, my taste was movies, plain and simple. And I wanted my life to be one.
Whether it was The Monster Squad, Troop Beverly Hill, or Newsies, I placed myself at the center of the movie—there was zero concern that I didn’t actually fit into the storytelling. But ass-kicking, lush-living, and song-singing aside, there was always one side branch of films I hopelessly followed with affection (and still do): the summer camp movie.
And, oh, what a time it was. Perhaps it began with repeated summer screenings of The Parent Trap (’64) at my Nana’s house, but before I knew it, I was watching Addams Family Values for the impeccably dark scenes at Camp Chippewa.
To me, camp screamed summer joy like nothing else. And, please note, I was still too young for the absurdly mean-spirited Sleepaway Camp.
But in 1994, the fateful rental of Camp Nowhere happened. This was a winner—and an instant dupe-worthy flick. Camp Nowhere was every kid’s dream. A parentless, responsibility-free summer away at a non-sanctioned camp. No rules, all fun—cute boys, junk food, and even Beverly Hills 90210 viewings included. The only authority was an uptight ‘nerd’ named Mud (Jonathan Jackson) and a colorful semi-criminal named Dennis (played by Doc Brown himself, Christopher Lloyd).
The point of climax? After living the excessive teen dream for several weeks, the kids (and Dennis) ultimately come together to plan and enact a massive stunt. For an unscheduled parental visit, they must fake four camps in one day—of the fat, military, computer, and drama variety.
They scheme and play mind games—and eventually get caught in their sham of a plan, but Camp Nowhere was weird—and, looking back, it was oddly adult in tone. On the surface, they’re just a pack of wild young teens, not even old enough to drive. But these kids think like adults. And, to their credit, it’s all to construct the best summer of their lives.
So, under the PG rating, one camper (Andrew Keegan) attempts to buy booze and another (Mud) gets severely burned by roman candles. Not to mention, at the start of camp, the group performs a pseudo-pagan ritual by figuratively and/or literally burning their responsibilities. After some peer pressure in the form of chanting, one youngster—an Aussie kid—chucks his high-priced cello onto the fire pit. Now, granted, he later trades it for an electric guitar—to which he rocks “The Star Spangled Banner” a la Jimi Hendrix.
And, let’s get real, Lloyd’s character should have been criminally charged for child endangerment, fraud, and possibly kidnapping. But, hey—it’s all in good fun and the kids’ parents forgive and forget in the end. But still… these kids are nutso. Bonkers. Ruthless. And I totally wanted to be one of them. (I kind of still do.)
Random casting: Jessica Alba (in her film debut); Tom Wilson (aka Biff Tanner); veteran actor M. Emmet Walsh; Kate Mulgrew; and, ahem, Burgess Meredith).
And onward to the even stranger cinematic gem Heavy Weights (1995). Trust me, this one is still relevant.
I grew up loving the shit out of The Mighty Ducks series, so my fondness for Heavy Weights is totally organic—as both movies were penned by Steven Brill (who also directed Heavy Weights) and share a few familiar faces (Aaron Schwartz, Shaun Weiss, and Kenan Thompson).
Under different direction, in a bizarro moviemaking world, Heavy Weights would have been a horror flick. Cough, cough, Summer Camp Nightmare…
The gist: Gerry (Schwartz) is sent to Camp Hope, a seemingly cool, pretty OK-looking “fat camp.” Sure, there’s still dieting and exercise, but it looks fun. I mean, come on… they have THE BLOB.
Sadly, upon arrival at Camp Hope, it’s revealed that the owners (real-life couple Jerry Stiller and the late great Anne Meara) went bankrupt and sold the camp to a fitness psycho, Tony Perkis (Jerry and Anne’s real-life son, Ben Stiller). Things get way out of hand, and the kids and a couple counselors (Tom McGowan and Paul Feig—yes, that Paul Feig) decide to take back the camp.
But let’s not gloss over the wacko character of Tony Perkis. He’s a privileged personality—a fitness guru looking to make a name for himself by using the Camp Hope kids as test subjects. He’ll document their extreme weight loss and create an infomercial that’ll make him big bucks.
Perkis breaks ice on his chest, while lying on a bed of nails. He shreds mattresses looking for candy. He imparts motivational stories via cult leader-like speeches at night by firelight. Perkis ridicules, threatens, and starves the kids. And after a crazy-fueled nature hike where Perkis shows off dangerous gymnastic moves from the edge of a mountain, change is imminent. The man must go down—so, the kids trap him and lock him up.
But the weirdness doesn’t end for this villain. Perkis continues to manipulate the mind of one young camper and molds a faux Hershey kiss from tin foil to lure, ensnare, and trick the kid into letting Perkis escape. See… it’s a horror movie.
Of course, everything works out in the end and no real mind damage is done. The good guys win. Perkis gets sent away. And, yes, the parents accept and forgive the summer camp terror for with their kids contended. Because, you know, it’s a movie.
And, finally, Heavy Weights is an incestuous comedy circle-of-life mash-up. Follow this… While he’s not in it, Heavy Weights is part-Adam Sandler as Steven Brill has worked with Sandler on Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, and The Do-Over. Regular go-to Sandler actor, Allen Covert, also co-stars.
And then we have Judd Apatow—who co-wrote Heavy Weights with Brill. Of course, Apatow went on to work with Paul Feig on the super-awesome, yet short-lived, Freaks & Geeks. Shaun Weiss appeared on the show—as did Ben Stiller and Allen Covert. Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann also shows up—and remember, she co-starred with Sandler in Big Daddy. And, of course, later Apatow would go on to direct Adam Sandler in Funny People.
Let’s be honest: Heavy Weights was the early comedy glue that bonded these folks together, yeah? I’m a strong Apatow/Feig supporter—and I credit Heavy Weights entirely. A wacko kiddie camp movie that’s powered by boyish humor and borders on eccentric horror. It’s awesome—am I right?
Fun fact: There’s actually a pretty lavish Blu-ray out there for true-blue Heavy Weights fans. It includes a commentary with Brill, Apatow, and cast members (including Feig); an exorbitant about of deleted/alternate scenes; a making-of video; set footage by from cast and crew; photos from Apatow’s time on set; and more.
Thankfully, I did get the opportunity to attend real-life camp—and work at said camp as a counselor. It wasn’t a movie, but it rocked nonetheless. While working, I even managed to watch Friday the 13th and The Exorcist (randomly) on breaks.
And so, my tastes develop and mature over the years. From Indian Summer and Meatballs to The Burning and Bloody Murder 2, camp runs deep in my veins. Who’s my favorite Jason Voorhees? Do I prefer Sleepaway Camp 2: Happy Campers over the original? It’s a Wet Hot world and I’m happy to live in it.
Thank you, Camp Nowhere, for inspiring a personal rebellion and independence. And, thank you, Heavy Weights, for making me laugh—and a little scared. You’re both still in my viewing rotation.