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The summer-camp movie hit puberty in 1979. That's when the genre began its growth spurt: Paramount released Meatballs, an oddly sentimental Bill Murray vehicle that A.O. Scott once called "the greatest summer camp comedy of all time, which is not saying all that much." The greatest summer-camp drama of all time, Little Darlings, came out the following year, and the greatest summer-camp horror movie of all time, Friday the 13th, followed a few months after that. And then, like a summer that ended too soon, the genre slipped into its long decline.
If the golden age of American cinema helped us through the Great Depression and the Second World War, the golden age of summer-camp cinema barely managed to get us through the Iran hostage crisis. When Friday the 13th, Part 2 hit theaters in the spring of 1982, the glory days were over. A breakout of summer-camp sequels—that would include three more Meatballs movies and another nine Friday the 13ths—sullied the genre. The summer-camp franchises brought on a spate of awkward rip-offs that would last for 20 years. Meatballs begat Oddballs and Party Camp, and Friday the 13th gave way to a mini-industry of summer-camp slasher flicks. Bloody Murder, which came out in 2000, features a Jason Voorhees-like killer named Trevor Moorehouse, who stalks counselors at a camp called "Placid Pines." It's not even a parody.
What made the golden-age films so special? They were the first to recognize the inherent lawlessness and cruelty of summer camp. Unhappy campers are all over the place in these movies—clinging to the doors of the school bus on arrival day, scrapping with their tormentors, crying into their bunk-bed pillows. For guidance they have only the horny, 17-year-old counselors who rule the rec hall. It just can't get any worse—which makes summer camp a crucible of adolescence, the perfect place for teenagers to confront the grown-up world.
Meatballs gives teens some survival tips by dreaming up a camp where everyone can be a loser together. As senior counselor, Bill Murray is a hen guarding the henhouse—an alpha-nerd leading a band of merry misfits against a rival camp for rich kids in the intercamp Olympiad. "Even if we win," he tells his campers at a rally, "it just wouldn't matter because all the really good-looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money." There are still outcasts among the outcasts—like the fat guy, Fink, and the skinny guy, Spaz—but these über-weenies never really suffer. And that's the moral: It's OK to be a loser, as long as you have your loser friends.
The Revenge-of-the-Nerd-Camp fantasy turns up again in a series of post-golden-age films about geeky summer programs. That's what unites the NASA wannabes of SpaceCamp, the fat kids of Heavyweights, the queer musical thespians of Camp, and the bandies of American Pie Presents Band Camp. But there's something dreary and overdetermined about the camaraderie in these organized specialty camps. Why wouldn't kids with so much in common get along?
There's no such esprit de corps among the girls of Little Darlings. The minute they step off the bus, a fight breaks out between the two campers who don't fit in. (Never mind the incongruous casting of the gorgeous Kristy McNichol and Tatum O'Neal as these camp losers.) A bullying bunkmate soon finds out that neither of the 15-year-olds has ever had sex and goads them into a competition to see who can lose her virginity first. Their only adult guidance through this ordeal comes from a hairy-chested swim instructor named Gary. He asserts a certain kind of control, perhaps, when he reluctantly refuses to sleep with one of the girls. After several botched sexual experiments—and one outrageous food fight—the bunkmates finally form a friendship. Meanwhile the ringleader gets her comeuppance: The bunk's flower child (played by a 13-year-old Cynthia Nixon) ends up punching her in the face.
It's a formula that wouldn't have worked in the few camp films that appeared before 1979. Disney's The Parent Trap touches on the viciousness of adolescence but doesn't let it get out of hand. The pair of long-lost twins played by Hayley Mills hate each other from the moment they meet in the mess hall. After a nasty exchange of practical jokes, one calls the other a "vicious little witch" and sets off a clawing catfight. (The updated Lindsay Lohan version isn't quite as nasty—it trades the gritty hair-pulling for an over-the-top fencing match in the style of Erroll Flynn.) But the Hayleys quickly reconcile when the camp director isolates the girls in a prison cabin in the woods.
That sort of heavy-handed discipline would cause a camper revolt in the later films. In the 1980s cult classic Summer Camp Nightmare,the Archduke Ferdinand moment comes when one of the kids gets locked up for kissing a girl after a talent show. It isn't long before his bunkmates have taken over and imprisoned the adults. The new regime liberates the neighboring girls' camp, throws a wild party, and eventually resorts to murder as the revolutionary committee tries to stay in power.
The slasher films make the struggle between cool kids and summer camp losers into a matter of life and death. The undead killer from the Friday the 13th movies turns out to be a former camper—surely of the Spaz or Fink mold—who was left to drown while his counselors were having sex. The murderous trannie from Sleepaway Campslaughters all the kids who taunt her for being so shy. Guys from Mohawk, beware: In the world of summer-camp horror, a rec-hall noogie is a capital offense.
Since 1979, camp movies have told the same story again and again, summer after summer: A motley group of teens are thrust into a parentless anarchy of panty raids and color wars. They have sex, they torment each other, and then, a few weeks later, it all comes to an end. They've either grown up, or they've had their heads chopped off. But there are only so many ways to make the same point about adolescence. Once the films of the golden age had explored this theme as comedy, drama, and horror, there was nowhere left to go; the movies that came later could only follow the blazes.
That's why the only good summer-camp movies to come out in the last few years have been the ones that mock the conventions of the genre—the films that are to camp movies what Scream was to horror flicks. Wet Hot American Summer pushes the clichés of summer-camp cinema into absurdity. Set at a Jewish camp in 1981, the movie chronicles a day in the life of some tube-socked counselors who defiantly refuse to grow up. A love story falls apart when the hapless lead confronts his dream girl in their final moment together: "I like you more than I like Andy," she tells him. "But I'm 16. And maybe it'll be a different story, like, when I'm ready to get married, but right now, I am entirely about sex. I just want Andy. I wanna take him and grab him and just fuck his brains out, you know?"
The straight-to-video Happy Campers strikes a similar note. The script (by Daniel Waters, who penned the classic tale of teen clique-icide, Heathers) gives its characters a supreme self-consciousness about the genre. "Who needs a serial psycho with a chainsaw when we have ourselves?" asks one of the counselors at Camp Bleeding Dove. And in the closing minutes, a voice-over reflection lashes out at the central premise of summer-camp cinema: "No one really changes at summer camp. They become who they are more than ever."
The same could be said of summer-camp movies: They got old but they never changed.
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