Attention campers! Counselor K-Tron is having an arts and crafts demonstration in the mess hall at 9am. Learn how to make a VHS tape out of macaroni and friendship bracelets! The summer is winding down, a hint of autumn in the air, so it is time to talk about a film setting we all hold dear.
Ah, the camp movie, set in the wilderness inhabited by young people who have very little knowledge of what to do there, having all just met, and are expected to survive for a handful of weeks while the parents or guardians, who have kept them safe and alive up until that moment, speed off in minivans toward civilization.
The whole fish out of water, or in water, as canoeing or swimming is mentioned, if not shown at least once in these movies, is a perfect set up. Most people don’t know each other. Those in charge are often barely adults, certainly not the most likely to keep children alive if you were picking teams. The kids themselves are often misfits, forced into going to the wilderness. There are bugs and bears and open fire pits. It’s hot. It’s boring. There is no TV. No one wants to be there. No one really knows how to handle where they are. Cue the conflict.
While many of these movies share similar tropes, many have their own subtle flavors. Which movie you count as your camp film will differ depending upon your age bracket and some kind of deep seeded psychological workings. It’s perfect for the end of summer/beginning of autumn, as it captures a bit of both.
Before we get into it, there are some rules. First of all, a “cabin in the woods” movie is not a summer camp movie. If there is a family on vacation together, it’s not a summer camp movie. We need kids and young people alone and creating their own social structures. There is a bit of a gray area when we start talking about scouting films, where sometimes there is a parent as a troop leader, so I’m not counting those either. For our purposes, we need kids, mostly supervised by teens, with a vaguely structured daily routine.
And I am omitting the scary ones. While they are superb, and have a lot of the tropes we are talking about, they are a tale for another time. Let’s get comfortable and cozy for today.
The Parent Trap was perhaps the first camp movie I ever saw. A Disney live-action film from 1961, this story is about twins who meet each other for the first time at summer camp. Their parents divorced and had separated the two girls, raising each on their own. However, they somehow end up attending the same camp at the same time! The girls, played by a singular actor, decide to switch places and parents in order to meet the mother/father they had never known in an attempt to get them back together. Just to make things juicier, an evil future step mom is thrown in. While this film starts at camp, the setting does change as the girls scheme at home. Seeing how the one actor, two roles bit is done for the time is great. No computers smoothing that out here! There was a 1998 remake starring a young Lindsay Lohan as the twins which seems a bit more cheeky.
Let us continue with Meatballs, rolling into 1979 with Bill Murray for a heavy amount of ad libbing and an end of the film battle with the kids from across the lake. With sarcasm and sexuality abound, this movie is a bit odd in balance by today’s standards. Notably, with questionable alone time between Counselor Murray and one kid juxtaposed with adults banging one another, but was acceptable for its time. Meatballs: Part II from 1984 is more my style, with a slightly more entertaining cast of oddball kids, an end of the year boxing tournament which makes no sense as well as an E.T. parody alien named Meathead who, at some point, smokes pot which makes his eyes glow red. Also, Paul Reubens of Pee-Wee fame drives the bus. This continued into two more films, the last being released in 1992.
The Ernest franchise, starring Jim Varney as a dim-witted yet lovable goof, put the titular character into every situation imaginable as he shuffled around between movies. Ernest Goes to Camp brought a diverse cast of troubled youths under the care of Ernest in 1987. The slapstick of Ernest being chased by a lawnmower or Native American values mixed with whatever in order to teach kids how to “chill out” is a strange combo. However, that’s all part of its charm. This was a favorite of mine as a wee robot person and whenever I hear The Turtles song “So Happy Together”, it reminds me of the “becoming a man” ritual that Ernest harkens back to as a way to keep from being shot by money-hungry miners.
The mid-’90s had an abundance of camp films but the shining star is Heavyweights released in 1995. The movie centers around youths who fight against the mold which society has set for them by way of putting Twinkies on their pizza AND battling the kids from across the lake. It’s another Disney live-action camp movie that sees Ben Stiller as the psychotic camp owner trying to whip the kids into physical shape by psychologically damaging them. An over the top villain, certainly, but one that kids could enjoy seeing get destroyed. It seems like a film that could not be made today because of the focus on body types, but it did try to show that there is more to people than their looks. The campers were varied, cool, and witty. A young Kenan Thompson had a prominent role!
Is it too late to mention I’ve never been to a camp? There were some day camp things I attended during the summer while my parents worked. I went camping with my family and their friends in tents and other camp staples, but never the parentlessness, thrust out into a new environment/social hierarchy while trying to remember to apply sunscreen and insect repellent and dining on questionably edible food from the mess hall. But I feel like I’ve visited many campgrounds over the years and made friends with the lovable outcasts of these movies. I felt accomplished with them when they conquered the out-of-doors and the worst of their fellow campers.
This is where the camp movie is strongest. It has a nostalgia factor, even if you’ve never actually had the experience. There are warm fuzzies in each film, in each era, that may change a bit in execution but the heart is the same. There is a cuteness to their chaos. Even the most indoorsy types like these films. You don’t have to love the scent of pine to admire the cool backdrop a forest makes for characters meandering through their feelings.
Whatever comes to mind when you think of campers, there is a connecting thread, a curiosity of the wilderness, surviving what goes on there and eventually returning home.
But always after the three to eight weeks your family signed on for. The money has been spent. Suck it up, buttercup. See you on Parents Day.
Camp Movie Drinking Game Rules:
(These should be applicable to most camp films.)
Take a drink for short, mother-luvin’ shorts.
Knee socks worn up to the knee in addition to said shorts.
For examples of child neglect or endangerment.
Every bit of cultural appropriation of indigenous people.
Take two drinks if the camp is named some kind of awful pun that sounds vaguely Native American.
For whenever bullies do something mean.
Whenever someone mentions “the lake”.
Haircuts that are of the era of the film, but no longer fashionable.
S’mores mentioned, made, or eaten.
“Kumbaya” or other campfire songs.
Please drink responsibly. Or not at all, instead smugly sipping some fruit juice or fancy water while admiring all the times these things happen, pausing for an inevitable pee break.
If you are feeling daring, add this to the list.
Whenever someone says they hate camp.
For the sheer glee of bows/arrows.
Take two drinks if there is a bear.
For each mention of the camp by name.
If you wish to not make it to the end of the film, you can try the following list.
I No Longer Wish to Live Rules:
Every time you see a tree.
Other notable summer camp films:
Addams Family Values (1993)
Incidental, but such good camp stuff
Camp Nowhere (1994)
A year before Heavyweights, slacker kids make their own camp with Christopher Llyod
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Parody of all things summer camp film with an all-star comedic cast
Cabin in the woods films:
The Great Outdoors (1988)
John Candy just wants to relax, but in-law Dan Aykroyd shows up and he sucks
Scouts doing their thing films:
Troop Beverly Hills (1989)
In the midst of divorce, rich housewife Shelly Long inspires some kids to be awesome at shopping
Wanted by the FBI, sleazy Daniel Stern pretends to be a scout leader and nearly kills everyone
Man of the House (1995)
Jonathan Taylor Thomas forces Chevy Chase into joining the scouts to scare him away from his mom
K-Tron G-Bot 6-5000 was assembled in the mid '80s using a combination of synthesizer processors, random television parts, and Happy Meal toys. Many an hour has since been spent viewing questionable films. K-Tron asks that we all just keep on keepin' it reel.