Posted by gregferrara on October 16, 2013
I was reading through TCM’s Movie News recently (go here for everything from current events to book and DVD reviews) and a review of the upcoming Blu-ray release of The Fly, by fellow TCM scribe Glenn Erickson, caught my attention. His excellent review begins, “Fans of director Kurt Neumann’s original 1958 The Fly have turned it into a slightly campy cult item.” That may well be true, and sadly so, that many people consider the original version as camp but as a lifelong fan of the film myself (I’ve owned it on VHS, DVD and i-tunes), I consider it anything but. Of course, it takes a lot for me to consider something camp. The way I look at it, there’s true camp and faux camp and for too many people, the former gets lumped with the latter.
I do lots of writing here at TCM outside of this blog and one of the pieces I did a couple of years ago was an article on She-Freak, the 1967 horror film written and produced by David Friedman and directed by Byron Mabe. In the article, I define it as a true exploitation film, in that it exploited a previous movie, Freaks, and used cheap thrills as an excuse to make the movie. But what I really love about She-Freak is that it’s not the kind of movie anyone makes anymore. Even low to no-budget movies these days look good because of the quality of the image, made possible by technology that places better video capacity on phones today than existed on stand alone cameras ten years ago. But She-Freak looks cheap, like it was made with a Super-8 camera and had sound dubbed in just minutes before the final print. It has minutes upon minutes of static carnival footage to fill in the running time and the acting is pretty much what you’d expect from actors, both professional and amateur, given only the barest possible characterizations and dialogue with which to work.
But the thing is, I like She-Freak. Seriously, I do. However, I’m not going to pretend you’ll like it, or anyone else I meet would like it. It’s low-budget, poorly acted, barely written and directed with a leaden touch. Let’s just say it: it’s prime Mystery Science Theater 3000 bait (and how they missed doing it I have no idea). I’m not fooling myself that it’s good but it is reassuring. It’s like watching someone’s homemade horror movie and, as such, there’s something incredibly genuine about it.
And that’s what I would qualify as camp: Low-budget, little attention to script and performance, and eerily genuine. Like you’re watching a movie so odd, so lazily done, it almost seems more real than the grittiest crime drama. To me, when something tries to be camp, it has no chance of ever really achieving that designation. Being camp just happens.
And so if She-Freak is true camp, what is faux-camp? Well, The Fly, for one. The Fly is a superbly done horror/science fiction film that has special effects that don’t look as real or chilling (although that end can’t be improved upon for chilling, in my book) as they do today (I reluctantly suppose) and so people like to call it camp. What else? Every other well made horror science fiction movie that also has old-timey effects and old-timey characterizations where people are sincere and live in a world where few if any have the luxury of irony. It’s sad but true that many people look at Forbidden Planet, War of the Worlds (1953), The Incredible Shrinking Man, or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers as campy when, in fact, all they’re doing is equating anything old with camp and that’s a poorly written equation.
True camp has an engaging reality to it that sets it apart. As I said earlier, it feels so much like a home movie that it feels personal in a way a better budgeted production doesn’t. Take another classic example, The Astro Zombies by the incomparable Ted V. Mikels. It’s another personal favorite for all the same reasons as She-Freak, and one that I’ve mentioned elsewhere before (and if you follow the link you’ll see another post by fellow Morlock, Kimberly Lindbergs). The scenes in the bar lounge, apartment and basement lab all feel like they could have been filmed in my friend’s house with my home movie camera with much the same result. I don’t get that from a better budgeted or better made movie and it’s exactly the kind of thing I look to for comfort from these classically Grade-Z movies.
Which may be why I get so disgruntled when I hear a big-budget, well made movie described as camp because it doesn’t represent the height of technology of films today. Hell, there are some people out there (we’ve all met them) who consider pretty much anything released before 1970 to be camp. Or any movie that’s spectacularly bad. Hey, I’ve seen some very bad movies that I don’t consider campy at all (but I won’t name them here for fear of throwing off the conversation), ones that even took home Oscars. Bad isn’t camp and camp isn’t bad but bad can be camp and camp can be bad, very bad. Mostly, though, it’s desperate. It’s broke. It’s struggling to get done, to get out there, to get seen at any cost. And then failing. Like She-Freak and The Astro Zombies. They’re not movies that succeed the way they’re supposed to but do succeed at providing me with something honest and real, even if that honesty and reality is intricately tied into their own ineptitude.
True camp isn’t for everyone. I’ve only mentioned horror camp here (hey, it’s October, what do you expect?) but another favorite true camp film is another I wrote up for TCM, 80 Steps to Jonah (bet you had no idea I wrote up so much camp here). It’s full of stars, including Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet as well as Slim Pickens, Keenen Wynn, Sal Mineo and Mickey Rooney but best of all, it stars Wayne Newton as a young man on the run, hiding out at a camp for blind children. It has all the earmarks of true camp: lots of padding, slow pacing, odd gaps between line readings, flat lighting and the feeling that no one saw their lines or rehearsed their blocking until two minutes before the cameras started rolling. It feels desperate, half-written and rushed. And I like it. And I don’t have to feel bad about liking it because no one wasted 300 million dollars on it. Yes, it fails pretty miserably. No, I wouldn’t honestly recommend it to anyone. But it works for me in a very strange and mystifying way, performing a magic that only true camp can perform, where desperation and rushed ambition reveal something that feels very close to reality. Something that feels personal. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Too bad.
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