One Man’s Camp…

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.

She Freak (1967)

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.

80 Steps 01

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.


22 Responses One Man’s Camp…
Posted By swac44 : October 16, 2013 1:35 pm

Funny, I’ve never thought of The Fly as camp either, it’s well-made and I imagine to many viewers at the time of its release, truly horrifying. Something like The Terror of Tiny Town on the other hand…

Posted By Pete R. : October 16, 2013 2:37 pm

I always thought camp was when something was done with an obvious tongue in cheek humor. The 60s Batman TV show is a good example.

The Fly doesn’t belong in the camp category for me. Its a sci fi movie with rather primitive SFX but the tone of the film is as serious as Cronenberg’s remake.

Posted By Jenni : October 16, 2013 5:30 pm

The original The Fly isn’t camp but the remake with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis? Yeah, I’d put that in the camp category. I saw it on cable one time, when my husband’s parents and his maternal grandparents were trying to play cards. For some reason, they had the movie on in the background and every time something bizarre happened in that film, the card players would stop their hand and howl with laughter…the big moment when Geena Davis gives birth to a larva? I though they were all going to fall off their chairs with laughter! Your post brought back this hilarious moment of family lore and I thank you!

Posted By Pete R. : October 16, 2013 5:44 pm

Sounds like your family has a great sense of humor. Ive never watched The Fly and laughed at it uproariously though. I wouldnt call either of them camp.

Posted By gregferrara : October 16, 2013 8:11 pm

To me, the old Batman show is more a straight up parody, intentionally funny and maybe that is camp to a lot more people than what I think of (low-budget, done with good intentions, fails miserably). Thing is, it doesn’t fail. It was indeed very funny and right on target.

But we may all disagree on what exactly camp is without disagreeing that just because something isn’t as sophisticated in accordance with modern sensibilities as we’d like doesn’t mean it’s camp.

Posted By gregferrara : October 16, 2013 8:16 pm

By the way, in that still from 80 STEPS TO JONAH (the movie’s in color, by the way), the blind woman is his girlfriend and she’s also a sculptor and that big head he’s carrying is the massive bust she did of him. Really, it’s just… there aren’t words.

Posted By Doug : October 16, 2013 9:11 pm

Doug’s perambulatin’ parameters:
Wink? Not camp.
No Wink? Maybe camp.
In which…um…camp… would we put “The Pink Angels”?
Tonight I’m going to watch “High Spirits” which is hard to define-it does wink, but it’s a Neil Jordan picture with Peter O’Toole and a few other Oscar nominated actors. And Connie Booth.
Who doesn’t love Connie Booth? It sure FEELS like camp.

Posted By Pete R. : October 16, 2013 9:20 pm

How about: Flash Gordon (1980), Barbarella (1968), Modesty Blaise (1966)…Camp or no?

Posted By LD : October 16, 2013 9:42 pm

THE FLY was the first horror movie I saw as a child in the 1950′s. Actually, I saw just a small part of the movie. My family went to the drive-in and I was expected to be asleep in the back seat of the car. And I was. Until, unfortunately, I woke up and peeked over the seat just as the cloth fell off the guy’s head. Like a turtle going slowly back into it’s shell, I retreated from the huge screen and assumed a fetal position on the back seat. If my parents saw me they did not comment. Childhood traumas were not of much, if any concern in the 1950′s. I don’t know if THE FLY is camp or not. I have yet to see the entire movie.

Posted By Qalice : October 16, 2013 10:20 pm

I think sincerity is the key to your definition of camp, and I agree. Some people seem to think that camp is anything they can mercilessly mock, but for people like me that’s almost everything. And the whole world can’t be camp!

Posted By gregferrara : October 16, 2013 10:59 pm

Pete R. – Those are good ones to question. They all had good size budgets and were competently made. Flash Gordon definitely feels like it’s going for camp but plays more to me like a parody along the lines of the Batman series mentioned earlier.

Again, the title of the piece is “One Man’s Camp…” which would indicate there isn’t widespread agreement. For me, but obviously not everyone, camp is more the stuff like I mentioned here and including things like Manos: Hands of Fate and the like. Really low-budget schlock. For others, it’s that winking eye style of Flash Gordon, Batman and Modesty Blaise.

Let me put it this way, to perhaps make it clearer (for me, at least): I think a lot of people conflate kitsch with camp. I think they’re two separate things. Kitsch is Batman, Barbarella, Flash Gordon and so on. Camp is the low budget schlocky stuff.

Posted By gregferrara : October 16, 2013 11:01 pm

And then there’s “cult” which Glenn conjoined to “camp” in the original review I referenced. I purposely didn’t touch that one because cult can be anything that gains a following beyond its original popularity. You could argue that It’s a Wonderful Life is a cult classic, or The Wizard of Oz, just as much as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Cult can be anything, camp is specific.

Posted By Pete R. : October 16, 2013 11:23 pm

Thanks for the replies Greg. Great article/topic to discuss!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : October 17, 2013 12:39 am

I love She-Freak, too, and have never understood the animosity directed towards that movie by the Psychotronic crowd – the people who you would think would love it.

Posted By gregferrara : October 17, 2013 1:09 am

It’s true underground stuff. Made on the cheap, the very cheap, by a kind of hero of the genre, David Friedman, producer of Blood Feast. You’d think it would have more love. Friedman’s commentary/interview on the DVD is just great. He’s so damn excited about the gritty reality of the carny life that they captured. He really believes he made something lasting and valuable. In other words, he’s sincere, not ironic.

Posted By tdraicer : October 17, 2013 3:09 am

My understanding of the term has to do with gays winking at subtextual gay themes in pop culture. Outside that context, “camp” seems to be used by viewers who feel above and apart from whatever they are watching. And in that sense, I reject it pretty much completely. There are bad movies that are bad in ways that make me laugh at them (MST3K films if you like) but they still draw me in (films that don’t draw me in, I simply call boring, and stop watching).

I certainly don’t think of films as camp just because they don’t have modern special effects. If I did embrace the label, I’d put something like the Transformers movies in the camp category over The Fly or Attack of the Crab Monsters or It! The Terror From Beyond Space, all of which I in fact enjoy simply as scifi/horror films.

Posted By terje rypdal : October 17, 2013 5:18 am

I think the key problem here is that “cult”, “camp” & “kitsch” are largely subjective lenses which are applied often deliberately to the “eye of the beholder” as it were …

Many people find Douglas Sirk films like “Magnificent Obsession” & “Written on the Wind” to be markedly “kitschy” or “campy” — but in fact serious Sirk scholars believe that this kind of deliberately artificial & high-gloss mood & approach was in fact exactly what Sirk was going for, very “seriously” indeed … (and which was much admired & imitated by subsequent filmmakers like Fassbinder & in some regards Lynch)

But what about, say, Arch Hall Jr. films like “The Sadist” or “Wild Guitar” … Or the so call juvenile delinquent films like the fascinating “Naked Youth” — or the Ed Wood Jr.-scripted “The Violent Years” … (I happen to have re-visited all of these examples very recently, along with a lot of the “educational” social engineering shorts & so on) … Were these films reasonable attempts within the time & milieu of their productions to tackle these then- hot-button issues of actual problems in our society — but just done in “over-the-top” style so as to entertain & attract box office custom?? … Or were they in fact every bit as “ludicrous” seeming to any serious movie go-er back in the late fifties or early sixties as they strike most of us now?!?

As with the other three terms, “exploitation” is another term which is bandied about freely but can’t really be pinned down very well … Does it mean films where the whole point of the movie is to see an attractive & scantily-clad cast?? Many films in this category made in tamer eras now strike us as “camp,” “cult” or “kitsch”, certainly … And if made more recently & more explicitly, then we call them “soft porn” or some such term

Is the director’s OWN intention the arbiter of where we should draw these lines? What was Arch Hall Sr.’s intention as to the films he made with his son? Did he realize how absurd they would seem to us years later — or perhaps even then, to most people? … What about David Lynch? … Critics often complain that the film “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” has a totally different, jarring, harder sort of tone & feeling to it than the “cult” series … But perhaps that was exactly Lynch’s intent with the film … I wonder … Hmmm, I think I’ve run on enough for now!

Posted By DevlinCarnate : October 17, 2013 8:03 am

to me “camp” isn’t films like The Fly or She Freak,but The Brain That Wouldn’t Die,now THAT’S camp

Posted By Emgee : October 17, 2013 8:56 am

I think you can’t consciously make a camp movie; if you do, you get Austin Powers. (Or Tarantino.)”Yeah, we know it’s nonsense , but that’s just the point.”
For a movie like She-Freak to work, it needs to be taken semi-seriously; otherwise it’s MST3K time.

Posted By gregferrara : October 18, 2013 2:15 am

It’s all about the sincerity, for me at least. If there’s no winking, and it just doesn’t quite work on its own, it’s camp.

Posted By joes : October 19, 2013 7:37 am

I’ve had the opportunity to see SHE FREAK on 35mm Film – twice! AND, got to see and meet David Friedman.

It’s not a “good” film by conventional standards, but, as a document of that carny era, it’s indispensible. And, it preserves a Friedman pitch on film forever.

Posted By Commander Adams : October 19, 2013 5:33 pm

There’s a particularly obnoxious and uninformed subset of (mostly younger)film “fans” who regard any science fiction film of the 50s or horror film of the 30s (even ones as fine as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD or BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) as “hokey” and good only for laughs. These people, of course, will throw a tantrum if you even lightly criticize the films and shows that THEY like.

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