It was late 1987 when I first rented Summer Camp Nightmare from the local video store. This film, with it's cover that featured a screaming girl and one of the film's stars Charlie Stratton, seemed like the perfect scary movie for me to watch with the other video cassettes I was renting.
When I put this film into the VCR, I figured I was getting a Friday the 13th knockoff. What I got instead was a Lord of the Flies-like tale about a camp being taken over by Franklin Reilly (Stratton), who uses the different personalities in the camp to lead a coup against Mr. Warren (Chuck Connors). Watching Summer Camp Nightmare with a 2020 lens, it quickly became clear to me that, in many ways, this films captures the angst and unrest we are seeing in the United States due to COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd.
Released on home video from Embassy Home Entertainment in May of 1987, Summer Camp Nightmare was only given a cursory release theatrically from Concorde Pictures. The team behind this film was was Director Bert Dragin working off a screenplay that he co-wrote with Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World). These two had worked together on another seminal youth culture film, Suburbia. That film, with its look at runaways in the Los Angeles punk scene is, even today, held up as one of the gold standards for "youth in rebellion" movies. Summer Camp Nightmare was also based on a novel by William Randolph called "The Butterfly Revolution". Despite being packaged as teen horror film, unsuspecting viewers like myself were actually getting a very layered, psychological look at mind control.
We open with yellow school buses making their way through the mountains for 30 days of adventure at Camp North Pines. We are introduced to to Donald (Adam Carl), a tech whiz (at least for the late 80s), who is the moral compass of the story. Chris Wade (Harold Pruett) who is a our good looking hero, the aforementioned Franklin, Hammond (Shawn McLemore), and party boys John Mason (Tom Fridley) and Runk (Stuart Rogers). All of these guys, as well as the campers, are severely bummed by Mr. Warren's leadership style. He doesn't want to have any fun and he insists on taking the campers out to look for butterflies. Butterflies?!?!
Through a misunderstanding on of these butterfly excursions, in which Mr. Warren scares a younger camper, Franklin uses that as a catalyst to take over the camp. He convinces Runk and John that Mr. Warren molested the young boy, and from there proceeds to get the "Counselors In Training" to lock up Mr. Warren and the other head counselors. With all the obstacles out of the way, Franklin takes over the boy's and girl's camps, combining them into a party free-for-all.
Of course, there are dissenters, and this is where Chris Wade comes in. With the help of Donald, Hammond, and some others, he proceeds to turn the revolution against Franklin, but not before Mr. Warren and John are murdered on his watch. Eventually, Chris manages to get help, order is restored to the camp, and the film ends with Franklin sitting in police custody as he is informed that his parents (currently vacationing in Europe), will be coming home soon.
Summer Camp Nightmare really taps into the cabin fever that has been created by COVID-19. Under the old school rule of Mr. Warren, the campers literally freak out once he is locked up. The dances become X-rated, the mess hall is turned into a mess, and the campers do nothing but party because they have no idea how long Franklin's revolution is going to last. We've seen this a bit with the re-opening of certain states since the shut-down in March. Even with guidance to still social distance, people eschewed much of that in favor of questionable gatherings. While acting this way is certainly understandable ("shelter in place" is hardly the American way), but, unfortunately, this (like in Summer Camp Nightmare) has had dire consequences and forced many re-opened states to have to scale back such efforts.
Chuck Connors as Mr. Warren is a solid surrogate for our 2020 Presidential administration. With his rigid belief in how camp should be, his mixing of church and state, and the obvious disconnect between Mr. Warren and most of the younger campers, Summer Camp Nightmare further deepens its ties to today. Lets not forget for a moment that Connors, as The Riflemen (which played from 1958-1963), is a solid representation of a bygone era of American masculinity. In the 1980s, especially in the Reagan Era, there was something of a return to this. However, parents, many of whom were children of the 50s, 60s and 70s, had already realized that what Chuck Connors represented was of a different time. This is further codified in Summer Camp Nightmare. As Mr. Warren tries to rule the camp with a mix of tough love and old school values, he runs up against counselors like Franklin who see Warren as the epitome of how "society keeps people in line through fear."
Much of that mindset is repeating itself today. Many people see media coverage (right, left, or otherwise), as little more than fear mongering. Everything has an agenda. Nothing can be proved and thus everything is false or open for question. The only time we agree with things are when they align how we want them to. It's what allows Franklin to twist a young campers story and turn it into a revolt against Mr. Warren. It's what allows people in 2020 to dismiss anything that doesn't support their cause and ideas (on both sides) as "fake news". This is brilliantly underscored in the film when the campers are writing postcards home to their parents. One camper actually writes about the revolution! He's postcard is quickly ripped up. Then he is instructed to copy another camper's more sugarcoated account of what it is happening in Camp North Pines.
The way in which the campers and the counselors take over Camp North Pines looks very similar to much of the protests we are seeing today. More specifically, the revolution looks a lot like the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) that was created in Seattle as an offshoot of those protests. Spanning 6 blocks the zone was made up of people that were responding to the senseless murder of George Floyd by Police Officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On July 1st of this year, the CHAZ had it's occupants peacefully removed. While the government here was based on consensus decision-making, this isn't the case with Franklin's revolution at Camp North Pines. Franklin rules in a similar manner as that of someone like Fidel Castro. He expects full co-operation, questioning is seen as undermining (as Chris Wade finds out when he is shunned for dissenting), and "cancel culture" is the only culture.
A perfect example of this is with John Mason. He rapes a girl named Debbie (Samantha Newark). Franklin has John cross this rickety rope bridge that is literally falling part. To fall from the bridge would mean certain death or, at the very least, several broken bones. Franklin, recalling medieval feats to prove one's innocence, says that if John can complete this feat he will be innocent in the eyes of the camp. John, not without some anxious moments, moves up and back across the bridge. He is deemed innocent (even though he clearly isn't), and the the girls in the camp (led by Debbie) proceed to take John away and hang him. Why wouldn't they? Franklin hasn't set up any authority (other than his own) to stop them. John Mason ends up being a "cancel culture" tragedy in the worst way.
In the end the revolution at Camp North Pines ultimately undoes itself. The idea of the revolution, when Mr. Warren was in charge, seemed like a great idea. In practice it quickly devolved into turning the campers into a bunch of partied out zombies. With finite resources and an end date to the camp, it's actually laughable to think Franklin was able to pull this off. What is his main goal however? Where does he see this revolution going? It obviously couldn't spread as distance and geography dictate that that was impossible.
Perhaps what Franklin was able to achieve at Camp North Pines was more symbolic than anything else? The kids had their say (to paraphrase the Boston punk band SSD) and what happened in that camp is a cautionary tale to all who don't listen. In this way, the revolution in the film clearly parallels the CHAZ in Seattle. However, once Mr. Warren is killed the revolution at the camp starts to resemble what happened in places like Libya. When Muammar Gaddifi was killed in 2011, Libya quickly fell into a state of chaos. Sure he, like Mr. Warren, had to go, but might there have been a better way to remove him that could've brought stability that region? Could Franklin have taken over Camp North Pines in a way that might've actually been productive and positive for the campers? It seems plausible but the fact that Franklin's revolution was built on lies and manipulation, only seemed to doom it to failure.
Filled with solid performances, underground music, and a raw look at youth gone wild, Summer Camp Nightmare is truly a forgotten gem from the bygone era of the 80s video store days. That this youth culture film from over 30 years ago happens to showcase similar events that mirror our current situation in 2020, further speaks to the power of film and it's unique ability to put a lens on society.