Why the Criminally Overlooked Happy Campers Deserves Classic Status

Jim Hemphill makes the case for Daniel Waters' subversive summer camp movie, a film that has never been recognized for its unsettling brilliance.

Those of us who toil away on the margins of independent cinema often keep ourselves going with the idea that, no matter how poorly our films may be received or distributed in the moment, the cream always rises to the top – if your movie is good, it will eventually find its audience. After all, even It’s a Wonderful Life and Brazil flopped on their initial releases, right?

Unfortunately, the notion of a sleeper that slowly builds a fan base is virtually nonexistent these days; getting a great film out into the world via streaming and other delivery systems is easier than ever, but getting it noticed in a climate where it takes a $100 million marketing budget just to make audiences aware you exist is virtually impossible. Back in 2002, when Daniel Waters made his directorial debut with Happy Campers, it wasn’t quite as hard for smaller films to get noticed – the glut of independent product on demand didn’t exist yet, and you weren’t competing with half the films and TV shows ever made available for download at the click of a button – yet Waters’ comic gem didn’t attract the audience it deserved. It still hasn’t, giving the lie to the notion that every great film is ultimately recognized. If that were true, Happy Campers would be celebrated as what it is: one of the great American movies of the past 20 years.

Waters established his reputation as a screenwriter with a film that did become a classic after an unsuccessful theatrical release, 1989’s whip-smart and pitch-black comedy Heathers. That film, a satire about murder and suicide that seemed at times to be in favor of both, was an arresting refutation of the empathetic, sensitive teen films being made at the time by people like John Hughes, Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe. Those movies followed Jean Renoir’s tradition of understanding that everyone has his or her reasons; the characters in Heathers had their reasons too, but usually the reason was that they were assholes. In spite of the fact that Heathers landed in theaters with a dull thud and only grossed around half of its $2 million budget, it made Waters an in-demand screenwriter on expensive studio projects. Hollywood clearly appreciated that Waters had a distinctive, brilliant comic sensibility – and then attempted to grind it out of him on movies like The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Demolition Man. Luckily, Waters did occasionally find the perfect synthesis between his acidic voice and the demands of the studio system; Batman Returns, in particular, is one of the smartest, funniest and most haunting movies of its era, and the large scale on which it’s mounted serves to amplify and enhance Waters’ preoccupations instead of suffocating them.

Batman Returns aside, as a fan of both Heathers and an unproduced Waters screenplay called A Model Daughter that was kicking around Hollywood when I first moved out here (still the single best script I’ve ever read, anywhere, period), I always longed to see his point of view return to the screen undiluted. It finally happened in 2001, when I arrived at the Sundance Film Festival and sat down to watch Happy Campers, a summer camp movie so dark and weird it made Heathers look like an episode of Eight is Enough. It’s shot, in fact (by Out of Sight cinematographer Elliot Davis) less like Meatballs than Suspiria, all canted angles and wide-angle lenses and weirdly colored shafts of light. The premise – horny teenage camp counselors chase each other around for the summer while barely doing their jobs and occasionally teaching life lessons to their young charges – is identical to virtually every summer camp comedy ever made. Yet there’s nothing routine about the execution, which recreates the sheer terror and degradation of adolescence through horror movie visuals and a script that revels in uncomfortable moments – you know you’re not watching The Parent Trap or Camp Nowhere long before the scene where the girl gets her first period in front of the entire camp. Waters subverts the conventions of his subgenre at every possible moment, so that even when he satisfies the requirements of the formula he does so in a way that leaves the viewer feeling slightly queasy; the kids learn lessons here all right, but they’re not the kind their parents – or even most of the people in the audience for this film – would find remotely acceptable.

A lot of comedies feign outrageousness; one obvious example is Wet Hot American Summer, which premiered at the same Sundance fest as Happy Campers and has since built the kind of following that has eluded Waters’ film, probably because it’s considerably tamer and more self-reflexive – the movie is constantly commenting on its own jokes, underlining the fact that they are jokes and thus nothing to find too disturbing. Happy Campers, on the other hand, is genuinely shocking even 16 years later, because its dozens of jaw-droppingly hilarious moments grow out of an authentically anarchic sensibility with no filter, no safety valve and no apology. Waters is the only comic filmmaker I know of who shares the relentless sadism of horror directors like Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper, directors whose movies feel like things that can hurt you; his is a cinema void of comfort and reassurance. Yet paradoxically, Happy Campers ultimately achieves a kind of comforting quality by virtue of its hard edges; Waters’ view of childhood as a laboratory of insensitivity and his depiction of initial sexual encounters as unadulterated awkwardness and humiliation are probably closer to most viewers’ experiences than what one finds in more mainstream movies, and thus there’s a pleasing sense of recognition generated even by (perhaps especially by) his work’s most transgressive moments.

Happy Campers occupies a peculiar place in film history in the sense that it fuses the two predominant types of summer camp movies that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, sex comedies and slasher films. Waters recognizes that both kinds of movies are riffing on the same undercurrent of sexual repression and anxiety; both are about teenagers’ uncertainties and fantasies regarding sex, but in one the kids get killed for their curiosity. No one is murdered in Happy Campers, but they certainly don’t have the easy time of it that even the protagonists of a more serious-minded teen sex romp like Little Darlings are permitted. In the world of Daniel Waters, childhood and young adulthood create scars for life, and the genius of his writing and directing lies in his ability to ride the line between humor and horror without sacrificing or compromising either. Happy Campers is undeniably an odd, one-of-a-kind movie, which is presumably why it remains more or less unknown to all but Waters die-hards – and why it deserves to be known by everyone.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.