Camp Hell
dir-scr George VanBuskirk
prd David Newman, Laylee Olfat, George VanBuskirk
with Bruce Davison, Will Denton, Christopher Denham, Connor Paolo, Valentina de Angelis, Spencer Treat Clark, Dana Delany, Andrew McCarthy, Jesse Eisenberg, Sasha Neulinger, Drew Powell, James McCaffrey
release US 13.Aug.10, UK 2.Dec.11
10/US 1h39
Camp Hell
Happy campers: Clark, Denton and Paolo

davison delany eisenberg
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Camp Hell Even with some unnerving supernatural elements, the scariest thing about this low-key horror film is the earnest spirituality of the Christian community. The grounded approach and honest performances are provocative and unsettling. As is the fact that it's based on a true story.

Against his will, teenager Tommy (Denton) is sent to a Camp Hope by his deeply religious parents (Delany and McCarthy). More like a military bootcamp than a week of summer fun, the camp is run by a cult-like covenant community. The rules Father McAllister (Davison) enforces are painfully strict, although Tommy scores points because he's reading Dante. Fortunately, no one knows about his crush on Melissa (de Angelis). Meanwhile, after a violent demon-related incident, Daniel (Eisenberg) has been in a mental health facility for six months.

A blend of evangelicalism and catholicism, this devout religious community is never satirised. The portrayal is eerily realistic, complete with small signs of cultish tendencies, such as the prohibition on leaving the camp, using mobile phones and all expressions of pop culture. Of course, anything even hinting at sex is harshly forbidden. But the film quietly questions every sweeping doctrinal statement and churchy cliche, all while slowly building a sense of underlying suspense.

Writer-director VanBuskirk's serious approach makes the film especially involving. The eerily quiet scenes are laced with thoughtful dialog and performances that are honest and engaging. We understand Tommy's questioning ("Why does the devil have so much power?"), as his grandfather's words of wisdom are dismissed as the advice of a fallen man and his nightmares suggest that a demon is after him. But all of this is played introspectively, cleverly adding layers of interest through creepy dreams, nightmares and visions.

So by the time things start turning darkly nasty, we're thoroughly involved in the story and characters. Horror fans might find the build-up too slow for the genre, and when it finally cuts loose, it gets seriously freaky without ever being overwrought. It's impressive that VanBuskirk creates such a strong creep-out without either histrionic filmmaking or excessive special effects. Instead, we have a surprisingly astute exploration of the dangers of glib religion oppression, with an added dose of terrifying demonic possession.

cert 15 themes, violence, sexuality 21.Nov.11

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© 2011 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall