Camp Hell is the messy debut of director George VanBuskirk. This cautionary tale of religious fanaticism stars Dana Delany, Andrew McCarthy and Caroline London.
Camp Hell has had more than its fair share of free publicity recently, thanks to Jesse Eisenberg suing Lionsgate over the movie’s prominent and misleading use of his face in the marketing material. Having spent a day working on the film and receiving minimal pay, Eisenberg is actually in Camp Hell for less than five minutes.
Originally titled Camp Hope when it was filmed several years ago, the lead is actually Will Denton, who plays troubled teen Tommy Leary. Haunted by unsettling nightmares, Tommy is sent to a summer camp organised by his strict covenant church, where he receives advice from Father Phineas (Bruce Davidson) on the importance of a sin-free life. Unfortunately, he is tempted by cute-as-a-button fellow camper Melissa’s (Valentina de Angelis) advances, and his actions incur the wrath of a demon to whom Phineas has already lost one soul.
If you’re expecting Camp Hell to be a horror film, you’re going to be disappointed, likewise if you’re expecting it to be either a puff piece for Christianity or a hate piece by atheists, you’d best look elsewhere too. It’s director George VanBuskirk’s debut movie and he claims it’s based on his own experiences with The People of Hope, a Catholic Charismatic Covenant community outside New York.
Understanding a little about the group Camp Hell is supposed to be referring to is important, as it’s an insular community that trades on an individual’s guilt, and has been accused of cult-like behavior. What Camp Hell wants to do is examine psychosis brought on by religious fanaticism, but ends up sending a slightly confusing message on religion to the viewer.
The film has a very leisurely pace and any horror-inflected moments are brief and mostly in the form of abstract dream sequences, with the majority of the first hour describing life in the camp, the rules everyone should follow and Tommy’s growing interest in Melissa. Once they’ve committed the ultimate sin (during a fully-clothed and awkward love scene), the demon that Father Phineas failed to beat previously takes hold of the young souls at the camp.
Aside from one very brief sequence right at the end of the film, Camp Hell does play like it believes in everything it says. Don’t listen to rock music, don’t read Spawn comics, don’t masturbate and so on; and the effect of being preached to for much of the runtime means that even when it tries to show that extreme religious brain-washing is dangerous for the young mind, it fails to become a cautionary lesson.
While it’s obviously trying not to promote the lifestyle, it’s not condemning religion either and in fact takes a positive position about maintaining a sensible relationship with God. The evidence of which is found in Jack, Connor Paolo’s character who almost certainly conveys the films primary message to the audience, and his response to all the goings-on at the camp.
Unfortunately, all this makes Camp Hell sound far more interesting than it is, as it’s actually rather dull and totally lacking in atmosphere or scares. The acting is passable, but often overly sombre, aside from some standout performances from Davidson, Connor Paolo and Valentina de Angelis. The use of an Omen-like chant in the soundtrack is laughable, and the priest who must once again battle a demon plot point recalls The Exorcist, something a film as pedestrian as this just shouldn’t do.
Is Camp Hell worth watching? Well, it’s certainly nowhere near as terrible as some reviews would lead you to believe, but it’s not much good either. It does promote a degree of discussion, but it doesn’t say anything new and its TV movie feel will be a disappointment to viewers wanting a solid scare. If you’re intrigued by cultish religion in film then give it a go, but if not then just give it a miss.