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Hot Times!

Four summer campy movie classics to kick off the lazy season.

By Dorothy Woodend 27 Jun 2008 |

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for the Tyee every other week.

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Hayley Mills does double duty in original 'Parent Trap.'

On this first day of summer vacation, let me just say, "Thank the Lord and pass the sunscreen." In honour of summer, and all that it entails, here is a selection of campy movies. Not just campy, but summer campy!

Summer camp movies are a bit of an acquired taste, but let me tell you, I've got a hankering. Almost every cinematic fetish has its roots in genuine experience, and mine is no exception. Having grown up in the country where summer meant work camp -- picking, weeding, hoeing and plucking -- the idea of a real summer camp, complete with uniforms, counsellors and cabins, has always been a deeply exotic notion, filled with fetishized glamour.

Personally, I blame "The beach people," which is what we called the people who summered near our farm on Kootenay Lake. They arrived when school was out and left on the September long weekend. The rest of the time, they had BBQ parties, went water-skiing and lived it up, while next door we picked cherries and weeded the garden. The mothers wore Lily Pulitzer dresses and shaved their armpits. The fathers played golf. The kids had big white teeth and clean hair. They gave me a strange fixation on about how other people lived.

Since camp movies are largely about nostalgia, it makes sense that you would be drawn back to the idea of summers past, to a simpler time when adults were scarce, kids were kids, and summer lasted forever. So, whether you're sending your children away, or just dreaming of summer high jinks gone by, here's a sampling of some of a few fine films to get you through the sunny season.

The Parent Trap (1961)

Starring Hayley Mills as separated twin sisters Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers, this has got to be one of the all-time champions of camp films. Although only the first portion of the film actually takes place at summer camp, it's a critical section. When the sisters meet and fight for the first time at good old Camp Inch, the plot is set in motion. If you haven't seen the movie, where have you been your whole life?

In short, the story concerns the long-lost twins trying to reunite their divorced parents, Mitch and Maggie. My own twin sister and I loved this film to absolute pieces as kids, and having watched it again, it still does it for me. Not only does the film have Ms. Mills in all her youthful glory, it has the irresistible force that is Maureen O'Hara (Maggie) meeting the immovable object that is Brian Keith (Mitch). It's even got Nancy Kulp (most famously known as Miss Hathaway in the Beverly Hillbillies) as camp counselor Miss Grunecker.

There is a reason the original Parent Trap has stood the test of time. It's sweet without being sucky, and incredibly sophisticated for what is, ostensibly, a kids' movie. It is also filled with surprises, everything from genuine pathos to slapstick, not to mention some great early '60s fashion moments (still my favorite style era). The interplay between O'Sullivan and Keith is wonderful. Both actors are at the peaks of their games, answering each other's volleys by fist or by quip. One example: Maggie says of her ex-husband's new fiancee, "Oh yes! Don't say anything about that dear, sweet, precious Vicky! That plus-faced child bride and her electric hips!"

The rest of the cast is equally fine, from Charles Ruggles (as Grandfather McKendrick) to nasty gold-digger Vicky Robinson. In some ways, the kid part is the least of the film. Watching it again as an adult, what really comes through is the great romantic comedy, replete with dialogue that stings, such as Edna Robinson, wicked mother-in-law-to-be, telling her daughter to play it cool. "Think of California and that lovely community property law, and smile...." No matter how many times you've seen The Parent Trap, the big payoffs still work. The mother and father and children reunion still gives me a lump in my throat. Perhaps, I've gone soft, like ice cream in the sun, but maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Little Darlings (1980)

Camp Rock, the latest kiddie sensation from the Disney Channel, is a far cry from The Parent Trap. Don't ask me how I came to be watching Camp Rock, it's a sad story, it might make you cry, but I don't think I've actually seen a more plastic abomination in my entire life. It makes Little Darlings look like Ingmar Bergman.

Little Darlings is a bit of a cult favorite and it's not hard to see why. From the opening moments, when Kristy McNichol as Angel Bright gives a guy who's catcalling her a full on boot in the balls, this film plays it tough. McNichol shares the spotlight with Tatum O'Neal, fresh off her starring role in The Bad News Bears (another fine summer film), and it's an ideal match-up. Angel, the bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks, meets Ferris, a spoiled rich girl with something to prove, and the result is teen queen heaven.

The addition of a very young and very foxy Matt Dillon also livens things up considerably. As the pair meet and wrangle at summer camp, a contest to see who can lose her virginity first takes off. Ferris targets the older, French camp counsellor with the highly unlikely name of Gary Callahan (played by Armand Assante), while Angel has her eye on the tight jeans of a fellow camper named Randy (Dillon). The premise, creepy as it may sound, gains unexpected emotional depth when Angel and Randy actually do the deed. Her face puffy with unexpressed hurt, Angel mutters a truth that a great many women have felt after sex when she says "I feel so lonesome."

Meanwhile, the lily white Ferris has failed in her quest to get deflowered, so she lies about it, and in so doing comes to understand the pain of being branded a slut. The film is about the loss of innocence, but more importantly, it's also about the reclaiming of that same innocence. Female solidarity rules in the end, and as corny as that may sound, it's actually quite sweet. After the recent pregnancy pact story in the U.S., and the spate of recent films about teen pregnancy, it's doubly refreshing to watch the scene where the girls steal a bus, drive to the nearest gas station and knock a condom machine off the wall. Pregnancy is the last thing they want to have happen, and they mean to come prepared.

Meatballs (1979)

In the olden days, you set your kids loose during the summer, let them roam like a herd of wild horses, then rounded them up in the fall, when it was time to go back to school. The underlying ethos of camp movies is escape: the prying eyes of parents are gone, the regimented order of school is suspended, and the woods beckon. I can't really say Meatballs is a great film, it's a silly, stupid summer movie, and sometimes, that's exactly what you need. Also I find myself singing the damn theme song all the time, even in the depths of winter. Especially in the depths of winter, it seems.

Filmed in Haliburton, Ontario, Meatballs has some nice Canadian touches, including an old Montreal Canadiens jersey, some great Ontario scenery, plus an assemblage of Canadian actors such as an extremely dewy Chris Makepeace. The film is little more than silly bits thrown together, connected by Bill Murray doing his thing, which is all fine and good. Meatballs has a casual sloppy charm, which is what makes it work. The jokes are corny, the setup predictable, and, despite the presence of its American star, it feels very Canadian.

The plot, such as it is, follows a group of CITs (counsellors-in-training) at Camp Northstar, a ramshackle establishment that aims to give kids the best possible summer experience in its price range. Across the lake from Northstar is Camp Mohawk, the rich kids camp, which costs $1000 per week. The class/camp rivalry reaches its peak during the annual Olympiad, when the two troops square off against each other in a series of contests, including a basketball game and a marathon run. Lonely little Rudy Gerner (Makepeace) goes from camp chump to marathon man when he outruns his much older Mohawk opponent. All ends well with the CITs getting drunk and horny, and the two head counsellors hooking up. Although a remake is currently in the works, there is little chance that it will measure up the goofy warmth of the original.

Indian Summer (1993)

If you want to go the full on nostalgia route, Indian Summer gives it you with both sentimental barrels. After watching the film, I almost feel nostalgic for the '90s because everyone looks do damn young. Was 1993, really all that long ago?

The story follows a group of adults who reunite for a week at their childhood summer camp, Camp Tamakwa. Diane Lane, Bill Paxton, Vincent Spano, Matt Craven (who also starred in Meatballs) and Elizabeth Perkins are a group of aging friends seeking to recapture a simpler age (which is 11 years old apparently). Unlike the real thing, this summer camp redux film has not aged very well. The soundtrack is god-awful, and the performances (self-conscious and forced) make you cringe. This film also points out the unhappy fact that adult problems are largely tiresome. As the characters drone on about affairs, broken hearts and lost dreams, you start to wish that someone would short-sheet their mouths.

The one good thing about this movie is, again, the great Canadian landscape in which it is set. The film's directors Mike Binder and Sam Raimi (who also stars) attended the real Camp Tamakwa, in Ontario's Algonquin Park, and filmed their own childhood haunt. Raimi's inept handyman role is a bit of a giggle, but really this film is a clear indicator of the limitations of nostalgia.

Summer is a time when the past seems much more present. The smell of water, the feel of bare feet on warm dirt, all those tactile things bring you back. But even if you can't go back again, you can relive summers past in the glow of a movie screen. At least there are no mosquitoes.

Have a favourite summertime flick? Please share it by posting a comment.

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