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Summer Camp (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"You've been here a few times, but it's a good time."
4 stars

From the title alone, it's pretty clear that "Summer Camp" is not exactly likely to break new ground as a horror movie, but there's plenty of hope that it may do a familiar thing well, and the 81-minute runtime is also fairly promising - these things are best when there's just time to react, not think. It is pretty cool, then, to see this one exceed expectations - yeah, it's got a lot of things horror fans have seen before, but it doesn't waste much time and packs what time it's got with enough switch-ups to keep the viewer guessing.

The camp is "El Búho" in the north of Spain, which promises English immersion for the kids arriving in two days, which means bilingual counselor Antonio (Andrés Velencoso) is joined by three Americans: returning friend Will (Diego Boneta), who hooked up with both female counselors last year, resulting in their not returning; Christy (Jocelin Donahue), the kind of girl who brings heels to camp; and Michelle (Maiara Walsh), the kind of girl who may very well not own a pair. It is, apparently, not enough that Spanish summer camps tend to be located in creepy, abandoned manor houses whose pipes are busted - there's an RV full of rednecks parked on the grounds, one of the dogs in the petting zoo has a case of rabies unlike any the farm-raised Will has ever seen before, and there's a lot of pollen floating around despite it being late in the season.

So, naturally, it's only a matter of time before something akin to the 28 Days Later rage virus breaks out, resulting in, as one character succinctly puts it, "the eyes, the biting, the black stuff". The fun comes from how writer/director Alberto Marini (a long-time collaborator with executive producer Jaume Balagueró directing his first feature) opts for a hard swerve right when it's time for the carnage to start, and then spends much of the rest of the movie giving his characters too much information as to what may be causing this rather than too little. He and co-writer Danielle Schleif also come up with a nifty variation on the device which keeps the choices from reducing to the simple, familiar kill-or-be-killed/fight-or-flight scenarios.

Throwing all those red herrings out there and going for a bit of a shell-game structure means that the movie doesn't really slow down much once it gets going. Toward the end, it does mean that sometimes the film moves fast enough that certain good bits get glossed over, but four the most part, Marini operates with an admirable efficiency. Not only do the characters not screw around getting from ideas to action, but there's not much introduced early that doesn't pop up later in some capacity, and moral dilemmas often double as porch-black comedy without messing with the atmosphere. The film may be light on blood for some fans - not only does Marini have a cast that can't take much reduction, but he could stand to dial back the shaky-cam a little - but there's enough going on that he doesn't seem to be avoiding it.

The cast is a nice, if small, group of actors playing basic types well. Andrés Velencoso draws the least interesting as the easygoing hunk of the group, but he does all right by it. Jocelin Donahue plays the screamer in Christy,but she doesn't overlook the way spoiled rich girls can be a little scary even when their usual resources are useless. Maiara Walsh is good contrast as Michelle, generally fun though annoyed by Christy, and not playing it as cattiness. And there's little doubt that Diego Boneta deserves his high billing as Will, swinging between cocky and stumbling to simultaneously come off as the smartest guy there and seemingly dead meat for being kind of amusingly dumb. Those whose characters get infected get to keep shining when that happens, too, since this particular take on the material doesn't entirely change one into a grunting animal, with plenty of hints of their human personality as each tries to kill his or her friends.

It's easy to dismiss "Summer Camp" - generic title and premise, cast you've never heard of, not much gore, short runtime after sitting on the shelf for over a year before finally being released by a distributor that usually handles Spanish-language pictures. It's surprisingly good when all of that is taken into consideration, worth checking out if you like this sort of thing.

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originally posted: 03/24/16 00:50:49
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