Hannah May Cumming and Karlee Boon’s ‘Camp Calypso’ is a Revolution in Horror Reappropriation

A still from 'Camp Calypso'. Two teenage girls dressed in retro-inspired outfits are shown in close-up underneath a wooden structure. On the lef the girl has dark hair and very oversized glasses, wearing dungarees and a polo shirt, she looks scared. The girl on the right has ginger hair, her face eclipsed by the binoculars she is looking through, there are a lot of beaded bracelets on her wrist.
Monstrous Femme Films

Camp Calypso is not built on surprise. From the very moment the wide-eyed Margot (Ruby Cumming) steps into the summer camp that gives the short film its title, anyone with a basic knowledge of horror knows where the story is going. Clocking in at just under twenty minutes, the film almost feels like it’s hurrying to check off every cliché box it can. Suspicious legend around the camp’s origins? Check. Creepy stories and marshmallows around the campfire? Check. Some annoying dude with a guitar? He’s there, and he’s ready to sing. Immature teenagers getting exactly what’s coming for them? Of course. And the perspective of a story ending in a whole lot more blood than it started in? Well, that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? 

What makes the short film different from other straightforward campy horror films is— like so many films that pay tribute to genres and decades past— its self-awareness. In other hands, this type of film-making can easily turn pretentious. In the worst case scenario, it can even feel slightly condescending, as we witness directors flaunting their own references at every turn and forgetting to include us as they do it. Their own knowledge becomes alienating, and the film becomes more of a drag than anything else. 

Thankfully, Camp Calypso is smart enough to let its audience decide how smart it is for itself. There’s no obscure references or sense of superiority here: we’re always in on the joke, no matter how twisted it is. The writers know we’ve seen the same films they have, and they have as much fun playing with this knowledge as we have witnessing it. The illusion of suspension of disbelief is completely abandoned; none of this attempts to reflect real life as we know it. We know that no teenager has ever talked like this, that the bonds between the characters are as fake as the blood on their shirts, that everything from the setting to the plot is little more than a pretext to watch some idiots die. Watching the film reveals itself to be an entertaining game of reflections, one that becomes more and more fun to partake in with every new reference. This is less playing with the fourth wall than smashing every single one of its bricks, and it’s a delight to see. 

Of course, the film is impossible to dissociate from its very overt female gaze — nor should it be. Following up from their first film FANATICO in 2018, Cumming and her fellow team members at Monstrous Femme Films are outspoken about their drive to build a feminist horror anthology through their productions. Their website outlines their dedication to “carving out a place for young women, non-binary and queer folks in the future of the horror genre”. The film credits make us see that this isn’t just talk, as women make up over half of the cast and crew, especially in the most important roles. Upon watching Camp Calypso, it is abundantly clear that this new equally inclusive and monstrous place is one that female viewers are also very much welcome to settle into. 

A still from 'Camp Calypso'. A group of teenagers sit around a campfire toasting marshmallows. The shot is so drenched in darkness you can only make out a select few faces lit by the light of the fire.
Monstrous Femme Films

Although many oppressed groups have found a form of solace in the horror genre, there is no denying that very few (if any) of the slasher and rape revenge films that Cumming and Boon take inspiration from were written with a female audience in mind. Being a horror fan as a woman often needs to come with its own set of techniques for self preservation. Pretending not to hear the screams of the rape victim, turning a blind eye to the obvious lust of the camera all over her underage body, sometimes completely ignoring what the writer originally intended and looking for empowerment where it was never meant to be found. Horror quickly became an affair of re-appropriation for the marginalised. It is a valuable notion: the amount of discussion on the subject from film academics may be one of the best ways to prove it. Yet, as precious and unique as these experiences can be, there was always a form of longing in the oppressed horror fan —an unspoken desire for a story where they felt actually welcomed from the start, instead of having to make a home in it for themselves.

Films like Camp Calypso are what happens when the ones who watched the movies, read the books and integrated the theory decide to take control of the narrative. There’s no need to sugarcoat the misogyny of the male characters, or ever pretend that we’re not happy to see them meet their inevitable gory death. The female monster (Caitlyn Sparkman) is a figure that is easy to feel sympathy for. She’s been wronged in a way so many of us have been. If she’s so easy to understand, why should we need to pretend that we’re not on her side? The use of the mermaid as a villain is also significant, as her voice usually only seduces men, making them her victims of choice. For once, the female horror viewer is out of danger. She’s not an afterthought or an accident. The film is made by female horror fans for these same female horror fans. 

At first, it feels almost too good to be true, even a mistake. Yet every minute of the film brings us one step closer to believing in the miraculous existence of a horror cinema that isn’t frightened of difference, but rather finds its scares in the suffocating nature of the status quo. 

A still from 'Camp Calypso'. A girl is shown in close up looking extremely distressed with her hair smattered all over her face and mouth agape as a switchblade is being wielded in her face by two boys whose faces you cannot see.
Monstrous Femme Films

Every aspect of the film is designed to make us feel welcomed as it walks the fine line between the familiar and the innovative. Each character could have just come out of a different movie, wearing fun outfits and quirky turns of phrases as diverse as they are pleasing to the senses. High-waisted shorts, large glasses, colorful arrays of pins and flowers in the characters’ hair puts fashion on the frontline of the film’s concerns, once again reclaiming the importance of something so often considered inherently female (and therefore devoid of interest). The photography largely matches this diversity of tones, scenes changing from one color palette to the next for the pleasure of our eyes rather than any narrative concerns. Splashes of bloods and murderous mermaids inspire much more delight than they do fright, and that’s perfectly fine. Knowing exactly what’s coming has never felt so euphoric. 

The communicative enthusiasm that Camp Calypso has for its own existence is also its biggest strength . Its love for its own inspirations and its audience is completely assumed and makes for a surprisingly comforting watch. Cumming and Boon have crafted something that is deeply touching in its novelty: a place where the female horror fan can finally feel safe. It may feel overdue at this stage, but it never feels any less revolutionary. 

Letting the two directors guide you through their mirror maze of references leads to one of the most rewarding pay-offs a young female horror fan can hope for: the simple pleasure of being understood. This might just be the purest intention a short horror film has carried this year, and it’s a bloody charming thing to witness.

by Callie Hardy

Callie (she/her) is a Belgian New Media student currently living in Dublin. She enjoys female-fronted horror, nostalgic adaptations of childhood classics and every outfit Blake Lively wears in A Simple Favor. She’s usually pretty honest, but if you catch her saying that her favourite film is anything other than Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, you should know that she’s lying. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd.

 

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