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Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Overlooked ’90s Anthology ‘Campfire Tales’ Brings Horror Urban Legends to Life [Young Blood]

Following the “golden age” of horror, anthologies started appearing less and less in theaters before vanishing altogether. Domestic successes like Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie suggest the subgenre was profitable when placed in the right hands. Regardless of numbers, and much to fans’ disappointment, the distributors stopped sending anthologies to U.S. cinemas after 1995. Had the horror climate been different that decade, though, maybe the unsung Campfire Tales would not have slipped so far between the cracks.

According to screenwriter and co-director Martin Kunert, Campfire Tales was completed before Scream came out. Production began as early as 1995, but behind-the-scenes issues delayed the anthology even after Paramount and Warner Bros. both expressed interest in its theatrical distribution. The film regretfully lost its chance to be seen on the big screen everywhere, and New Line instead delivered it straight to video in 1998.

By the time Campfire Tales saw the the light of day, though, Wes Craven’s meta-slasher had already changed the landscape of horror. The low-profile anthology was in turn marketed as another teen slasher to cash in on a hot trend; the home video’s packaging says the film is in “the tradition of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.” The story of course has nothing to do with a masked killer picking off self-aware teens. On the contrary, the young characters here tell tales of others caught up in dire situations, all the while being oblivious to their own pending peril.

The ‘50s-set cold open of Campfire Tales suggests a slasher is afoot, but Kunert’s desaturated teaser is actually the first of four sub-stories. This vignette, a faithful adaptation of a famous American urban legend, was covered earlier in the identically named ‘91 omnibus Campfire Tales. That film’s close shave with the hooked kind is a radical spin on the myth, whereas this version mirrors the more favored retelling. So while nothing here stands out other than early appearances from future stars James Marsden and Amy Smart, “The Hook” is an effective indicator of what all this anthology has to offer.

David Semel’s framing story “The Campfire” comes into view once the four main characters have a car accident in the middle of nowhere. Cliff, Lauren, Eric, and Alex (Jay R. Ferguson, Christine Taylor, Christopher Masteron, Kim Murphy) then find shelter in a dilapidated church nearby, and until help arrives, they swap scary stories to keep themselves occupied. Their only consolation now is knowing things could be much worse. These young folks cling to that cold comfort as they become more and more detached from normalcy.

Campfire Tales movie

Cliff relies on the same wellspring of creativity “The Hook” was born from; he recalls the friend-of-a-friend, secondhand anecdotes he, along with countless others his age, heard while growing up. This explains why a heavy chunk of the anthology is based on classic urban legends, albeit some are less prevalent than others in the collective pop-culture memory. As his companions huddle around a glowing campfire, fending off the burgeoning cold, Cliff shares modern variations of “The Boyfriend’s Death” and “The Licked Hand”.

In “The Honeymoon”, Ron Livingston and Jennifer MacDonald are newlyweds trapped in cannibal country. By the time a local (Hawthorne James) urges the couple to leave, a sinister threat descends on their camper. Matt Cooper’s take on “The Boyfriend’s Death” distinguishes itself from other film and TV interpretations; the ‘79 anthology Screams of a Winter Night, Jamie Blanks’ slasher Urban Legend, and episodes of Millennium (“The Pest House”) and Supernatural (“Hook Man”) all stay close to the source material. Campfire Tales‘ reimagining eventually reaches the same brutal outcome.

People Can Lick Too” finds Amanda (Alex McKenna) alone on the eve of her thirteenth birthday, unaware of an intruder lurking inside her house. This piece about a girl, her dog, and the man hiding under her bed is rooted in a less well-known urban legend, but after seeing it play out, forgetting Amanda’s ordeal is next to impossible. Kunert’s second segment is the most updated of all the smaller narratives here; stranger danger, internet chat rooms, and a child predator all make this one feel distinctly of its time. Although the stakes seem low when put up against other grislier chapters of this omnibus, what could have happened to the young protagonist is what makes this tale so haunting.

Campfire Tales 90s

Rather than shoving on to the next story, Campfire Tales uses the in-betweens to expand on the narrators themselves. Cliff entertains his friends because he feels quiet guilt over the car wreck; Lauren crumbles when recalling a morbid childhood memory of herself and her brother; the defensive Alex feels neglected by best friend Lauren since she started dating Cliff. This piecemeal effort in characterization ultimately adds significant weight to the wraparound.

Alex takes over as host for the final segment. She deviates from the theme of murderers and shares a gothic tale of heartbreak. In “The Locket”, a traveling motorcyclist (Glenn Quinn) spends the night at a remote farmhouse with the sole resident (Jacinda Barrett), a young woman who cannot speak and wears a distinguishing necklace. Soon enough, their would-be romance is tested by a supernatural event. Semel’s two contributions to Campfire Tales have at least one thing in common; they each end on a devastating note. The inspiration for this sad story’s conclusion can be traced back to a Washington Irving short, which later prompted more macabre revisions, including “The Green Ribbon” from Alvin Schwartz’s book In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories.

Campfire Tales horror

More often than not, an anthology’s storyteller is also a threat to the listeners, physically or symbolically. This hidden facet is revealed toward the end of “The Campfire” when the characters realize the truth about everything. A development like this is more likely to roll eyes than surprise nowadays, but Campfire Tales use of this popular plot twist is appropriate given the nature of anthologies.

Campfire Tales comes across as more safe than wild when viewed in the wake of Scream and other films hatched in horror’s first major renaissance. There was a large postmodern movement at the time, so this film’s unusually earnest approach leaves something to be desired for viewers preferring their ’90s horror to be self-referential, or mindful of its themes and structure. Campfire Tales lacks the frills of its contemporaries, yet this anthology is rich in charm and enthusiasm, both of which continue to draw fans back time and time again.

Horror contemplates in great detail how young people handle inordinate situations and all of life’s unexpected challenges. While the genre forces characters of every age to face their fears, it is especially interested in how youths might fare in life-or-death scenarios.

The column Young Blood is dedicated to horror stories for and about teenagers, as well as other young folks on the brink of terror.

The post Overlooked ’90s Anthology ‘Campfire Tales’ Brings Horror Urban Legends to Life [Young Blood] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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