Wednesday 28 July 2010

The Monster of Camp Sunshine (1964)

Director: Ferenc Leroget
Stars: Harrison Pebbles, Deborah Spray and Sally Parfait
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Is there any better location in which to set a monster movie than a naturist colony? A Nazi death camp would provide opportunity for fetishistic sleaze in black leather, but using a nudist camp preserves all the innocence of the old school monsters while gifting us with copious quantities of naked female flesh. The Monster of Camp Sunshine is a terrible movie, make no mistake about that, but it's also a truly surreal, bizarre and unique picture that deserves all those adjectives and more. Unlike most of the Z grade movies I've reviewed for Cinematic Hell, this is one I'd truly recommend you see, just for the experience. Apparently sincere in its message about naturism, its tongue is nonetheless firmly in its cheek when it comes to the monster and it goes full out holy batshit insane when it feels like it. The last fifteen minutes is sheer outsider genius and it takes something truly special nowadays to make this reviewer exclaim, 'What just happened?'

I'm still trying to fathom what just happened and I've let this film soak into my brain for a couple of days. It's inept but it's inept in a strangely talented way and it still doesn't seem real to me. I've come to the tentative conclusion that it was made by a set of highly talented people, merely ones whose talents aren't in moviemaking. Nothing is easily explained and everything generates questions. For a start, it has an obvious joy in the past, half of the film set up as a silent movie, complete with histrionic intertitles; but it's inherently forward looking, with its social commentary about animal rights, environmental horror and the freeing power of naturism. It's also feminist in having two liberated female leads who work in the big city and share a flat after being matched up by IBM cards. Claire is a progressive model, daring enough to pose for photos in a topless swimsuit. Marta is a nurse and research assistant at an animal experimentation laboratory.

They're also both naturists, as is suggested by an introductory text that might have been written by Oscar Wilde's ghost. 'The motion picture that follows is a fable,' it says. 'In it there are many nudists but only one monster. In life, it is generally the other way around.' Confucious, he say strip. This pair spend their naked time at Camp Sunshine, which is run by a friend of theirs called Susannah York. No, not that one. It's a low key affair with a surprisingly dodgy gate, so low key that it's probably the real house of one of the cast members. It takes us a while to get there, as we're treated to a number of background stories first that are as admirable in their attempts to flesh out a real plot as they are completely inept in their denouement. I don't know whether to hold this up as a classic example of how even the worst movies should at least try to make sense or as a classic example of why most of them should never even bother.

So we watch Claire and Marta waking up in the morning, so addicted to nicotine that they have an ashtray hanging from the ceiling to raise up and down between their bunk beds. Marta's up and at 'em even though she had a bad night after watching Monster from the Hairy Planet and Dracula Meets the Beatles the night before. Those ghastly horror movies give her the creeps, though I'd pay to see that double bill. She doesn't like Claire's spooky music either, even though the girls call themselves peas in a pod. Continuity is not this film's strong suit, trust me. It took me a lot of rewinding to realise that the entire plot didn't unfold a year earlier in flashback after being set into motion in the present. It's about to be triggered by Marta dropping a mirror, thus prompting 'an adventure that came as close to costing us our lives as a hound dog comes to a treed coon.' So says Claire, who is our narrator when the intertitles don't do better.

The girls' reaction to seven years bad luck is more akin to being told about impending nuclear apocalypse and next thing you know Claire gets scratched by a cat. It's just one of those days, but they head off to work anyway. Marta goes to her animal research lab, full of thousands of rats and mice and 'half crazy animals with sharp little teeth'. Apparently the girls think it's a freaky place, full of stuff that 'upset the delicate balance of nature', but hey, it's a paycheck, right? Claire goes to a studio high up in one of New York's skyscrapers but it's just a tiny room with a wooden chair and a couch and a secretary outside, just enough space to strip off as soon as she arrives so she can wander out onto the patio to be photographed. Mostly this unfolds without sound, just Claire's overdubbed narration and inappropriately sexy jazz music, with hints of action that we aren't going to get. There's lots of nudism but no sex in this movie.

A different sort of action arrives, just as we aren't expecting it. 'Marta is about to go through the worst experience of her life,' warns the narration as she takes a cage of white mice out of the racks and puts it on a desk, accidentally turning on some sort of toxic water cooler overhead. 'Their killer instincts are unleashed,' reads the intertitle. Yes, this thoroughly liberated woman is afraid of white mice, and I mean really afraid, though to be fair someone off screen does actively throw the things at her. She climbs screaming out of the window to hang from the ledge by her fingernails, many storeys above ground. Now, I understand that some women are afraid of white mice, however stereotypical that may seem, but how many of them really choose to work in animal experimentation labs? It would hardly seem to be the best career choice given the circumstances, even more inappropriate than appearing in a movie that doesn't get released.

It's here that we finally get to visit Camp Sunshine, in a flashback prompted by Claire trying to calm Marta down from the shocking events of her day. Yes, we get a flashback in a nudie cutie monster movie, one to show how Claire stumbled onto Marta's stash of Urban Nudist mags and became initiated into the scene. Mostly it's just an excuse to finally show us naked bodies, given that we've got twenty minutes in without a hint of a naked girl or a monster. Even then we see male butt first, as some guy is apparently playing croquet with himself in what may be a crime in more than one southern state. By the time Claire finally strips off in her room we realise why she waited this long though. Those aren't nipples, they're dangerous weapons and she's liable to poke someone's eyes out with them. I should add here that we only see breasts and butts, no full frontal nudity, hardly surprising for 1964 but somehow still a little quaint for a naturist movie.

Camp Sunshine also seems to offer a clothing optional environment rather than require nudism by mandate. Susannah, the owner, struts around in a pair of jeans, and her halfwit half brother fortunately stays clothed throughout. He's Hugo, a rather large sweaty gentleman, who takes care of the gardening. 'There was something about his looks that gave me a chill,' says Claire, though she's told there isn't a mean streak in him anywhere. Apparently nobody notices how threateningly he waves his secateurs at people. Guess who the monster of Camp Sunshine is going to be. For now he's just the halfwit half brother as the naked folks frolic around with box kites and go swimming in the river. I'm all for naked girls in movies but this flashback just goes on and on, so much so that we start to wonder about the plot and that really can't be good. By now writer Ferenc Leroget is getting a little sloppy though, so we'll be back naked before long.

It's plot convenience time and do we have a doozy for you. Dr Harrison, who talks far more like a pulp villain than a doctor, rants on to Marta about 'a million to one shot', 'some combination of vicious substances' and how he thanks 'the great surgeon in the sky that it happened to rats and didn't happen to human beings.' He even tells her how thankful he is that they have scientific techniques to get rid of such 'vile, vicious substances'. You know, like taking a sniff of the vial and then running over the road to hurl it into the Hudson river, that sort of scientific technique. Sure enough, it's promptly fished back out by some yokel with a straw hat and a pipe who likes catching hot water bottles and bicycle tyres and vials of foul smelling liquid. This moron puts it in a bucket on the tailgate of his truck so he can drive a couple of hours to his next stop and knock it into the stream, conveniently right next door to Camp Sunshine. Wow, who'da thunk it?

Thus far it's been technically flawed, to say the least, especially with regards to the sound. Some parts are louder than others. The lipsynching is terrible. One line is overlaid with feedback so we can't even understand the words. Yet just as the plot is rapidly falling apart from a carefully set up character based monster story to an overly convenient mess of a parody, the sound takes a turn for the crazier too. Of course Hugo the halfwit half brother goes fishing in the stream and Susannah arrives just in time for him to start gibbering like a chimp. I swear this is audio footage from a jungle movie and given where we're going to end up, that wouldn't surprise me at all. We only have to watch Claire model an awful topless bathing suit for Ken, her photographer, before we can get down to the true insanity. She does model it on the roof against the New York skyline where we wonder how strange it is to miss the World Trade Center before it was ever built.
I know far too little about nudie cuties, a short lived genre spearheaded by Russ Meyer with The Immoral Mr Teas in 1959. Exploitation filmmakers working outside the major studio system were not subject to the restrictions of the Production Code, so could happily throw naked bodies into their pictures; but they were subject to local obscenity laws, so had to be very careful about how they did so or they might just end up in a small town jail for exhibiting 'pornography'. Films with invented educational intent went a long way, fake documentaries about naturist camps or jungle natives went further, but not until The Immoral Mr Teas was there really a widely seen film with both naked women and a plot. Needless to say, it was a huge hit and directors like Bob Creese, Doris Wishman and Herschell Gordon Lewis churned out films full of people John Waters called 'happy, healthy idiots on pogo sticks with airbrushed crotches.' By 1964 the genre was dead.

Nudie cuties died for various reasons. Most obviously, the roughie came along, the sort of violent and often explicit sexploitation film that set the stage for the unique excesses of the seventies. Compared to Nazi abuse movies, women in prison films and rape revenge flicks, nudie cuties are as tame as they come. While some contained innocence and a naughty charm, most contained nothing but average looking naked bodies playing volleyball, intrinsically indistinguishable from each other. Also, perhaps they were inherently doomed to failure. I've never been to a naturist camp but I've read enough to know that they thrive through avoiding sexuality. If you introduce sex into the picture then you have a whole new ballgame, pun not intended, and that's what nudie cuties really were: a reminder of sex in an intrinsically non-sexual environment. So they became a short lived quaint genre that raises an eyebrow and reminds of a more innocent time.

The Monster of Camp Sunshine came along just as the nudie cutie was becoming extinct, which may be one reason why it disappeared so quickly itself. Apparently the folks at Something Weird found the 35mm negative on the top shelf of an old film vault, where it had possibly sat since it had been made, never having previously seen the light of day. Unfortunately a gap of 29 years between production and release means that it's nigh on impossible to discover anything about the film and the people who made it. Most, if not all, are credited under pseudonyms. Harrison Pebbles? Sally Parfait? How about Ron Cheney Jr? Nobody seems to have made another picture, only producer Gene Kearney earning any other credits, like for writing Night of the Lepus. What's more, if anyone involved had ever exhibited the slightest curiosity about this bizarre chapter of their past, they've apparently chosen not to speak up and claim their place in the spotlight.

In fact there's such a wall of silence surrounding this film that it's hard not to start conjuring up conspiracy theories. Making a movie, whatever its quality, is such an event that you don't just forget it for the rest of your life. It's hard to believe that, with Google to aid nostalgic yearnings, nobody ever searched for this and left a comment on IMDb about how it really wasn't all that bad or how it was funded by a Baptist church or how Camp Sunshine is real. Even if the cast all died young, possibly from lung cancer given how much they smoke, surely someone kept a diary to pique the interest of relatives who can rave on Facebook about some strange film that Aunt Alice was in that's on sale at Amazon. After all, Harold Warren put on his Manos cape every Halloween because he was so proud of his 'masterpiece', Don Barton attends screenings of Zaat. Even after becoming famous, Shirley Mills talked about the positive change that Child Bride had brought.

So how come there's nothing at all about The Monster of Camp Sunshine? Sure, it was released 29 years late but it's still been in the marketplace for 17 years and it stands alone as an artistic statement, terrible but fascinating in ways that most Z grade movies aren't. It may have been a late nudie cutie but it was groundbreaking in other regards. As a monster movie set in a nudist camp it anticipates slasher movies and other future sexploitation genres, standing alongside a select few titles like House on Bare Mountain, Kiss Me Quick! and The Beast That Killed Women. It opens with Terry Gilliam-esque animated title credits, five years before Monty Python's Flying Circus came along and shook up everything. It has a subtitle, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nature, which is a dig at Kubrick's film adaptation of Dr Strangelove the same year which preserved the subtitle of the novel, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Another topical connection makes me wonder all the more just who was involved. The topless bathing suit was invented the summer this film was made by Rudy Gernreich, an avowed nudist. His muse was a model named Peggy Moffitt, who looks a little like Claire, down to the prominent nipples she displays in the famous photograph of Gernreich's monokini. Moffitt was married to photographer William Claxton, who looks a little like Ken and who had a tendency to shoot his wife or other subjects, like actress Natalie Wood, on rooftops against the New York City skyline. Claxton was also noted for his work with jazz musicians, who provide most of the film's score. I spent some time comparing photos of these people with stills from the film and I don't believe that Deborah Spray and Ron Cheney Jr are really Moffitt and Claxton, but I have no doubt that they play characters based on them. Spray is also obviously a model rather than an actress.

The credited writer and director is Ferenc Leroget, maybe a real name given that it doesn't seem to translate to anything but maybe not given that he seems to be the only Leroget in existence. Perhaps it's an anagram. If Ray Dennis Steckler hadn't been so honest about all his pseudonyms I'd wonder if he was Leroget, as the timing is right and this feels like his sort of inconsistency. It's technically vastly inconsistent, half a silent movie with intertitles and half a regular sound film with dialogue, and it has a flavour of the DIY filmmaking of today, with highly opportunistic use of amateur actors, stock footage and whatever sets or locations became available at any point in time. Also, I can't help but believe that, like many Steckler pictures, this one had a script that evolved wildly over the duration of the shoot, possibly because it was shot mostly in order. And so to the ending, which is truly something out of Ed Wood's wet dreams.

We end up back at Camp Sunshine, of course, where halfwit Hugo is now chained up in a chalet. Claire and Marta wander around, strip naked and wonder where everyone else is, as the music turns into a Tom and Jerry soundtrack (or Foghorn Leghorn when we get to Oh! Susanna). They party with Ken and his girlfriend Laurie, who they brought along with them because it might do her good. She's the secretary at the studio Claire works at, who couldn't dream of taking her clothes off in front of anyone. She stays shy while the rest of them find ever more innovative ways to hide their genitals (why use a straw hat when you can use an autoharp) and eventually wanders off down to the river to strip off in solitude and get stalked by the monster. Yes, Hugo has escaped, and only the broken sound could explain why Laurie doesn't hear this 300 pound zombie chimp monster clad in loose chains stomping around behind her with an axe.

Eventually Susannah turns up to explain that 'mah brahther's a mahnster' and prompt all hell to break loose. Trust me, that isn't much of an understatement. The monster shows up as they're celebrating Claire's birthday, naked with sparklers, and all the girls break bottles over his head. Ken turns into Rambo, complete with machine gun, sticks of dynamite and an insanely large pair of underpants. Dr Harrison arrives by parachute, landing on a van like Captain Chaos. They call the authorities, which means one guy in fatigues and a nametag reading Bat Guano, plus every branch of the armed forces the filmmakers could find in stock footage. 'A monster?' he cries, 'In a nudist camp?' In rush the cavalry, literally, men on horses with sabres, though it's hardly the place for horses given that this is now a true warzone, complete with barbed wire, anti aircraft guns, amphibious vehicles, cannon, air raid sirens, the works. Blink and you'll miss a war.

It becomes something akin to Saving Private Ryan with bouncing breasts, which is far from a bad thing in itself, but it comes out of nowhere and refuses to quit. A nudie cutie monster movie suddenly turns into the mother of all war movie mashups because, well, because it could. Day becomes night, night becomes day, nobody really knows what's going on but they all take their opportunity to flounce around topless in front of the camera as the military folks strut their stock footage stuff. 'And that's all that's left of the monster of Camp Sunshine,' Harrison somehow manages to say entirely deadpan, as the armed forces vanish into the mist and he locates the monster's tiny brain, the only bit remaining to kick dirt over. Anyone watching this will want to leave their seat for the first boring hour, but if they make it to the end, they'll be stuck there for ten minutes after the film finishes, still seated in sheer shock. What just happened, indeed.


James R said...

akin to Saving Private Ryan with bouncing breasts

Honestly, you'd sold me on this by about the second of third paragraph, but if I'd had any doubts left this line would've killed them. Clearly I require this.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

The last fifteen minutes must be experienced. Unfortunately you have to work through the first hour and some to get to them.

Anonymous said...

The stock footage at the climax has Civil War cavalry, Revolutionary war soldiers with muskets, and the swastika being exploded off the top of the German Reichstag at the end of World War II. If somebody in it had a gun, they used it!

Hal C. F. Astell said...

So I did blink and miss a war! I'll have to notice the Reichstag on my next viewing.