Title: Happy Camp
Director: Josh Anthony
Starring: Michael Barbuto, Anne Taylor, Josh Anthony, Teddy Gilmore
An indie horror movie that makes decent use of its outdoor, real-life setting, but otherwise runs aground fairly early in its already concise running time, unable to come up with enough incidents to generate any legitimate sustained suspense, “Happy Camp” represents one of the particular perils of a low-budget, calling card-type film. Piecemeal, the scene-to-scene work of young multi-hyphenates Josh Anthony, Anne Taylor and Michael Barbuto is fine. But absent a story that generates any sort of clearly defined stakes or rooting audience interest, the movie elicits more of a yawn than any lasting impression.
“Happy Camp” unfolds in the same-named northern California mountain town, not too far from the Oregon border. It’s there that Michael Tanner (Barbuto) returns, two decades after the mysterious disappearance of his step brother — an event about which he remembers little. In tow with Michael are his filmmaking girlfriend Anne (Taylor), along with Josh (Anthony) and Teddy (Teddy Gilmore). Their mission: to document Michael’s trip home, and hopefully trigger some clarifying recollections of the abduction.
The filmmakers sprinkle their movie with local non-professionals, and cast Happy Camp as an ominous burgh, where bearded heavy smokers rant about “flat-landers” not belonging. It’s also, supposedly, been the site of more than 600 missing persons cases over the last 20 years, which basically averages out to one every two weeks. The latter detail mitigates some of the authenticity of the former tack, though it’s not a complete deal-breaker. No, instead what dooms “Happy Camp” is old-fashioned narrative stasis.
Debut director Anthony, working in concert with director of photography Matt Sanders, concocts a solidly moored visual scheme. Smoke — be it from a faltering, dumpy RV or more traditional fire — dominates the early mise en scène, and there are plenty of wide shots to spotlight the beauty of the film’s natural surroundings. The screenplay, though, eventually bogs down, opting too quickly for pat finger-pointing and empty, relationship-based arguments. It doesn’t help that neither of Michael’s adoptive parents are around; this robs the movie of a chance at more articulated guilt and conflict. Instead, what we essentially get is a rinse-and-repeat cycle of Michael moping around feeling uncomfortable and blameworthy, some resident shooing the interlopers away, and then Anne, Michael, Josh and Teddy arguing about things after Michael wanders off for a bit. When the movie’s nominal twist — foreshadowed early on — finally arrives, providing an explanation for all of those missing people, it does so with a deflated shrug rather than any nervy or cathartic charge.
NOTE: “Happy Camp” is available across VOD platforms. For more information, visit http://www.GravitasVentures.com/Happy-Camp/.
Written by: Brent Simon