Screamfest 2022 – DEER CAMP ’86

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Dir. L. VanDyke Siboutszen, United States, 1hr25min

Setting a horror film in a remote cabin in the woods is par for the course at this point, where one needs to push the elements of the genre to create a unique experience or embrace the cliches and just make a fun movie. The latter is the vibe that L. VanDyke Siboutzen’s DEER CAMP ’86 is going for, as we join a group of hunters in Northern Michigan who plan to enjoy a good time of drinking and shooting. Something seems to be amiss though, as a mysterious figure kills a local bartender, setting up a chain of events that could lead to no one in the group coming out of the woods alive.

The tone of the film aims for a tongue-in-cheek approach, even with the promotional material referring to our characters as ‘six knuckleheads from Detroit’, and it often plays that way for the most part. The opening act has our hunters in a bar where they draw the ire of local hillbilly types and get into a brawl. It does a decent enough job of establishing characters, such as the lovelorn Wes (Noah LaLonde), abrasive loudmouth Buck (Jay J. Bidwell), trigger-happy war vet Karlos (Josh Dominguez), and the bullied newcomer to the group, Egbert (David Lautman). The interaction here almost makes it appear that it will be the vengeance of the locals that will bring about the hunters’ doom, in the vein of John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE or Walter Hill’s SOUTHERN COMFORT, but the death of the bartender Star (Tina Joy), set up as a possible love interest to Wes, makes it known that there is a more supernatural angle to the future killings.

While the killer’s motives and powers are in line with the slasher genre fare that the film is paying
homage to (even the time period being the mid-80s, where that era was on its last legs), the ambiguity of the setup is thrown away pretty quickly, especially when the harbinger of doom Sheriff Paulson (Paul Wilson) exposits that there has been a pattern of killings over the years, starting with a bartender and ending with a group of hunters like our main characters, only leaving the motivation of the killer to drive the audience’s curiosity for the rest of the film. There are some fun touches to the film, such as the occasional VHS tape recording of the partying and drinking by J.B. (Brian Michael Raetz), and I also enjoy Simon (Arthur Cartwright), the one smart enough to leave before the bloodshed begins. The post-credit scenes are nice additions as well.

DEER CAMP ’86 feels derivative of the early 80s slasher horrors that clearly inspired it, yet when there are films in the genre that attempt to elevate themselves as allegorical depictions of modern society and the like, the brutal simplicity of this film can feel like a breath of fresh air. And while there is a message tacked on to the end of the film, it isn’t done too on the nose that it detracts from the tone that the rest of the film strives for. It takes a while to get to the bloodshed and horror, but that is more in line with classics like FRIDAY THE 13TH and the ilk that followed, which tended to be more slow burns than all out gore fests. Most of the hunters are stereotypical slasher victims, sometimes to the point of annoyance (Buck sometimes got on my nerves), but it doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the film. If you are looking for a tongue in cheek homage to 80s slashers that doesn’t overstay its welcome, then DEER CAMP ’86 is a worthwhile distraction for the season.

DEER CAMP ’86 is screening as part of Screamfest 2022 in Los Angeles from October 11th through October 20th.

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