Directed by Josh Anthony
The name Happy Camp conjures up images of a slasher film with a comedic bent, so imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a slow burn found footage thriller centered around a missing child. Directed and co-written by co-star Josh Anthony, the film manages to show promise early on, but eventually loses its footing before plunging headfirst into tired cliches.
In October of 1989, five-year-old Dean Tanner disappeared from his backyard in Happy Camp, a small mountain community known as being the site of over 600 disappearances during the past several decades. The only witness to his disappearance was his adopted brother, Michael, who swears he can’t remember anything about the circumstances surrounding the disappearance. Twenty years later, Michael returns to Happy Camp with his friends Josh and Teddy and his girlfriend, Anne. Equipped with two cameras, Anne seeks to chronicle Michael’s return and hopefully jog his memory of the events surrounding that fateful night.
And as is the custom, things don’t go entirely as planned for the characters in this Blair Witch Project-inspired mystery. As he shows us an equal number of old acquaintances willing to help and creepy townspeople warning the “Flatlanders” to run far, far away, Anthony deserves a modicum of praise for at least attempting to instill a sense of dread and foreboding as the film coalesces into an eerie return home for Michael. Even when the more tense moments are punctuated by ambient noise to indicate that, yes, you should be frightened right now, the film manages to remain moderately engaging without devolving into the tropes and pitfalls that plague the sub-genre. It’s a slow burn for sure, and while a lot of screen time is eaten up with walking and talking, the mystery that looms in the background is enough to keep your attention even during the film’s slowest moments.
Produced by Drew Barrymore’s Flower Films, the quality of the “found footage” is top notch, allowing a clear look at the events even during darkest of scenes, which is a bonus given how much of the film takes place at night. Even their busted RV’s exterior cameras provide clear, well-lit looks at the area surrounding the vehicle, cutting back and forth to provide us an alternate viewpoint. At no real point does the sub-genre’s trademark shaky camera make an appearance, nor does the incessant screaming of annoying characters you hope die. When combined with the film’s slowly unfolding mystery, you’re genuinely convinced what you’re watching is actually good. For found footage apologists, this is a very big deal.
Reviewing Happy Camp’s primary fault is difficult, if only because doing so spoils the mystery that Anthony tries so hard to cultivate. To be fair, it’s not difficult to figure out the end game early on, as a cursory search of the film’s title in Google and a few less-than-subtle moments early on suggest where everything is heading. As it stands, you can only hope that whatever conclusion they came up with is worth the slow burn leading you there. Suffice it to say, it’s not, and any tension or suspense born out of the mystery dissipates quickly during the film’s final fifteen minutes of piss-poor CGI and found footage tropes (it was inevitable). It’s the cinematic equivalent to a punch in the dick. I really can’t think of a better way to describe it.
2 out of 5