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A beginner's guide to campy films

staff note

In her 1964 piece titled “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag outlines a genre of art (but here, I’ll focus on films) referred to as “camp.” These films, which often have a following that is cult-like and niche, exhibit a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” For most, this means hyper-stylized visuals, over-the-top dialogue, outlandish premises and cartoonish characters. Sontag finishes her piece by stating that camp “is good because it’s awful” — that camp lacks self-awareness, and it is precisely its attempt at seriousness (and failure to succeed) that marks a truly campy film.

The cinematic landscape has drastically changed since Sontag published her piece, and camp has, too. Almost paradoxically, the recognition of the existence of camp has informed its newer incarnations — camp is something that can now be purposefully cultivated and imitated, which confuses its original definition as films that were rejected by the mainstream and embraced by a small group of admirers. Directors like John Waters, who gained recognition in 1988 with the film “Hairspray,” set out with the goal to make films that would explicitly serve this subset of consumers who craved bizarre, strange films.

Although it’s a delightfully uncanny treat, camp can often be alienating or disarming to the uninitiated viewer. So, here’s a short list of loosely campy films, that do the definition justice but are relatively more accessible and enjoyable. I promise: Once you cross the threshold, you’ll never want to go back.

“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” dir. Robert Aldrich

Aldrich’s 1962 psychological thriller explores an aging child star named Jane (played by Bette Davis), and her contemptuous relationship with her older and more successful sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford). After Blanche is hit by a car and paralyzed, Jane is later found in a drunken stupor, and everyone assumes that she is responsible for the crime. To atone for this supposed misdeed, Jane moves into her sister’s Hollywood mansion and cares for the wheelchair-bound Blanche, although her form of “care” involves forced captivity and constant criticism, born out of her hatred of her older sister’s successful career.

Much of the film’s camp is derived from the histrionic acting by Davis and Crawford, whose bitter real-life rivalry heavily informed their respective performances. Although the melodrama and thrills are cheesy by contemporary standards, there’s something truly horrifying about the way Jane and Blanche simultaneously descend into madness, jealousy and paranoia — which is why Aldrich’s film is one of the most popular examples of camp. 

“Scream,” dir. Wes Craven

When Wes Craven released “Scream” in 1996, he permanently changed the landscape of American horror films. He infamously killed off the film’s biggest star power (Drew Barrymore) in its opening scene, upended every trope previously established in the genre and retained a fierce level of self-awareness throughout the film. 

By most measures, “Scream” isn’t a particularly scary movie. The bloodshed is over-the-top and, at times, sardonic, easily mocked and parodied. (Here’s looking at you, “Scary Movie” franchise.) But there’s something so irresistibly charming about “Scream” that makes me revisit it time and time again — maybe it’s Sidney Prescott, the strong and level-headed protagonist, the hilarious and memorable dialogue or the sharply witty critique of its horror predecessors. Regardless, “Scream” has carved out its place in the camp canon, even if it wanted to resist the label.

“Clue,” dir. Jonathan Lynn

Movie adaptations of board games don’t have a stellar track record. (I’m mostly just griping about “Battleship” and the “Ouija” franchise, which are undeniably horrible.) And yet, Jonathan Lynn’s 1985 movie adaptation of the board game Clue is endlessly entertaining, brilliant and surprising. Tim Curry plays a butler who navigates his guests through the murder-mystery, and with his already-established excellence in performing camp (see: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show"), he elevates the film to a level of theatrics that never crosses into cheesiness. Lynn manages to deftly weave critiques of the “whodunit” trope into “Clue” while also leaning into them, and creates a film that is, in its simplest form, fun. Plus, the film concludes with three different endings, a wink to the board game’s endlessly possible outcomes — who doesn’t love choosing their own adventure?

“But I’m a Cheerleader,” dir. Jamie Babbit

Natasha Lyonne (of “Orange Is the New Black” and “Russian Doll” fame) stars in this 1999 film as a high school cheerleader named Megan with a dark secret: She’s a lesbian! Suspicious, her parents stage an intervention, replete with an “ex-gay” (played by RuPaul, wearing a shirt that reads, “Straight is great!”) who tries to convince Megan that she, too, can be cured of her gayness. They ultimately decide to send her to a conversion therapy camp with a five-step recovery model that will seemingly heal her of her homosexuality.

On its surface, of course, this plot is horrifying, and reminds us of the fact that our current Vice President supports conversion therapy for gay people. But Babbit’s film deliciously satirizes and mocks these harmful beliefs, points out their deeply-flawed mechanisms, and fully validates its main character’s lesbian identity. With “But I’m a Cheerleader,” Babbit creates a cinematic space for young LGBT+ people that is affirming, funny, discomforting and relieving all at once. The super-aestheticized visuals and endlessly quotable dialogue make this one an iconic film worth watching.

Nina Wilder is a Trinity junior and Recess design editor. 

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