Note: content warning for sexual assault.
Horror movies have given us some of the wildest and most frightening monsters in history, but Camp Calypso — a short horror film that is equal parts creature feature, summer camp slasher, and rape-revenge film — knows that sometimes the scariest monsters are the ones that we face every day. Co-directors Karlee Boon and Hannah May Cumming, who also wrote the film, give viewers a real treat with their sharp and clever feminist take on classic horror tropes.
The titular summer camp has fallen on hard times ever since a drowning incident in 1963, but new camp director Pete (Derek Sweet) is trying to turn things around. New camper Margot (Ruby Cumming) arrives at the sparsely attended camp and meets counselors Heather (Misha Kemp) and Cherry (Savannah Raye Jones), whom the male camp counselors immediately start sexually harassing. Misogyny and sexual violence are the true terrors in Camp Calypso, and this feminist horror film tackles both with fangs and righteous fury.
Though there are indeed monsters at Camp Calypso, the constant feeling of menace comes not from the supernatural creatures but from the threat that the men pose to the women. In fact, we learn through flashbacks that Pete, who oozes sleaze and barely contained rage, knows a lot more than he lets on about that “accidental” drowning of a female counselor 15 years prior. He punishes Dean (Erik Norseth), a counselor in the present day, for telling a campfire story about the Legend of Camp Calypso, which says that evil sirens live in Calypso Lake and stalk the area waiting to lure men to their deaths. Though of course Pete and the counselors assure everyone that it’s just a spooky legend, the campers soon find out that the legend is very real, as justice is served with some terrific scares and satisfyingly bloody kills.
Camp Calypso draws from an intriguing mix of influences, referencing both Greek mythology and horror classics like Friday the 13th. It refutes the male gaze of the traditional slasher, though, focusing instead on the emotions and vulnerabilities of its female characters. When Cherry is harassed at the beginning of the film, there are repeated shots of the male characters’ faces as they appraise Cherry’s backside, but none of it is titillating. Rather, the frame composition emphasizes that Cherry is a whole person whom the boys only see as a set of body parts; it also underscores the danger she and the other girls are in as she stands precariously on a ladder while surrounded by boys who deny her humanity. Later shots linger on the girls’ faces and show them supporting one another, both emotionally and physically, thus reinforcing their humanity in spite of the boys’ derogatory words and actions.
Camp Calypso is a throwback in all the right ways: the music and cinematography capture late ’70s and early ’80s slasher fare perfectly (including a terrific synth piece during the climax and some absolutely gorgeous aerial shots of the dense forest surrounding the lake), and the hair, makeup, and costuming are spot-on for the era without ever devolving into parody. The film follows familiar story beats — new girl arrives at camp, campers hear creepy local legend, local legend turns out to be true, grisly deaths ensue — but it does so with a clever and unique approach, engaging in popular horror tropes with a refreshingly feminist serious-mindedness. Serious doesn’t equal humorless, though: there’s plenty of comedy here, with my favorite being the hilarious parade of traumatized campers wearing their brand-new (and highly impressive!) flower crowns while trudging back to their cabins from the arts-and-crafts break that was supposed to distract them from all the mysterious disappearances that have been plaguing the camp.
Camp Calypso‘s ending is deeply satisfying. Despite some distracting day for night effects, it encapsulates everything that the film has going for it: feminist fury, creepy mythology, a touch of humor, buckets of blood, and a constant sense of melancholy thrumming underneath it. Vengeance can feel amazing, but what feels even better is not needing vengeance in the first place. It is empowering, but it is also wearying. This bold and engrossing short film takes a strikingly feminist bite out of classic ’70s horror and puts the genre’s mundane monsters on notice: you’ve deserved this for a long time, and vengeance is finally coming for you.