'Happy Camp' Is A Faux-Documentary With Promise, But A Disappointment In The End

By James Jay Edwards
Released: March 25, 2014
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In the vast wilderness of the Klamath National Forest lies the small logging community of Happy Camp. With a population consisting of only a few hundred souls, this mysterious mountain town has become world renowned for its staggeringly high number of Missing Persons Cases. Walt and Sandy Tanner adopted a young boy named Michael at the age of 9 and brought him home to Happy Camp where the couple were raising their young son, Dean. Upon Michael's arrival, the two boys shared an immediate bond and for the first time in Michael's life, he had a family. After living in Happy Camp for only two years however, tragedy struck on the afternoon of October 22, 1989 when Dean Tanner was abducted from the family's home. Michael, outside with his brother at the time, and the only witness, oddly had no recollection of the violent crime. 20 years later, a grown Michael Tanner has mustered the courage to face his past in an effort to remember what actually happened to his brother on that fateful day. Under the provocation of his girlfriend, Anne, Michael has reluctantly agreed to have his journey documented by a professional film crew. However, what Michael, Anne and the crew uncover are dangerous secrets about Happy Camp that will change their lives forever...

Film Review
Happy Camp begins with an ominous title card explaining that 627 people have gone missing from the small logging town of Happy Camp, California in the last 25 years. In 1989, a young boy named Dean Tanner was abducted from his backyard while playing with his brother, Michael. Happy Camp follows the adult Michael (Michael Barbuto) in 2009 as he returns to Happy Camp in search of answers. Michael brings along his girlfriend, Anne (Anne Taylor), and his buddies, Josh (Josh Anthony) and Teddy (Teddy Gilmore), to shoot video of his experience for a documentary. The film tells its story through a series of interviews, both with Michael and the townspeople, and a bunch of investigative snooping around the seedy underbelly of the town. Soon, it becomes clear that there is more to the random disappearances than just simple kidnappings. As the group learns more about the town's shady history, they encounter more hostility from the locals. Michael and his friends still want answers, but they don't like what they are finding out.

Although it starts out as a finding-himself mystery about the character of Michael, Happy Camp makes a slow transition to monster movie over the course of the film. That's not a spoiler; the transition is foreshadowed and telegraphed early enough in the film so that only the dimmest of viewers would not see it coming. The film is relatively compelling when it's a mystery, devoted to figuring out what happened to Michael's missing brother. It even retains interest in a The Legend of Boggy Creek kind of way once it becomes clear that the threat is a monster. Where the film falls apart is when the monster is revealed; it's an unsatisfying reveal, and the mystery that has been built up so carefully comes to a disappointing conclusion.

Happy Camp. 2014.

Happy Camp would be a much more effective film if The Blair Witch Project hadn't done it first. As a faux-documentary, it's fairly well made, and it's even pretty believable until the climax. The cast displays a good chemistry, and their banter has an improvised feel which helps sell the film's authenticity. The style of the film is a bit too cinematic for a found footage movie, with multiple camera angles, continuity editing, and dramatic music, but even that can be explained away in the plot as "window dressing" to make the film more "saleable." The problem is that audiences don't buy into the fake realism gimmick like they used to; they've been fooled before, and can't be fooled again. Even the successful found footage films, like Paranormal Activity, don't have nearly the authenticity that The Blair Witch Project had when it was released. Happy Camp relies on a suspension of disbelief that just isn't there and, because filmmakers have gone to that well too many times, may never be there again.
Special Effects
The visual effects in Happy Camp nearly kill the film. Any suspense or tension that is built up over the course of the movie is ruined in the last act by some horrible CG animation. Once the creature is revealed, it looks more like a cartoon monster than a real, flesh and blood beast. It would probably have been cheaper and more effective for the filmmakers to use an actual actor in a monster suit - who doesn't love a good rubber-suit monster movie? There are a handful of practical effects, mostly showing the bloody carnage of the aftermath of an attack, but even those are not particularly convincing. Both the CG and practical effects look silly, and it makes for a disappointing ending to a film that, up until that point, had potential.
Scary Factor
The only thing that would make Happy Camp scary would be if it could fool the audience into believing that it was a real documentary. In today's climate of found footage horror movies, there is absolutely no chance of that. It has a few nerve-racking moments of suspense, but they are few and far between. Add in the laughable CG monster and there's nothing to be afraid of. To its credit, Happy Camp doesn't attempt any cheap red-herring jump scares. There are no fake scares in Happy Camp, but there aren't any real ones, either.

Happy Camp. 2014.

Horror, Thriller
Release Date
March 25, 2014