My fascination with summer camp-themed slasher fare stems mostly from two things: my deep-seeded love of all things freaky and frightening, and my tragically unfulfilled childhood desire to attend summer camp (and partly the raging jealousy that boiled inside me every summer when my older brothers were shipped off to camp while I was deemed “too young” to attend). There were a lot of influential horror movies from the monumental ‘80s slasher era that told terrifying, titillating and often tacky tales of young adults venturing out into the deepest, most ominous parts of the woods with a group of friends to get fucked up beyond all recognition. The stripping off of clothes and the revealing of supple young bodies was only the predecessor to the bloody carnage that was about to ensue. I think a lot of horror fans, like I, got an early introduction to our beloved genre by being subjected to iconic genre fare like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp during the impressionable years of our youth—and furthermore, dedicating our adult years to seeking out these titles and others just like them.
These movies are by no means brilliant works of creative, provocative cinematic genius, but they brought a lot of concepts and devices to the horror film chopping block that have stuck around through the proceeding decades and have become some of the most recognized and arguably admirable clichés in the genre. Some of these titles supersede others—offering up awe-inspiring special FX, buckets upon buckets of blood, mind-blowing climactic twists and quirky characters—but the true essence of a superlative summer camp slasher flick is a really bad ass killer. It goes without saying that most die-hard horror fans are suckers for these summer camp slasher flicks. So over the course of the summer, Diabolique will be presenting readers with a comprehensive catalogue of films that fall within that category. By watching these movies, you’ll learn everything you need to know in order to avoid being sliced & diced on those highly anticipated summer camping trips. Boys and girls, I present you with Diabolique’s Camp Carnage!
Don’t Go in the Woods (1981)
For this week’s trip to CAMP CARNAGE, we’re throwing our thumbs out and hitching a ride to the backwoods of Utah, where a snarling, swinish brute picks off a vibrant array of oddball characters in the utmost barbaric manner. Sharing vague similarities with Jeff Lieberman’s exceptional camp horror flick (and former CARNAGE entry), Just Before Dawn, director James Bryan’s Don’t Go in the Woods balances out familiar slasher contrivances with those of the murderous backwoodsmen milieu. The whooping wilderness dweller of Don’t Go in the Woods is reminiscent of the terrible twins in Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn—albeit exceedingly nefarious, thirstier for blood and much more fashionable.
The movie starts out as many summer camp slashers do: a group of 20-somethings (often times played by unknown, young and affordable actors) head out to the woods to do some camping. The leader of the pack lectures his group with a list of important rules to follow. The most important rule: DON’T GO IN THE WOODS ALONE! However, for body count purposes, this particular crew isn’t the only bunch of quirky characters inhabiting these woods. There are several other random folks having their commune with Mother Nature rudely interrupted by the hulking man-beast clad in animal furs and mud, wielding a giant spear and rigging the forest with deadly booby traps. The kills are over-the-top, the blood and gore flourishes and the bizarre score is highly effective and complimentary to our blood-thirsty brute. In preparation for slaughter, our madman violently shakes a tree branch and bellows out an outlandish whooping sound, somewhat akin to the sand raiders in Star Wars, in one of the most ludicrous routines you will find in any horror film.
Don’t Go in the Woods also contains some of the most hilarious, nonsensical plot digressions within the summer camp horror movie catalogue. A wheelchair-bound man struggles to conquer treacherous wooded trails on his own (not something to be laughed at in real life, but campy and amusing within the context of this film); The infant of a random hippie painter lady hangs out in its jolly jumper while mommy gets hacked up, her blood squirting all over her canvas, creating a lovely piece of art that would put Picasso to shame. Diversions from the main group of characters are what set Don’t Go in the Woods apart from its CAMP CARNAGE counterparts, making much more enjoyable to watch. Unlike most genre movies in the same vein, the savagery veers beyond one group of unlucky campers as the vast woods of Park/Heber City, Utah are the slashing grounds of our primitive psychopath, and he will see to it that no one escapes unscathed. Another one of the notable quirks of Don’t Go in the Woods is the murderous woodsman’s knack for booby-traps, rarely used within the genre but oh-so-enjoyable when utilized. Of course, he never leaves his cabin without his human-sized skewer, but preparedness is this brute’s shining virtue. The trespassers who somehow manage to sneak past him will undoubtedly be bushwhacked, making the kills that much more devilishly riotous.
Don’t Go in the Woods was initially released in 1981, in the midst of an eruption of summer camp-bound slasher movies. It also landed smack-dab in the middle of James Bryan’s filmmaking career, being his first, and only, full-fledged horror effort. Prior to that, he had directed four borderline feature-length films and a short—running the gamut of independent, exploitative genre-bending cinema with titles such as The Dirtiest Game, Escape the Passion and Boogievision. He continued creating films in this fashion after Don’t Go in the Woods was released, evidently concluding his career as a filmmaker in 1985 with the shot-on-video action feature, Lady Street Fighter.
Based on my readings of other reviews of Don’t Go in the Woods, James Bryan’s foray into the horror genre has been greeted with cold shoulders, for reasons of which I can understand but not entirely agree with. It seems as though a lot of its bad rap is based on how weary people are of being force-fed the same dim-witted dialogue, cardboard cut-out characters and one-dimensional plots. And as any avid viewer of horror films knows, these are the quintessential staples of the summer camp slasher brand, and ultimately, one of the appeals of returning to them in the first place. What I don’t understand is that if you really can’t sit for 90 minutes and enjoy senseless acts of over-the-top cartoonish violence, laughably bad bickering and gorgeous scenery, then what can you enjoy!? Why even waste your time? Let the horror hounds enjoy their bloody meat—which doesn’t need to be tenderized into a pulp by people who can’t appreciate it for what it is: mindless entertainment.
– By Lacey Paige
Lacey is a devoted horror enthuasiast and movie collector. A recent journalism school graduate, she is currently a contributing writer for Diabolique, Cinesploitation, Absolute Underground and Fangoria. She likes taking long walks in dark, eerie places; reading true crime and horror fiction; and sharing her borderline-obsessive love of horror with just about anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter: @LaceyPaige88