Camp is a sensibility, a way of viewing the garish and “bad” as an aesthetic. Much of the horror genre fits perfectly into the idea of camp as horror films are often thought of as over the top and tasteless, particularly the slashers of the 1970s and 1980s. But really, horror has been pushing the boundaries of sensibility for over a century.
While I could wax poetic about the power of camp and horror, I’d like to offer what I believe is the perfect example of camp: Philippe Mora’s 1989 film, Communion. The film is based on Whitley Strieber’s book of the same name, which is a personal account of Strieber’s experience being abducted. Christopher Walken (Pulp Fiction) plays Strieber as if Strieber was not a person, but a concept—specifically the concept of insanity. What is so campy about this film is how serious it is trying to be, but failing terribly through Walken’s absolutely off-the-wall performance and the dream-like abduction sequences.
To better explain what I mean by camp in reference to Communion, I’ve picked out a few of writer Susan Sontag’s quotes from her essay, Notes on Camp. In the essay, she writes a numbered list that serves as a way for her to organize her thoughts on the idea of camp, what it is, and what it isn’t. Perhaps weaving Sontag’s academic work with such a ridiculous alien film could be considered camp itself.
“Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, of the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.
Who best to encapsulate the exaggerated style of Communion that Walken himself. His performance in Communion can be best described as unhinged, an exaggerated portrayal of what it means to be a human adult. From the first moment he enters the frame, he is yelling to himself about his writing, yelling at the oven, yelling at anything that enters his line of sight. Walken’s typical lilt is already unsettling and hilarious, but in this role, it is downright ridiculous. And Walken is almost always on-screen as the film focuses on his experience as an alien abductee. With every passing minute, Walken’s performance as Strieber descends further into madness. However, it is not intentional, which leads to the next piece of proof that Communion is camp.
“The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.”
Communion is based on the serious account of Strieber’s abduction. His book details his terrifying experience with extraterrestrial beings, experiences that were unearthed through hypnotism. Prior to his abduction, Strieber was a well-known author, penning novels such as The Hunger until he pivoted to ufology. Essentially, Communion is Strieber trying to make sense of his own experiences and tell the world about these “visitors.” The film is attempting to adapt that tale and make a horror movie about extraterrestrial life. It was marketed as a horror film about a man realizing his nightmares are actually reality. He realizes that he is being violated and his family’s safety is at stake. In specifically touting that the film is based on a true story, Mora further works to create fear around this narrative. However, the serious nature of Strieber’s supposed trauma is lost in translation.
“In naive, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.”
In Communion’s attempts to create a serious and scary scene of alien abduction, it does in fact fail. Instead of a horrifying torture scene or thoughtful portrayal of a man’s horrifying experiences with losing time and being experimented on by strange beings, Streiber’s abduction becomes a piece of performance art, particularly due to the casting of Walken as Strieber. Walken makes Strieber look like an eccentric kook instead of a regular family man. As previously mentioned, he yells at everything and talks like he himself is an alien; there is nothing relatable about Walken’s character. He instead becomes a caricature of a person, an exaggerated version of humanity. Walken seems to channel Strieber’s potential insanity and delusions, rather than trying to play a normal man. Within that tension of intention and reality exists the camp of it all; all seriousness has been thrown out the window as Communion is at odds with itself. Strieber said of the performance, “I think that Christopher Walken played me like I was a complete jerk.”
The abduction scenes are full of mist and large-eyed aliens floating and dancing above shorter aliens who perform whatever experiments on Strieber. But this isn’t before Strieber performs an interpretive dance with the aliens through the ship’s mist. He floats around the ship like an equal rather than a prisoner. He kisses one of the aliens and yells at them, “Are you old?” There is no cohesion or reason to anything happening during Strieber’s abduction. It is almost romantic and comical rather than scary; it is exaggerated and stylized. The intended fear is barely glimpsed on screen and instead, the audience is treated to a strange and erotic piece of camp.
“The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”
Perhaps the most subjective of Sontag’s words on camp, this solidified why I love Communion and want to sing its praises to anyone who will listen. Communion was by all accounts a critical and box office failure. In The New York Times’ 1989 review, critic Janet Maslin said,
“It is to be hoped that if the visitors Communion’ envisions ever do arrive, they will make it their business to get hold of a movie camera and tell this story right: without benefit of blue lights, Halloween-type costumes, deep-voiced humming on the soundtrack, and other sadly unavoidable cliches of the genre.”
At the time of release, the camp aesthetic could not be really appreciated; audiences wanted a horror movie about aliens but what they got was an accidentally experimental film that unleashed Christopher Walken on set like a caged animal. But now, with a few decades of distance, the true camp aesthetic of Communion can be understood and acknowledged, even enjoyed.
Yet, within its technical faults, unnerving performances, and strange abduction sequences lies the key to its success. Nothing is done “right” in the traditional sense; this is not a good movie in the typical meaning of such a phrase. In the utter lack of technical achievement lies a camp masterpiece that embraces the absolute insanity of the story. It is entertaining to see how ridiculous Walken can get and he unhinged he can truly be. You want to show this to your friends not to scare them, but to share laughter in the utter ridiculousness of dancing, sensual aliens. Unfortunately for Strieber, in sharing his experiences with the extraterrestrial, he has unknowingly become part of the camp sensibility. And what could be more camp than that?
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