Welcome to SCARED IN SEGMENTS, a monthly column devoted to horror anthologies big and small. If you don’t know what an anthology is, it’s a film that includes a collection of short stories or segments (self-contained or connected). As for anthology television, series can be episodic or seasonal, but the former will take precedence here. Now, in each edition of this column, you’ll get background info as well as insight on the monthly pick. If you’re ready for some short-form horror, pull up a seat as I’ve got a story for you…
It’s of no surprise horror anthologies were few and far between in the early nineties. We had some notable entries in the first half — Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, Body Bags, Tales from the Hood — but otherwise, the decade was essentially sparse. Although the anthology had always been a tried and true format for genre films and television since the sixties, it was becoming less commonplace. The scope of horror, in general, was shifting at the turn of the decade; slashers were all but extinct due to their proliferation in the eighties. Not to mention, special effects-driven films were overshadowing horror in a precarious way.
It stands to reason that Wes Craven’s meta-slasher Scream opened horror back up when it was becoming somewhat insular and motionless. Scare-makers were inspired to forage the past; they rediscovered ideas that used to work, and they adapted them for a contemporary audience. As a result, slashers experienced a minor renaissance in the mid to late nineties, which in turn affected the entire horror genre. Anthologies didn’t have a similar resurgence because it lacked a spearhead. Yet a particular movie on the horizon was going to be a reminder of how good anthologies can be.
In 1997, the curiously titled Campfire Tales appeared among the new releases at brick and mortar video shops all around. Renter wariness was understandable seeing as this movie debuted with no fanfare. However, the cover sported unsung heartthrob James Marsden, The Craft mean girl Christine Taylor, and some random guy who would later become the Post-it jerk from Sex and the City. Oh, and the back of the box promised the movie was in the “tradition of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.” How could someone not rent it? Luckily for fellow low risk-takers, Campfire Tales was not going to be another direct-to-video dud.
Campfire Tales bears the same name as a shoestring-budgeted anthology released in 1991. Aside from similar setups, they have no connection. The 1997 Campfire Tales was actually intended to run in theaters at one point. Considering the cast of familiar and up-and-coming actors — which includes Ron Livingston (The Conjuring), Christopher Masterson (Malcolm in the Middle), Glenn Quinn (Roseanne), Amy Smart (The Butterfly Effect), and former The Real World housemate Jacinda Barrett (Urban Legends: Final Cut) — it makes sense. But after being screened in only one U.S. theater in early 1997, Campfire Tales was released straight to video the following year.
Very little is publicly known about the film’s production history. And because several of its stars have moved on to bigger projects, the chances of them speaking about a noteless horror movie they filmed in 1996 are likely low. Rerouting the motion picture straight to home video is also a clear sign the producers had no faith in Campfire Tales. The bare-bones and out-of-print DVD releases raise concerns. But it should be remembered that the movie has already overcome the odds once. What was expected to be another forgotten horror has since become a cherished hidden gem. So there’s no telling what the future holds for such a plucky anthology.
THE FRAMING STORY —”THE CAMPFIRE“
Directed by David Semel
On their way home from a concert one night, four teenagers — Cliff (Jay R. Ferguson), Lauren (Christine Taylor) and her brother Eric (Christopher Masteron), and Alex (Kim Murphy) — get into a car accident in the woods. They find refuge in a derelict church until help arrives. In the meantime, they share spooky stories to keep their minds off their troubles.
By no means does the wraparound eschew formulaic trappings. The clichés — a car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, teenagers are left alone in the woods — are present, but they incidentally enhance the setting’s mood. After all, we have four characters recounting stories passed down to them. What seems hackneyed is only adding to this segment’s impetus.
It’s easy to dismiss the film’s top-level story because of its well-spun twist, but several tender moments between the characters implore us to care about them in such a short time. For instance, Lauren relates a funny memory about her and Eric‘s mother. After the chuckles die down, Lauren briefly falls to pieces. Her brother and friends comfort her, assuring everything’s going to be all right. In what comes across as an awkward and aberrant moment in the story ends up being a painful reminder of one’s mortality.
The wraparound’s ending isn’t so much clever as it is gloomy. Even prophylactic. Yet the writers’ resolve in developing their characters to be more than perfunctory narrators alleviates the twist’s innate banality.
STORY 1 — “THE HOOK“
Directed by Martin Kunert
In 1950s New York, Eddie (James Marsden) and Jenny (Christine Taylor) are parked at a viewpoint. The couple is doing what amorous teenagers do best until Jenny takes note of the urgent broadcast from the car radio — a homicidal madman is on the loose! When Jenny hears a rustling sound outside, she forces Eddie to drive her home immediately. On the way back, the teens make a terrifying discovery.
The one-upping in storytelling begins before the protagonists in the wraparound ever crash the car. As he drives recklessly, Cliff offers the most famous urban legend to date. It’s the only period piece of the bunch, and it’s filmed in rich black-and-white. Apart from a potential goof — Eddie‘s license plate is from 1958, but the soundtrack includes songs that didn’t come out until 1961 — “The Hook” is a well-shot vignette. The humor is never overwhelming nor does it undercut the swift, spine-chilling conclusion. To boot, the clip’s brevity ensures an optimal, no-fuss finish.
STORY 2 — “THE HONEYMOON“
Directed by Matt Cooper
Newlyweds traveling to Las Vegas in an RV hit a snag on their honeymoon after taking a detour in backwoods Nevada. As the husband (Ron Livingston) leaves to fetch fuel, the wife (Jennifer MacDonald) awaits his return in the camper. That’s when she realizes she’s not alone — someone’s outside. Could it be the local (Hawthorne James) who advised them to stay inside once it gets dark, or is something else altogether?
“The Hook” technically came first, but “The Honeymoon” is the first story that’s told around the campfire. Even if you’ve never heard of the urban myth that the segment is based on, you won’t have a hard time figuring out how it’s going to end. It’s a by-the-numbers, point-and-shoot effort that has effective if not easy scares. The denouement is a startling whammy for first-time viewers.
STORY 3 — “PEOPLE CAN LICK TOO“
Directed by Martin Kunert
As her parents and sister go out for the night, young Amanda (Alex McKenna) spends the eve of her twelfth birthday at home with her dog Odin. Little does she know, Amanda‘s online friend “Jessica” is coming to pay her an unexpected visit. And it’ll be one Amanda will never forget.
Of all the stories here, “People Can Lick Too” has the most semblance to a traditional slasher with only one half of the party aware of what’s at stake. And like a slasher, there’s a moral lesson to be learned. The most discernible, overarching theme throughout Campfire Tales has to be “Trust no one; always be heedful.” For young Amanda is surfing the ‘net unsupervised and uninformed of what evils lurks on the dark web.
By using preattentive visuals — Amanda‘s home is attractive and bathed in warm yellows, whereas the outside world, as well as the stalker’s lair, is dark and ominous — director Kunert conveys an unequivocal sense of good and bad.
Conforming to the overall motif, the third tale is inspired by yet another urban legend. Albeit an obscure one. This adaptation is neatly executed with a potent finisher. In terms of feeling violated, “People Can Lick Too” is the irrefutable winner.
STORY 4 — “THE LOCKET“
Directed by David Semel
A man (Glenn Quinn) motorcycling cross-country encounters a mute woman (Jacinda Barrett) living in a rural farmhouse. She warns him of her overprotective father, who is away for the time being. As night falls, the man falls victim to a time loop that reveals the truth about his mysterious host.
“The Locket” is a departure from the other segments as it’s positively supernatural with no ties to urban legends. A well-known retelling can be found in Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. Semel’s take expands on the core idea and creates a modern folktale with Gothic sensibilities. He and the writers entwine this ghostly heartbreaker with commentary on shotgun fathers, too.
The last story doesn’t go for standard frights. Rather, it devastates you. The emotional havoc lingers on the brain long after the other shoe finally drops. “The Locket” is a somber way to end things, but it ties in nicely with the wraparound.
Most anthologies follow a very specific formula, or they incorporate tropes intrinsic to the sub-genre. What boxes does Campfire Tales check off?
Host / Narrator … ☑
Yes, the four teens act as narrators.
Framing device … ☑
It begins after the first story, but yes.
Multiple directors … ☑
There are three: Matt Cooper, Martin Kunert, and David Semel. This was both Cooper and Kunert’s directorial debuts; David Semel has extensively worked in television as a director and producer since then.
Crossover / Hyperlink quality … ☑
Yes. The crossover effect becomes apparent at the end.
Based on an existing work … ☑
With the exception of the last story, everything was inspired by an urban legend. “The Locket” is built on the foundation of a classic ghost story involving a ribbon.
Was Richard Matheson somehow involved? … ☒
Technically no, but James Marsden starred in a film adaptation (The Box) of Matheson’s short “The Button“.
We live in a time when nostalgia is often mistaken for quality. But Campfire Tales is most certainly not another case of seeing things through rose-colored glasses. Plenty of people have returned to this movie and found it to be as diverting as when they first saw it. At its worst, it’s inoffensive, conventional horror that doubles as cinematic cautionary tales. On the other hand, it’s a reliable anthology with a fine cast, and it delivers honest to goodness fun.
Thanks to a lack of distribution and availability, the movie is in danger of slipping further into obscurity. Fans all around know, though, that Campfire Tales is one anthology whose flame deserves to be kept alive for years and years to come.