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Q&A: Harrison Smith on “CAMP DREAD”

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A staple of American Horror throughout the ’80s, the summer camp slasher now come few and far between. For whatever reason one can attribute to their redundancy, their influence of horror and pop culture through the years is unmistakable. And for director Harrison Smith, they might just be posed for a comeback with his newest film, CAMP DREAD.

Using the amorality of both summer camp slashers and reality television, Smith brings back the bloodiness of the humbled subgenre, and attracted the talents of genre veterans such as Danielle Harris, Felissa Rose and a scene-stealing Eric Roberts as well. Smith spoke to FANGORIA about his motivations for returning to summer camp in CAMP DREAD and the subtext behind the slaughter…

FANGORIA: I know that CAMP DREAD was originally developed under the title “DEAD.TV.” What inspired the title change to CAMP DREAD?

HARRISON SMITH: Well, that was [distributor] Image Entertainment’s choice! [laughs] Although, to be honest, I wasn’t a fan of “DEAD.TV” as a title, and I even had a contest on set to see if anybody could come up with a better title. I had a feeling that the title “DEAD.TV” would have confused people into thinking it was a reality show or a TV series, but when Image changed the title to CAMP DREAD -and this isn’t talking bad about Image at all because I love them- I thought CAMP DREAD sounded like a drive-in movie title. I wasn’t even happy with the artwork at first because there wasn’t a single tent in our movie! [laughs]

FANG: The title of CAMP DREAD is very evocative of a B-movie slasher flick, and the film definitely plays to the conventions of those old school slashers throughout. Was that something you were intentionally aiming for?

SMITH: That’s a great question because the answer is yes. We wanted to pay homage to all of those films, and Felissa Rose being in the film is such a direct connection to the slasher genre and SLEEPAWAY CAMP. It’s funny to have Angela Baker show up as a counselor in this film. However, I wanted to inject something different into the film to take a swipe at reality television. I wanted the film to comment on how our society has become where we’re so exploitative and we derive our entertainment from the awful things that we watch people do. Most of it is scripted anyways, so I wanted to give a parallel to the Roman circuses at the end of their empire where death was the ultimate entertainment.

That’s what I wanted. With the last image in CAMP DREAD, the one with the kids, I wanted to evoke the Holocaust. The characters who are killed are more than just your stock character jocks and sluts or anything like that. They had to feel like real people with real problems and I think that with this internet age, people forget all of that. It’s easy for someone to go on an article and make a nasty comment about somebody by hiding behind a fake name.

What people forget is that a lot of stuff in those articles is happening to real people. Even when Sandy Hook happened, people were commenting about how it was faked or a conspiracy, and the fact is that those parents are reading that. With CAMP DREAD, I wanted to go for that feeling that these people are real and what Julian Barrett (Eric Roberts) does in the film is the most horrible thing of all.

FANG: Speaking to that point, in terms of depicting those teenagers, did you try sticking to trying to portray them as realistically as possible or were you more focused on developing motivations for each as a potential killer?

SMITH: I think CAMP DREAD owes so much to PSYCHO II, which came out at the height of the slasher genre. I remember FANGORIA publishing an article on PSYCHO II and thinking, “Oh boy, it’s just going to be FRIDAY THE 13TH in a hotel.” But it turned out that PSYCHO II was so much more, as there was this mystery element that sucked me in, and that’s exactly what I wanted CAMP DREAD to do.

I wanted audiences to go into CAMP DREAD thinking it would be a straight-up slasher where there’s stock characters, people dying in grisly ways, boobs, blood and all of that. But at the end, I wanted there to be this twist on it where all that you’ve been watching for the last 80 minutes doesn’t really matter. CAMP DREAD is one big MacGuffin, and that’s really what it is.

FANG: For the character of Julian, that twist especially impacts his dynamic, as it changes the sort of charismatic jerk quality he’d previously embodied. Was that change something you intentionally set out to do when you created that character or was it a byproduct of the narrative structure?

SMITH: It was a byproduct of the narrative, because we give hints throughout the film that there’s something deeply wrong with him and something more sadistic in him beyond that visage of a charming “director.” When John Hill (Brian Gallagher) is arguing with him, we learn that he’s been running these unsafe sets with disregard for anybody’s life. So in the end, that twist isn’t such a shock to see that character go from a smiling California guy to somebody a lot darker, because he’s been that way the whole time.

FANG: Considering the allegories you mentioned before, was the Julian character a statement about the obsessive artist in filmmaking or was it focused towards the attitudes of Hollywood?

SMITH: It’s poking more at the latter because now there’s crowdfunding and people are doing whatever they can to sell their souls for their movie. But you also have people trying to get back into the limelight and rising back to the top. The internet is helping provide comebacks to people, so with Julian, there’s definitely a dimension of that but what you’ve got is a guy who, damned it all, is going to resurrect his franchise and that’s all that matters. Anyone who gets in his way is going to pay, and it’s unfortunate but to him, as Shakespeare said, the play is the thing, and for Julian, this movie is the thing.

FANG: In terms of the kills in CAMP DREAD, did you aim to make the kills more subversive to the expectations of slashers or did you want them to reflect the human nature of these characters?

SMITH: Again, I’d say the latter. So much has changed over the past 30 years in the slasher genre, and if you go back to FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise, aside from Jason, Pamela Voorhees or Tommy Jarvis, I challenge the most ardent horror fan to name a character. Maybe Crispin Glover in the fourth one, only because he’s Crispin Glover, but nobody remembers those characters because they are stock characters.

In the meantime, we’ve had BEVERLY HILLS 90210, DAWSON’S CREEK, THE REAL WORLD and all of those things where they have angst, drama and the baggage that make stock characters stand out. So now you can take the “slut” character and flesh her out, so now she’s more of a sympathetic character rather than the bimbo who gets naked and gets a machete to her head.

So I kept that in mind and left in the framework of the slasher film, but I’m trying to paint some better, more detailed characters and bring that dynamic up to speed a little bit. Instead of filling the film with stereotypes and killing them off one by one, I wanted to do something different. That’s why that beach scene at night by the campfire is so important, because we learn so much about these people.

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FANG: Speaking to that slasher film aesthetic, was it always your intention to set the film in a summer camps scenario or was that a result of the budget and time frame?

SMITH: CAMP DREAD was always intended to be a summer camp-type story. I grew up not far from where the original FRIDAY THE 13TH was shot, and when I was in high school, we used to sneak in there all of the time. So for me, it was important to set the film against a backdrop because even camp has changed so much for kids. Summer camp, in some ways, seems a little archaic.

Now that we have the internet and people can go wherever they please, kids are so different now. I know that there are still summer camps out there and kids still go to them, and in the world of horror films, that dynamic has almost completely changed. With CAMP DREAD, I’d like to reintroduce the concept of summer camp horror movies to a younger audience, or so I hope.

FANG: In paying homage to the summer camp slashers, did you ever consider doing kills that paid reference to memorable murders from those films or did you want to keep the kills as original as possible?

SMITH: We did want to bring a fresh edge, even though we were constricted by budget and our desire to not use CGI. So we were bound by the laws of physics and practical effects,  but there are a few nods to the classics in our kills. For instance, there’s a direct reference to Crazy Ralph’s death in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2. But there’s one death at the end that Julian references as never having been done before, and I’ve done my research and I’ve yet to find one that’s been done like that. So as far as I know, we came up with that one. [laughs]

That one was tough to do but you’ve got to give the audience what they’re looking for. You need to have shower scenes and your stabbings. I think we dispatched one of the characters pretty cleverly in the kitchen. Again, we could have gone for the meat hook or the knife thing but instead we went for something else. So we had to tip our hat to some of the slasher films, but we did have to do some things new, like with the jogger scene. We kill him in one of the ways that often people joke about, and we actually hint towards that death in the beach scene.

FANG: In doing a modern day summer camp slasher, were you ever concerned with the tone of the film falling into self-parody territory?

SMITH: We definitely kept the film away from parody and self-parody territory. I was very conscious of that while shooting the film. You know as well as I do that, with any film, reverence is what kills them. You can revere a genre so much or you can make a film that’s so connected to its influence that it’ll kill it. I didn’t want to do that and the reality show aspect helped us go away from there.

While there are some funny lines in there, we didn’t want to cross over into comedy territory. We make no reference to Sleepaway Camp or Jason Voorhees. We don’t do that because we want to be judged on our own merits without anyone thinking this is some kind of SCARY MOVIE-esque parody, which I don’t think it crosses into at all. The closest that the film gets, which also fits in with the PSYCHO II model, where the towed the line in referencing the first film. We reference certain things, but we don’t get to the area where we’re poking fun at the genre.

FANG: Do you have anything else in development now that CAMP DREAD is being released?

SMITH: Yes, I just finished a film called ZOMBIE KILLERS: ELEPHANT’S GRAVEYARD, and that stars Billy Zane, Dee Wallace and Mischa Barton. We’re getting very good responses from the industry on that one so we’ll make sure FANGORIA gets the jump on that one. I’ve got a few more in development but I don’t like to bring them up because they can always fall through and I don’t want to be the guy who always talks and talks and people are then like, “Oh, what happened to your projects?” I also had a reality show debut on the Discovery Channel called “Hangmen,” and I’m pretty psyched about that. And yes, I get the irony that I’m a part of a reality show and I’m making fun of it with CAMP DREAD.

CAMP DREAD hits DVD tomorrow, April 15th, 2014, from Image Entertainment.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Content Manager for FANGORIA, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, a graphic novel and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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