CAMPFIRE TALES is a very low budget horror anthology released in 1991. After directors William Cooke and Paul Talbot graduated from college in 1987 they decided to build a film around “The Hook,” a short they’d made in their senior year 16mm class. The stories are very simplistic – unusually light on gimmicks and ironic twists for this type of material – and the filmmaking is not what would traditionally be considered “good.” But being made by beginners with no money gives it that scrappy underdog charm where you’re excited for anything they kind of pull off, and since it was made by young people in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there’s some relatability and nostalgia for somebody like me who may or may not have come of age around that time.
“The Hook” is set on Halloween, but there’s another story that’s about Christmas, which is what brought me to it.
I suppose it goes without writing that the wraparound story is about people sitting around a campfire telling, you know, tales. Specifically it’s three teenage boys who are camping together and then are joined by a homeless drunk named Ralph (Gunnar Hansen, who had only done two movies since THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE). Obviously I’ve seen Hansen’s performance as Leatherface over and over again, but the Hansen that has a face and talks I really only know from his interviews in documentaries, so it’s cool to see that guy here.
However, the more special thing about this wraparound story is that the three kids are such pure and unfiltered 1990 teenage boys that it’s like time travel. Professional actors in more polished movies made at the exact same time are not as authentic of a representation of the species. They’re too costumed, too groomed. These guys are just plucked out of their natural habitat and given awkward dialogue to say. Whichever one is Tres Holton as Billy played “Boy at Supermarket” in FRIED GREEN TOMATOES the same year, and that’s the only other credit among them. So they’re not actors, they’re just some dudes, and I feel like they might’ve been in my gym class. One is wearing a Jane’s Addiction t-shirt.
Not that they would be fun to hang out with. They’re just kinda dumb stoner dudes calling each other pussies. But they make a good audience for Ralph, who gets off on being kind of a Debbie Downer. Any little thing they mention about their lives is fodder for “Oh shit, kid, you don’t want to do that. I guess because you’re young you don’t know about this horrendous thing that happened around here…”
“The Hook” is a better student film than self-contained story, but I hope their teacher was appreciative rather than judgmental about the high number of basic slasher movie elements they fit in: couple getting scared while making out in a car, radio report of escaped killer, holiday setting, coming into a house not knowing the killer has already been there. They chose the Halloween date because they were filming in October, so she finds a pumpkin with a knife stuck in it and blood dripping off it. One odd thing is that the girlfriend promises her boyfriend a piece of her mom’s pumpkin pie, which sure enough is in the refrigerator. That must be a regional thing? It would make sense to make pumpkin pie for Halloween, but I’ve only ever known it as a Thanksgiving tradition.
The killer is a traumatized war vet, like in THE PROWLER or WORM ON A HOOK. He’s described as having a hook for a hand so it’s a surprise when it turns out to be more of a Han-in-ENTER-THE-DRAGON claw with four blades. He chases her for a little bit, they struggle, she stabs him in the belly with it and pulls out some intestine and he starts coughing and puking up blood. And that’s it! That’s the story! He’s dead! But one of the kids is too grossed out to keep roasting marshmallows. So it was a successful campfire tale.
Ralph’s moralistic bent really comes out in “Overtoke,” the story he tells in response to one of the kids pulling out a joint.
“Is that reefer, boy?”
The story is pretty much that two twenty-something pals go out to buy pot and end up at the house of a guy they don’t know, who has a too-good-to-be-true setup growing his own stuff and giving it out for cheap or free, but something’s wrong with it that makes them extremely addicted and then melts them into slime. The interesting thing is that the actors and settings make me believe that the filmatists at least ran in stoner circles, but they still made some straight up D.A.R.E. scare film stuff. (I think I had similar contradictions at that age. You’re just kinda dumb.)
I hope this isn’t an insult to the filmmakers’ friends or whatever, but the suburban blandness of the drug house makes it more dreary than if it was designed to look scary, and there’s an authentic ‘80s scumminess to the people hanging out there. (They’re also some kind of underground film buffs, because they have a promotional poster for the VHS release of three Paul Morrissey/Andy Warhol films.) That place seems super classy by comparison though after you see the dank, trashy cellar that one of our protagonists, Chris (Jeff Jordan, “IAB Detective,” DIRTY SHIELD) lives in. (His poster collection includes LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT).
These guys should’ve figured out something was up when the dealer told them, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Oh, we won’t have to come back that soon.”
“Yeah. You will,” he says, and he is, of course, correct. Once they’ve smoked it all and are all itchy and covered in scabs they need gas and money to go back for more, so Chris has to borrow from his suit-and-tie-wearing brother, who says he wishes he would do “the right” drugs. “Hey, I’m not a yuppie, I can’t afford coke!” (So at least within this simplistic “just say no” message there’s a recognition of class hypocrisy about drug use.)
After they get another bag and stir it into yogurt to eat with a rubber hand (?) they’re sitting around and suddenly start pulling off a foot or an ear, puking blood, bleeding green ooze, hands turning skeletal, brains leaking, while a montage of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and HAXAN plays on the TV. Such grossness is the life’s blood (or dyed corn syrup) of a shoe-string movie like this – it’s got the right balance of obviously-home-made and very-elaborate-for-home-made. I like this shot of a corpsified dummy sitting up while green liquid drips from his eye socket:
The “Fright Before Christmas” segment comes about after one of the kids mentions that the pocket knife he’s using was a Christmas present. That’s all it takes to launch Ralph into a story about how “last Christmas something happened around here that I wouldn’t exactly call holy.”
A drunk guy (in a suit and tie, which means he’s a yuppie) named Steve (Paul Kaufmann, GOD BLESS NEW DIXIE) comes home to his mom’s house for Christmas. She lovingly inquires about “his fancy health spa,” but he reveals that he failed to start it, blames her for only giving him a few thousand dollars for it, complains that she spent too much on presents for the “little shit” grandchildren, and inquires about her will (rude, in my opinion). When they learn that his brother has to go to the hospital due to a tree decorating injury (!) Steve goes over to babysit the kids. After pushing his mom down some stairs.
As you can see above, the kids are enjoying an overwhelmingly wholesome holiday time watching a Santa Claus movie with giant smiles on their faces, but pretty soon they’re talking about a “bad Santa Claus” named Satan Claus who chops kids up into pieces, and “Uncle Stevey” yells that they need to go to bed “or there’ll be blood all over the place!” I don’t have kids so I stay out of parenting discussions, but I am an uncle, so I feel qualified to say that this is bad uncling.
Thankfully, this is not about Steve murdering the kids. He just drinks and passes out and when his brother gets home claims that “we sat around and told Christmas stories.” (I would’ve liked him to be pressed for details about what exactly these “Christmas stories” are, especially if it turned into anthology stories within an anthology story.) His plan is to go back to mom’s house, pretend she fell down the stairs while he was gone, and sit back and collect that sweet, sweet inheritance that will surely rocket him to fancy health spa glory. But at the house he finds a stocking full of coal, and then a bearded man with an ax – a real life Satan Claus, it seems – chases him around the house.
Satan Claus is pretty cool looking! His monstrous face is motionless like a Halloween mask, but he’s mostly in the shadows, he has a good silhouette and long, clawed fingers.
The beautiful jolt of weirdness that made this segment for me is when Steve goes to climb out the window and sees this outside:
It’s laughable, because it barely moves, but who expected to see that? Kinda reminds me of the derelict turning into a skeleton dragon thing in HELLRAISER.
I think there’s a little bit of wisecracking Freddy Krueger influence on display here, because Satan Claus reaches into Steve’s chest, pulls out his heart, and says, “You’re a heartless bastard, Steve!”
The last story, “Skull and Crossbones,” is the most ambitious for the budget, because it’s a period story about pirates shipwrecked on an island. I mean, mostly a beach, but there’s a little island hut and lots of characters in pirate costumes, it took some effort.
There’s a long dialogue scene with a character credited as “The Black Man” who says he was a slave working on a pirate ship who tried to kill himself by throwing himself from the ship and was surprised to wash up on the island. It seems potentially interesting, but honestly I was bored with this story until the end, when there are several cool zombie pirates. They come ashore and have a sword fight on the beach. They seem pretty Fulci influenced, but (being made by newbies) they’re a little more cartoonish, which I dig. But the Satan Claus story was more fun.
Cooke and Talbot made one other movie together, FREAKSHOW (1995), also a horror anthology about Gunnar Hansen telling scary stories to teenagers. On his own, Talbot did HELLBOCK 13, in which Debbie Rochon (as a serial killer on death row) is the one telling three scary stories. But Hansen plays the executioner.
This is another movie I learned about from the book Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror in Film and Television (which I believe is out of print but available as an ebook). It has an interview with Talbot, who says that in those pre-internet days he tracked down Hansen by noticing his byline in the New England lifestyle magazine Yankee and writing to the editor to verify that it was the same guy. Hansen was living on a Maine island only accessible twice a day by boat. He didn’t consider himself an actor, but they convinced him to come film for one night, and he provided them a little more of a professional sheen and a name to put on the VHS box. Years later, when CAMPFIRE TALES came to DVD on the Sub Rosa label, I guess they figured that wasn’t enough of a selling point so they added an unrelated sexy lady to the cover.
NOTE: There’s another movie called CAMPFIRE TALES from 1997 which is apparently unrelated and yet is also a horror anthology about teenagers telling stories around a campfire with one of them called “The Hook” inspired by the same urban legend that seem to inspire this “The Hook.” The later movie has a budget and a recognizable people in the cast including James Marsden, Amy Smart, Christine Taylor, Glenn Quinn and Ron Livingston. Ah, shit, now I kinda want to watch it to see what the deal is.