Friday, June 30, 2017

Goosebumps: Episodes 5-6 Welcome to Camp Nightmare

Only four episodes in, and I'm already starting to form a list of things that make for a good Goosebumps episode: a two-parter for good pacing, a director who can provide atmosphere, human villains to minimize cheesy special effects, a protagonist a few years older than the show's target demographic, and a surreal environment that makes the final twist seem less stupid by comparison.

If you can't tell, I'm listing off the things I like in Welcome to Camp Nightmare. This is another step up from the already good Girl who Cried Monster, which still had problems with cheesy make-up and pacing. It still has a certain degree of hamminess to it, but moreso than any previous episode there's a sense that the cheese is intentional. All of these actors are having a blast, and the Summer Camp environment invokes the sense of an '80s slasher made appropriate for small children.

Our protagonist this time is named Billy (Kaj-Erik Eriksen), a kid whose parents frequently go off on expeditions every summer. Normally, he stays with his Aunt and Uncle, but this summer they decided to send him off to camp. I like how downplayed his reaction is. Billy comes across as less hyperactive and emotional than our three previous protagonists right from the start. He mentions that he prefers Camp over his Aunt and Uncle, but doesn't seem especially thrilled to be there either.

Most of the other kids at the camp come across as more typical Goosebumps protagonists, either easily freaked out, or snarky as hell. Billy acting as straight-man for the group works well. We get to spend the most time with the character least likely to grate on our nerves. It also goes perfectly with the eventual twist.

The episode probably embodies the fear of childhood powerlessness better than any other single episode. The majority of tension in the episode is driven by one primary conflict: the adults at the camp seem oblivious to danger. The episode starts with the kids being left in what appears to be a random part of the woods by their bus driver, and nearly attacked by a large canine creature. The camp director, Uncle Al (Chris Benson) makes his appearance by scaring the creature off with a flare-gun. He assures them that “Saber” will leave them alone if they stay on the trail, not bothering to comment on why they would build a Summer Camp at all in woods that had such a monster in it.

Uncle Al is contrasted with counselor Larry (Paul Brogren), a snarky and disinterested jerk. Where Al comes across as friendly, Larry is constantly rude and demeaning to his campers. To the episode's benefit, neither of them come across as villainous from the start. Al seems happy-go-lucky, but oblivious. Larry, on the other hand, initially comes across as a guy who's just fed-up with stupid kids who don't listen.

After arriving, camper Mike (David Roemmele) is bitten by a snake. Billy and Mike beg Larry for a doctor, but Larry tells them to just wash it off and wrap it. I remember that as a kid this seemed horrible. Now, looking at the scene, I see Larry as someone who knows there are no poisonous snakes in the area, and thinks the kids are over-reacting.

Gradually, however, it becomes clear that something is wrong. First Mike disappears, and the counselors refuse to say where he went. Then Roger (Benjamin Plener) is attacked by Saber offscreen, apparently killed. Finally, Larry turns and runs away when he sees Jay and Collin (Jeffrey Akomah and Ken Mundy) drowning. Eventually, Uncle Al begins refusing to acknowledge that campers of those names even existed.

Finally, Billy runs to hide in the “Forbidden Bunk,” where he encounters Dawn (Sarah Mitchell), and escapee from the Girls' Camp across from them, who tells him stories similar to his own. They also find that all of their letters home have been stored in the bunk. The sequence is right out of a nightmare.

When Billy goes out to investigate further, he's captured by Larry, and finds Uncle Al in fatigues, handing out crossbows loaded with alleged “tranquilizer darts” to subdue Dawn. Apparently it's camp policy to rally all the boys into a hunting party whenever anyone tries to run. The scene seems surreal, but the use of human villains helps here. The scene works as well as the actors selling it, and they sell it.

Billy, however, is having none of this, shooting Uncle Al with the crossbow he assumes to be lethal, determined that no one else can be allowed to die. And then, the reveal: the crossbow dart was harmless, and Billy just passed a test by the government. Everyone is alive, Saber was mechanical, and his parents (Alec Bachlow and Michele Duquet) set the whole thing up because they couldn't take Billy with them on a long-term expedition unless he was able to show courage, and an ability to act independently of authority. This ending works because, unlike a lot of protagonists, Billy does show himself to be a kid with exceptional control of his own emotions, much more so than any previous main characters on this show.

...oh, and they're all human-like aliens on another planet, and the expedition is to Earth. And this planet is so close that Earth is clearly visible in the sky, but Billy has never heard of it. Yes, the final twist is kind of insane, but it doesn't really bother me. It doesn't fundamentally change anything that came before it, and the actors are good enough to get me to go with a fundamentally stupid idea. It's silly, but it kind of makes me smile. exactly did the Night of the Living Dummy episodes become the face of this franchise? I suppose there really isn't a marketable villain for this episode. Still, so far as I've gotten (granted it’s only four stories), this is the most bang you're going to get for your buck by a mile.

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