Singing and Maiming, Together at Last

This is the time of year when I’m reminded of my Stockholm Syndrome for horror stories. Traditionally I’m filled with a desire to consume them, which then conflicts with my need to sleep over the next several days. But then in high school I was introduced to Army of Darkness, and camp horror swooped in to rescue my circadian rhythms.

What’s camp, you reluctantly ask after I’ve singled you out? That’s an excellent question, theoretical reader. There’re a couple different definitions, which have evolved with time, but it comes down to a few basic components: theatricality, excessiveness, comparative mediocrity, and above all absurd exaggeration of the subject at hand. This generally comes in ‘deliberate’ and ‘accidental’ flavors. Drag shows can be camp, for example, as a means of playing up the ridiculousness of the ‘costume’ of gender roles. The films of Ed Wood (Plan 9 and so on) are camp because they hurtle past any bounds of empathy or believable fantasy and right on into self-parody. It’s a fine line, and achieving it deliberately is a lot harder than doing it accidentally – accidental camp comes with an air of charm, the feeling that the creators were honestly trying their best and just didn’t make it to traditional quality (whether from resources or the material itself being lacking); whereas deliberate and failed camp more often than not provokes eyerolling and the resentment of the audience.

Deliberate camp, particularly, needs to have something to say to really strike a chord. The exaggeration must exist to draw attention to something rather than existing for its own excessive sake (which is the domain of accidental camp). I’m convinced the reason The Rocky Horror Picture Show has much more reliable appeal than Repo! The Genetic Opera is because the former knew what it was paying homage/parody to (B sci fi movies and the sexual revolution), while the latter just kind of…is, in all its weird, cult-celebrity collecting glory (despite really wanting to be Rocky Horror).

In that light, I gathered up five great under the radar examples (in no particular order) of not just camp horror, but camp musical horror for your Halloween week. And for those of you concerned I might make it a whole post without mentioning anime, worry not. It’s in there.

Cannibal! The Musical

If you like: The Book of Mormon and the South Park movie, parodies of 40s musicals
Camp?: A little of both – there’s the Trey and Matt satire in its early forms (here directed at theatrical conventions), but there’s also the charm of the amateur script and low-budget effects
Available on: Netflix streaming, Youtube

“He’ll sing and dance his way into your heart – then take a bite out of it!”

AKA “the very first Matt Stone/Trey Parker collaboration,” Cannibal! is the story of Alfred Packer. For those of you not from the Colorado area, he went up into the mountains with an expedition hoping to excavate for gold…and was the only one who made it back out. Mostly because he ate the other people. This version paints it all as a tragic misunderstanding, told in flashback by Packer after he’s been arrested for murder. This little movie was Trey’s thesis project for film school, and is also 110% charming (if about ten minutes too long). The songs are solid, though the cast is occasionally not up to it; the acting…exists in the college sense, the jokes hold up (if black comedy’s your style), and the gore is simultaneously unashamedly self-aware of its low budget nature and no-holds-barred.

Regarding the 40s musical thing, don’t be scared off. You can still completely enjoy the ridiculousness of college kids running around the Colorado mountains in bad beard makeup without it. You might just miss the importance of Packer having a dream ballet in the middle of act two, or wonder why there’s a lengthy illustrated credits sequence. And then you can build a snowman.

Reefer Madness

If you like: Mystery Science Theater 3000, Edward Scissorhands, Hairspray (especially the John Waters version)
Camp?: Veeeeeeery much intentional
Available on: Netflix disc, or on Amazon for under $10. For extra fun, Mike Nelson’s riffing of the original PSA is free on Hulu

Gather round, children, and hear a woeful tale of that deadliest of drugs, MARIJUANA. SCREAM as innocent high school student Jimmy Harper is tempted into the illicit den of sin and inequity. QUIVER as innocent young love is rent asunder by the devil’s weed. GASP as Alan Cummings tries really, really hard to win best Stephen Colbert impersonator of 2005.

Reefer Madness, at its heart, is a show with one joke. A government agent has come to a Small American Town (shown in black and white), serving as a framing device for the actual story – an Oz-like Technicolor story of the extremely exaggerated dangers of pot. And exaggerate it does, alongside some pretty run-of-the-mill Cold War era satire. Our teenage lovebirds, for example, are so bubbleheaded and oblivious they’re convinced Romeo & Juliet will have a happy ending. The joy of the movie is watching it escalate, continually pulling yet more surrealism and black comedy from its bag of tricks. Most storytellers would build to the drug-addled teen receiving a vision from Jesus Christ about the evils of drugs. For Reefer Madness, that’s about the halfway point. And Jesus sings a Vegas-style number about the evils of drugs. While wearing a gold loincloth, in a nightclub emceed by Joan of Arc.

The downside of the movie is that it’s the sort of train you’re either on, or you’re not. If you’re not laughing by stripper Jesus bit, your eyes will be rolling out of your head by the time the cannibalism comes along. I’d say watch it with friends, and get ready to hum the songs for at least a week afterward. If nothing else, come to see Lindsay Lohan’s mom from Mean Girls play the swooning, abused lady of the reefer den.

…it’s funnier than it sounds.

Kuroshitsuji: The Most Beautiful Death in the World
If you like: Black Butler, Tanz der Vampire, Corpse Bride, sobbing
Camp?: Unintentional
Available on: YouTube, by user thejesusfreak13

Brace yourselves, because I’m about to wholeheartedly recommend a musical that features a grown man dancing with a lawnmower. Beautiful Death is a creature born from a fairly common occurrence in Japan, where popular anime are made into limited run stage shows. If an anime’s a particularly long runner, like Sailor Moon or Prince of Tennis, multiple shows might be made over the years. There’s sort of no way to avoid making these affairs at least a little ridiculous, what with the hair styles, flashy lights and sparkles special attacks, and grand pronouncements of…choice…dialogue. At worst, they tell a condensed version of the story the audience already knows, with a few choreographed dance fights and forgettable songs thrown in.

At best, they tell a story that fits in with the show but also stands semi-independent of it, and that’s where Beautiful Death (which is actually the second musical based on the Black Butler property, but the further we get from the first the better) fits in. All you really need to know about the original series is that 12 year old Victorian Brit Ciel Phantomhive’s family was murdered, and afterwards a secret cult kidnapped and tortured him. Ciel makes a contract with a demon, whom he names Sebastian, and orders said demon to help him get revenge and to do his bidding as the perfect butler until that day comes. So Ciel’s a Mary Sue 12 year old boy who’s the head of a super successful toy corporation, beloved or at least physically appreciated by all who meet him, and personally trusted by the Queen of England to solve supernatural cases. As you can imagine, different adaptations have a hell of a time keeping him sympathetic (and to my mind, only the first season of the anime really accomplished it).

As far as the musical’s concerned, Ciel’s just the frame device we’re stuck with. The real meat of the story has to do with the Shinigami Dispatch Society, a bureaucracy of grim reapers tasked with collecting the souls of the dead and judging whether they’re fit for heaven or hell. People are dying who aren’t supposed to be, you see, and series-regular William T. Spears sends out new characters Alan Humphries, an honors student with terminal Soap Opera Disease; and his mentor and “friend” Eric Slingby, to investigate the cause of the deaths. At the same time, Ciel is tasked with solving a rash of mysterious murders. Naturally, tensions and twists arise.

Putting this show on the list is a wee bit of a cheat, because technically it falls more under the care of the paranormal than horror – Ciel isn’t helpless and threatened by the Other, he’s contracted it to work for him. But then, you’re not rooting for Ciel in this show. The two original characters are the ones called on to carry the brunt of the narrative, and they sweep up the emotional heart with aplomb. Eric is indeed a victim of an Other: the unfairness of death plaguing someone you love, and the feeling of helplessness that accompanies watching the process. Taisuke Saeki steals every moment he’s on stage, oscillating between a mask of playboy nonchalance and an impotent, broken despair carried by a soulful baritone. If you do nothing else, watch the show for his performance.

It’s not to say the show isn’t camp. You’re watching grown men dance around with chainsaws and lawnmowers (custom death scythes, you see), delivering what are for the most part bite-sized pop and synthesized songs (plus a few really great ballads). And there’s a couple of side characters that are absolutely painful to watch. But I wanted it on the list to make the point that ridiculous aspects don’t necessarily make a show devoid of emotional resonance. Flaws and all, this is my favorite incarnation of the franchise.

If you like: Aliens, but think it needs more singing; A Very Potter Musical, Avenue Q
Camp?: Played from both sides, I’d say
Available on:

The Starkid crew (AKA where Blaine from Glee started out) has carved out a niche for themselves by now, peddling low-fi musicals with good scripts, cardboard props, and variable quality music depending on whether AJ Holmes and Darren Criss are involved or not.

Starship is the story of…y’know what, it’s The Little Mermaid, but if Ariel was a giant bug puppet, and Eric was part of an Aliens style expedition commanded by a paranoid Old Snake. It’s sort of a love letter mish mash of ridiculous sci-fi, and a surprisingly effective at that. It brings to mind the Rocky Horror B-movie tribute I mentioned up top. There’s a real sense of love behind the parody, and while the characters are walking jokes of certain archetypes they’re also quite likable, and there’s some really solid tunes – particularly the “Poor Unfortunate Souls” stand-in “Kick it Up a Notch.” The puppets in particular are quite high quality, and while the actors are college age they’ve got great comedic timing and (mostly) strong voices. There’s something uniquely heartwarming about the troupe mentality in the Starkid productions, and the familiarity of the cast lets them play off of one another to great effect. It’s not really scary, playing more to the grotesque, but the surprise is feeling yourself getting sucked into a show that revolves around love between a ditzy blond and a giant ant puppet. I never thought I’d get to type such a sentence.

Evil Dead: The Musical
If you like: Sam Raimi, cause it’s more of that but with singing
Camp?: intentional, if a bit hit or miss
Available: Live, with some pieces of filmed productions on YouTube

I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this post with a short nod to that great classic of camp horror, Evil Dead. While the original won appeal by way of its startlingly overblown handling of a supposedly serious horror film, this one’s aiming for the cult crowd from the word go. There’s literal gallons of blood gushing out of the stage, cheesy fake limbs flying like so much butcher meat, and at least two evil zombie-demon dance songs. To be technical, the first act covers the plot of Evil Dead (teens go to abandoned cabin, accidentally awaken demons, get dead), while the second act moves on to Evil Dead 2 (the same, but with different characters still in the same cabin). It makes sitting through the whole show kind of a slog, since ED2 was just ED1 with more knowing parody. It’s the kind of thing that’s best experienced live, and perhaps slightly drunk.

There’s no official visually recorded version, but this is the kind of show that benefits from seeing an amateur production – with the right cast, it washes away the stink of ‘trying too hard for laughs’ camp and makes it a sort of earnestly ghoulish and silly production. On Broadway, I imagine it would be a bit more cringe inducing. Give this one a look if you like the original, but lower expectations accordingly. And for full disclosure’s sake, I listened to “Cabin in the Woods” for almost an hour while I was getting this post ready. By that major, they’re doing something right.

If you can find a performance for the holiday? Go for it, support a local theater. It’s a fun night of absurdity, the kind where you sit in a dark room and bond with complete strangers boggling and laughing at how ridiculous what you’re seeing is. In that way, it might be the truest up-close camp experience on this list.

Anything to recommend? Have your own favorite hilarious gorefests? Tell away – I’m always looking for suggestions.

2 replies »

  1. Cannibal!: The Musical is my favorite movie ever…I pretty much have it memorized. I love Reefer Madness too…it was the first thing I saw Kristen Bell in, and she’s been one of my favorite actresses ever since. You have good taste. : )

    • You’re too kind! They’re both great movies – Reefer in particular has an amazing ensemble cast. It’s the kind of treatment I wish every filmed musical would get.

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