Just as many of us have fond – or traumatic – memories of our own summer camp experiences, many of us may be nostalgic over summer camp movies, particularly those released in the 1980s involving assorted high jinks, heavy petting and homicide. After revisiting some of these films, it’s somewhat surprising that parents of that era even allowed their kids to attend summer camp at all.
Below, we’ve rounded up the good, the bad and the downright ugly of summer camp cinema including special packing lists based on the films. It’s a mixed bag to be sure – after all, we’ve included both the critically lauded “Moonrise Kingdom” and, well, “Ernest Goes to Camp.” That being said, some of these films might be fun to re-watch or watch for the first time with your own kiddos before you send them off to summer camp. Others, not so much.
Do you have a favorite summer camp-themed movie that we overlooked? Tell us about it in the comments section!
1. “Addams Family Values” (1993)
Before you head to Camp Chippewa for the summer, don’t forget to pack your asthma inhaler and a can of gasoline!
We prefer this “Addams Family” sequel to the original film, if only for the storyline in which Wednesday (a perfect Christina Ricci) terrorizes her fellow campers – and unfailingly chipper camp owners, Gary Granger and Becky Martin-Granger – at a woodsy ‘n’ WASPY establishment for “privileged young adults” with a string of killer one-liners and disturbing/disinterested stares. The “Thanksgiving play” scene is dark comedy gold.
2. “The Burning” (1981)
Before heading to Camp Stonewater for the summer, don’t forget to pack your blowtorch and short shorts!
We omitted the most infamous of all summer camp slasher flicks, “Friday the 13th,” from the main list solely because this grisly deranged-maniac-on-the-loose-at-a-summer-camp film, released just a year after Jason Vorhees made his public debut, is so much better. The scene involving an abandoned canoe and a pair of garden shears is the stuff of horror movie legend. And no, your eyes are not deceiving you: That is indeed Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander, both in their film debuts.
3. “Camp” (2003)
Before heading to Camp Ovation for the summer, don’t forget to pack your Woolite and Sondheim songbook!
Sure, it’s often trite, formulaic and may result in a wicked feel good-y hangover after watching, but there’s also a lot to like about this earnest indie teen comedy set at a Stagedoor Manor-inspired performing arts summer camp in upstate New York – think “Glee” meets “Meatballs” with a dash of “Fame” and you’ve got the gist of it. Watch for a young Anna Kendrick literally stealing the show from her fellow campers.
4. “Ernest Goes to Camp” (1987)
Before heading to Kamp Kikakee for the summer, don’t forget to pack your plunger and box turtles!
The first and best in the seemingly endless series of comedies featuring everyone’s favorite rubber-faced Nashville television pitchman-turned-big screen handyman buffoon, Ernest P. Worrell (Jim Varney), going somewhere clad in that super-stylish denim vest and khaki baseball hat combo of his: School, jail, Africa, the DMV, Costco, the chiropractor etc. This, of course, is saying a lot. Knowwhatwemean?
Before heading to Camp Oskemo for the summer, don’t forget to pack your amphetamines and armored tank!
This raunchy and mostly forgotten (for good reason) 1980s comedy – tagline: “A bunch of nuts, fruits and flakes” – stars Dennis Quaid, Fran Drescher, Rosanna Arquette and the Big Lebowski himself, David Huddleston. Sophomoric and relentlessly stupid, the movie focuses on a group of obnoxious summer camp mess hall waiters. It’s also bound to leave a bad taste in your mouth – opt for the much more palatable “Meatballs,” released just a few months prior, instead.
6. “Heavyweights” (1995)
Before heading to Camp Hope for the summer, don’t forget to pack contraband candy bars, cookies and eclairs!
While not exactly a great (or even good) film, this mid-90s Disney family comedy would seem to be the most popular/only “fat camp” flick out there. And folks seem to love Ben Stiller, in full-on scenery-devouring mode, as an unhinged fitness guru with infomercial aspirations who takes over a previously low-key summer camp for chubby kids after it goes into bankruptcy. Co-written by Judd Apatow.
7. “Little Darlings” (1980)
Before heading to Camp Little Wolf for the summer, don’t forget to pack prophylactics and a carton of smokes!
Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol are the obvious stars in this serious-minded teen sex comedy about two very different 15-year-old girls – one posh, one streetwise – competing to see who can lose their virginity first at an Atlanta-area summer camp. But we kind of love the supporting cast just as much: Cynthia Nixon as a pill-pushing hippie camper and a young Matt Dillon as the shaggy-haired object of McNichol’s affection. The soundtrack, by the way, is positively rockin’.
8. “Meatballs” (1979)
Before heading to Camp North Star for the summer, don’t forget to pack your jogging shoes and a bag of peanuts!
“No more pencils, no more books; No more teachers dirty looks; No more math and history; Summer time has set us free.” This Canadian comedy directed by Ivan “Ghost Busters” Reitman and co-written by the late, great Harold Ramis really, truly does have it all: Nonstop pranks! Nerds! Panty raids! Mystery meat! Counselor canoodling! Color war! A tender coming of age subplot! Bill Murray in his first starring role!
9. “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012)
Before heading to Camp Ivanhoe for the summer, don’t forget to pack your Francoise Hardy records and watercolors!
Love him, hate him or find him too irritatingly precious for his own good, director Wes Anderson sure does know how to craft a mighty pretty tableau. In this “eccentric pubescent love story,” Anderson’s singular storybook world is set against the backdrop of a coastal New England Khaki Scout camp in the 1960s. Aggressive whimsicality aside, it’s a touching film that critics predictably slobbered all over. Added bonus: Bill Murray shirtless and holding an axe.
10. “The Parent Trap” (1961)
Before heading to Camp Inch for the summer, don’t forget to pack a jar of honey and a framed photograph of your mother!
Okay, this Disney classic with double the Hayley Mills isn’t technically a summer camp film. But if you’re on the prowl for a few good obnoxious prank ideas that will surely get you sent straight to the adult version of the “isolation cabin” tout de suite, look no further than the first half of the “Parent Trap.” Also, Lindsay Lohan was pretty darn great in the 1998 remake. Sigh.
11. “Sleepaway Camp” (1983)
Before heading to Camp Arawak for the summer, don’t forget to pack your medical forms and curling iron!
Not to give away too much about the notorious twist ending of Robert Hiltzik’s uber-campy low-budget slasher flick, but we really didn’t see that one coming. And although perpetually unhappy camper Angela Baker graduates to the role of chipper counselor in a string of sub-par sequels, we just want more of Aunt Martha! Seriously, we’d watch Aunt Martha in just about anything – Lifetime movie, daytime talk show, you name it.
12. “Wet Hot American Summer” (2001)
Before heading to Camp Firewood for the summer, don’t forget to pack crayons and a can of mixed vegetables!
Widely hated-on when first released, this send-up of 1980s summer camp films from the gang at beloved MTV sketch comedy show “The State” was later embraced as a cult classic. True, it’s wildly uneven and painfully unfunny in bits but, c’mon, can you beat the camp counselor dream team of Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, Michael Ian Black, David Hyde Pierce, Elizabeth Banks and Bradley Cooper? We think not.
More summer camp classics:
“Camp Nowhere” (1994)
“Friday the 13th” (1980)
“Indian Summer” (1993)
“Poison Ivy” (1986)
Related stories on MNN:
- 15 green summer camps
- Top to bottom: What to pack for summer camp
- 10 tips camp counselors want you to know