There's a long tradition of horror movies set at summer camp. Friday the 13th is the best-known example. Sleepaway Camp, The Burning, and Madman are three others. There's also a long tradition of comedies set at summer camps, from Meatballs to Wet Hot American Summer. Now we have She Came from the Woods, a 75% horror / 25% comedy that takes place at a summer camp. It's fine, but there are much scarier summer camp movies, and much funnier ones, too.
The location is Camp Briarbrook, and the year is 1987. It's owned by Gilbert McCalister (William Sadler) and run by his daughter Heather (Cara Buono), whose son Shawn (Tyler Elliot Burke) is perpetually frustrated with his irresponsible brother Peter (Spencer List). After the children have gone home for the season, the counselors party. Peter tells the scary legend of the camp's former nurse, who went nuts and performed bizarre bloodletting experiments on the kids. On a lark, he convinces everybody to summon her name as they draw their own blood. They don't actually believe the tale – until Nurse Agatha turns up and starts killing people.
That's a fairly generic premise, yet it's also kind of the point. Summer camp horror movies by nature have nearly identical plots, with only a few details distinguishing them. Agatha could be an interesting villain, maybe even at a Jason Voorhees level, if we saw more of her. Most of the time, she's photographed from a distance or only seen in passing. It isn't until the last five minutes that we get a full-on look at her. This has the impact of taking away her ability to scare us. I don't think the Friday the 13th pictures are particularly good, but they do spring to life when Jason comes onscreen because we know something gruesome is about to go down. Agatha lacks that sort of presence.
A couple of scenes generate mild creepiness, particularly when a gang of possessed children attacks a counselor. It's also admirable how the movie is willing to kill off characters we expect to survive. More often that not, though, director Erik Bloomquist fails to create the nervous tension a slasher flick needs to thrive. He's very busy replicating the look and style of his inspirations, to the detriment of suspense. The best way to pay homage to a cinematic genre is to use its conventions for maximum impact, as the original Scream did. She Came from the Woods is too concerned with imitation to do that.
The comedy level is similarly underwhelming. As expected, many of the counselors have humorous quirks and/or sarcastic personalities. However, none of them are truly funny. The best performance, unsurprisingly, comes from Sadler, who understands the material is a little goofy and therefore plays Gilbert in a slightly over-the-top manner. If the other actors had matched his tone, the film's comedic side would have had a greater effect.
She Came from the Woods isn't terrible. In fact, it's weirdly better than some of the summer camp slashers that influenced it. (A lot of them are, quite frankly, awful.) Even so, this is a bland movie that has nothing new to add to the idea of a crazed killer tormenting counselors. Good camp chillers can be terrifying. Bad ones can be perversely entertaining. Mediocre ones get you nowhere.
out of four
She Came from the Woods is unrated, but contains bloody violence and strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.