Urban Folklore and Legends have comprised some of the best tall tales and words of warning ever created. Often times they’re based on some grain of fact, and can serve as subtext for the dangers of premarital sex, and not talking to strangers. “Campfire Tales” from 1997 is one of the few anthology films that pulls from the catalog of urban legends and utilizes them to produce a pretty great horror film. Directed by a trio of talented filmmakers, “Campfire Tales” is one of the few anthology films that have shrunk away in to obscurity unfairly. In the gamut of anthology horror, “Campfire Tales” is a strong contender for one of the top ten. It’s shocking that the movie is barely discussed when good anthologies are discussed.
Surely, it’s not “Creepshow,” but it’s definitely on par with “Cat’s Eye,” or “VHS.” The opening of the film is set in the mid-fifties and evokes one of the best bits of urban folklore of all time: The Hook. A young Amy Smart and James Marsden play the loving couple making out in their car, before they hear of an escape maniac on the loose from a mental institution over the radio. While making out Smart’s character begins to realize there’s some kind of screeching and moaning interrupting their love making, and asks Marsden’s character to take her home. Upon driving up to her door, the audience knows what’s coming up, but damn it, watching that hook snagged on to the door of the car is still shocking and terrifying.
The couple barely evaded being murdered. If not for their decision to skip premarital sex, they’d be doomed. The rest of the film really has no reliance on the prologue, but it’s a wonderful introduction course for people that aren’t quite familiar with these kinds of campfire tales. From there we meet a foursome of teenagers that have narrowly survived a car crash. Though their car is totaled, they decide to wait up for road services and share a campfire to keep warm. There’s the implication that they’re being stalked by another maniac throughout their scary segments, but that’s oddly side stepped throughout. It provides a creepy little detail within their hope for survival, but it’s a mysterious plot device, especially considering we’d just seen the Hook tale only minutes before.
“Campfire Tales” touches on three of my favorite urban legends. The first entitled “The Honeymoon” is the scariest and easily the best. Starring Ron Livingston as a newly married man who is traveling along the road with his new wife, there’s a combination of tales involving some kind of feral people, and the famous scratching on the roof of the car tale. We’re never quite sure what’s watching the couple, but they’re in immediate danger when they park their RV in the middle of a clearing and decide to frolic and make love. “The Honeymoon” increases in tension as the screw turn every minute, leading in to a wonderful surprise ending that takes from a classic urban yarn. There’s “People Can Lick Too” about an escaped pervert, and a young girl home along with her dog. Things lead up to a disgusting and disturbing final scene that plays upon the fear of leaving children home alone and lack of parental responsibility.
Finally, there’s “The Locket” about a wandering motorcyclist who discovers a gorgeous young mute girl living alone. He takes a liking to her immediately, but it curious about the locket she keeps firmly wrapped around her neck. All three segments are beautifully filmed, with seething tension, and loyal adaptations of some of the best bits of folklore ever imagined. “Campfire Tales” doesn’t end at its stories, opting for a very interesting and sad surprise ending that toy with the viewers’ perceptions of what was fiction and what was reality. I try to mention “Campfire Tales” as often as possible whenever good anthology films come up as a topic of discussion. In the decade of straight to video fare, it’s three notches above the typical horror fare that filled video store shelves.