Brandon’s Top Camp Films of 2015


Yesterday, I posted my list for the best films I saw in 2015, but with the exceptions of a couple outliers like Magic Mike XXL & Mad Max: Fury Road the whole thing reads as a little too . . . stuffy, dignified. To get a fuller picture of what the year looked like, here were the 15 films I most enjoyed on the trashier side of cinema, the ones we slapped with a Camp Stamp.

1. Goosebumps – The same way films like The Monster Squad, Hocus Pocus, Witches, The Worst Witch, and (on a personal note) Killer Klowns from Outer Space have introduced youngsters to the world of horror (and horror comedy) in the past, Goosebumps is an excellent gateway to lifelong spooky movie geekdom. It strives to stay true to its half-hokey, half-spooky, all-silly source material, resulting in a film that’s genuine dumb fun from beginning to end, but still packs a sharp enough set of teeth that it might just keep a tyke or two awake at night.

2. Unfriended – This laptop-framed live chat horror flick is so ludicrously invested in its gimmickry that it comes off as kind of a joke, but the commitment also leads to genuinely chilling moments that remind the audience a little too much of their own digital experiences. As a dumb horror flick filmed entirely from the first-person POV of a gossipy teen operating a laptop, it’s both way more fun & way more affecting than it has any right to be.

3. Spy – Paul Feig & Melissa McCarthy’s latest collaboration updates the mindless excess of the superspy spoof genre (seen before in films like Naked Gun, Austin Powers, and MacGruber) with a surprisingly sharp sense of humor lurking under its crass irreverence. If nothing else, Jason Statham’s monologue in which he brags about his past adventures might be the single funniest (and most relentlessly dumb) scene of the year.

4. Furious 7 I watched all 7 Fast & Furious movies for the first time this year and can say with total confidence that this was easily the most over-the-top in its absurd disregard for physics, human nature, and good taste. What a fun, ridiculous spectacle of an action movie.

5. Turbo KidA cartoonish throwback to an ultraviolent kind of 1980s futurism that probably never even existed. It’s difficult to believe that Turbo Kid didn’t previously exist as a video game or a comic book, given the weird specificity of its world & characters. It’s a deliriously fun, surprisingly violent practical effects showcase probably best described as the cinematic equivalent of eating an entire bag of Pop Rocks at once.

6. Deathgasm – An authentic look into a metal head teen’s colorful imagination, Deathgasm is a gore-soaked, go-for-broke horror comedy about a high school metal band’s war against a zombie apocalypse. It’s delightfully gross & oddly sweet.

7. Krampus – Director Michel Dougherty’s first film, Trick ‘r Treat, was a comedic horror anthology devoutly faithful to the traditions of Halloween. His follow-up, Krampus,  thankfully kept the October vibes rolling into December traditions in a time where so many people do it the other way around, celebrating Christmas before Halloween even gets rolling. All hail Krampus,  a soul-stealing demon who acts as “St. Nicholas’ shadow”,  for bucking the trend.

8. The Final Girls – If you happen to be a fan of 80s “camp site slasher films” like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp and you enjoy meta genre send-ups like Scream & The Last Action Hero, please check out The Final Girls as soon as you can. It not only participates in the trope-referencing meta play of Wes Craven’s Scream, but because of its outlandish movie-within-a-movie concept, it also adopts the dream logic of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Although the film’s main goal is undoubtedly a goofy, highly-stylized comedy, it also reaches for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit.

9. Mission: Impossible – Rogue NationPretty much a repeat of what I had to say about Furious 7. I watched the entire Mission: Impossible series for the first time this year & the newest installment, Rogue Nation, easily stood out as the most over-the-top entry in the fairly silly action franchise yet.

10. Russell Madness – A family comedy “produced by” Air Bud about a Jack Russell Terrier who finds success as a mixed-species pro wrestler. Need I say more? The only flaw in its execution of what had to be the dumbest premise of the year is that they didn’t stick with what must have been the original title: Russell Mania.

11. American Ultra/Victor Frankenstein I can’t defend essentially anything I’ve ever read Max Landis say on the internet, but I can say that he wrote two of the most mindlessly fun, delightfully excessive examples of trashy cinema that I saw all year.

12. Patch Town – A horror comedy Christmas musical about an evil Cabbage Patch dolls factory, Patch Town sounds like the kind of Sci-Fi Channel dreck that would settle for a couple odd moments & a celebrity cameo, then call it a day. Instead, it milks its concept for all it’s worth. Its high-concept, low budget weirdness is calculated, sure, but it’s also surprisingly thorough in pushing that concept as far as it could possibly go & even better yet, it’s genuinely funny.

13. EverlyA scantily clad prostitute played by Selma Hayek attempts to reunite with her family and escape a life of indentured servitude through an onslaught of gun violence. Cornered in a condo, Hayek’s Everly has to shoot her way through an army of Japanese gangsters, bumbling bodyguards, and fellow prostitutes to achieve freedom. If this sounds stupid & gratuitous, it’s because it most definitely is. Everly isn’t a film where any themes or ideas are explored in new or interesting ways and the violence is a mere exclamation point. It’s a film where violence is the entire point.

14. R100 Late in the run time of this surreally campy BDSM comedy, the film addresses the audience directly by suggesting that, “People won’t understand this film until they’re 100 years old.” Even that timeline may be a little too optimistic. Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto, the juvenile prankster who brought the world the cartoonish excess of Big Man Japan & Symbol, R100 initially pretends to be something it most definitely is not: understated. The first forty minutes of the film are a visually muted, noir-like erotic thriller with a dully comic sadness to its protagonists’ depression & persecution. It’s around the halfway mark where the film goes entirely off the rails genre-wise, dabbling in tones that range from spy movies to mockumentaries to old-school ZAZ spoofs. It’s doubtful that even 100 years on Earth will give you enough information to make sense out of that mess.

15. The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown – What can I say? I’m a sucker for pro wrestling cinema. The dumber the better. In The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown the unholy marriage of the title not only connects both The FlintstonesHoneymooners-style comedy and the WWE’s complete detachment from reality with their collective roots in working class escapism, it also revels in the most important element in all of wrestling & animation, the highest form of comedy: delicious, delicious puns.

-Brandon Ledet

Russell Madness (2015)

russell mania



Once upon a time Air Bud (known by his friends as “Buddy”) was merely a simple golden retriever with an inordinate talent for playing basketball. Not to be pigeonholed, Buddy gradually proved himself to be more of a canine Bo Jackson than just a run-of-the-mill basketball-playing dog, and found formidable careers in football, soccer, baseball, and volleyball. Even more impressive, Buddy found a way to extend his career beyond the playing field, a struggle that a lot of athletes fail to overcome, and has established a second life as a big-time movie executive. At first, Buddy made his film production choices based solely on nepotism, and released six vanity projects starring his own puppies, in what has been labeled as the Air Buddies series. Now, after seven years of straight-to-DVD movies that featured his offspring venturing into unlikely territory like space travel & supernatural crime fighting, Air Bud has finally gotten back to his roots: sports movies. Branching off from his work with Disney and rebranding his film productions as Air Bud Entertainment, Buddy has finally released his first film that does not feature his own progeny: a pro wrestling comedy called Russell Madness. As evidenced by the film’s prominence on the Air Bud entertainment website & this picture of Buddy working hard as a big time movie executive, he could not be prouder of the results.

As the title indicates, Russell Madness strays from Air Bud Entertainment’s usual preference for golden retriever protagonists by casting a Jack Russell terrier in the titular role of a rescued pound dog who finds fame & fortune in an unexpected pro wrestling career. As the title does not indicate, but as you can see in the film’s trailer, the character’s wrestling name is actually “Russell Mania”, not “Russell Madness”. The phrase “Russell Mania” is repeated constantly throughout the film, echoed even in Russell’s killer entrance music (a vital asset to any pro wrestler), but the phrase “Russell Madness” isn’t uttered even once. Why the name change, you ask? As a shrewd business dog, Air Bud was obviously side-stepping any potential legal conflicts with references to the WWE’s WrestleMania brand, dog-based puns or not. That doesn’t mean that WWE got the last laugh here. Oh, no. Air Bud Entertainment not only kept all of the verbal “Russell Mania” references in its debut feature, but also found more subversive ways to criticize the “sports entertainment” giant that robbed them of their movie’s intended title.

Although Russell Madness does not refer to the WWE directly, again thanks to Buddy’s shrewd business sense, its main conflict is built around a WWE surrogate. In the movie’s folklore, all local & regional wrestling promotions were eaten up by an amoral juggernaut that built its empire by violating long-respected business treaties of non-competition. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly how the WWE rose to prominence in the early 80s. Russell Madness even named its fake wrestling promotion the Wrestlers United Federation, or WUF. This not only serves as a reference to WWE’s past as the WWF, but also finds room for another stellar dog pun (“woof”, for those following along), of which there are plenty.  Now that’s efficiency! Just in case that wasn’t enough to drive the point home, a Vince McMahon stand-in, Mick Vaugn (played by Cliff from Cheers), is the evil capitalist head of WUF & makes constant references to his business as more “entertainment” than wrestling. He even goes so far as to ruin the illusion of the “sport”’ by suggesting that (gasp!) the results are fixed and the performers are (double gasp!) only in it for the money.

This little slice of pro wrestling history (with a talking, wrasslin’ dog added for flavor) may seem like familiar territory for even the least committed of marks, but to a child it sounds like ancient history. When the father figure of Russell’s adoptive family recaps the WUF takeover of his own father’s business as a bedtime story, he starts, “Back in his heyday, in a time called ‘The 80s’ . . . “ and instead of imagining the world thirty years ago, his kid (played by one of Mad Men‘s many Bobby Drapers) imagines a sort of dust-covered vaudevillian aesthetic that places the events about a century back. Indeed, even the Ferraro Family Wrestling (an Italian slant on the Guerreros?) arena looks like an ancient vaudevillian theater (that’s in incredible shape for a supposedly blighted building) or as the dad puts it, “midcentury guido”. There’s no denying that this one classy joint, especially once Russell’s family cleans it up & revives the old Ferraro family business. Once again, the comparison between the charming, warmhearted wrestling indies and the cold, mammoth WUF is made clear in how much more character the old-timey digs have than the blue-lit corporate arenas.

At this point it’d be fair for you to have a few lingering questions like, sure the arena is swell, but what about the wrasslin’? And how does a dog even wrestle in the first place? And we know about Russell’s entrance music, but what’s his signature move? First of all, Russell can wrestle. Oh boy can he wrestle. He’s a good boy, yes sir. Who’s a good boy? Russell is. That’s right. As a Jack Russell terrier, Russell obviously isn’t going to be dishing out any suplexes or pile-drivers, but he gets by on some surprisingly adept (CGI-assisted) choke holds and rope work. He may not have the height, strength, charisma, body mass, opposable thumbs, or lung capacity normally associated with pro wrestling’s top acts, but Russell uses his light frame’s aerial abilities to their full advantage and he’s got three very important things than many a wrestling legend have made careers out of in the past: novelty, heart, and raw talent. Of course novelty, heart, and raw talent alone won’t make a champion, but Russell finds a great manager in a (talking!) monkey (voiced by Will Sasso!) who has been haunting the Ferraro Family Wrestling arena since it shut down in the 80s, just waiting for a young talent to shape into a wrestling god. With his monkey manager’s help Russell proves himself champion in a sea of lesser opponents that include a mummy, a cave man, a pirate, a clown, an escaped convict, and a California surfer who says things like “Dude, that’s gnarly.” He even has a unique finisher: he pisses on the competition. It’s not a very physically taxing move, but it is wickedly brutal in its own demoralizing way.

If watching a (talking!) Jack Russell terrier fight his way to the top of the pro wrestling world with the help of his (talking!) monkey manager and a family who loves him sounds like a hokey mess to you, please keep in mind that Air Bud Entertainment is primarily made for children. Russell Madness is just one of the many hokey messes of children’s media, but it’s one with fairly deep love & understanding for both the art of pro wrestling & the art of the pun. Comedy workhorse Fred Willard resurrects his clueless sports announcer role from Best in Show here to deliver some of the best puns of the film, including a personal favorite of mine that involves chimney sweeps. That doesn’t mean he gets to have all the fun, though. Russell even gets a good one in himself when he tells the film’s central heel “I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” Of course, there’s some occasionally tedious humor to the movie that will cause many-a-eye roll (Will Sasso’s literal monkeyshines certainly push it), but that’s to be expected in a straight-to-VOD kid’s movie that was greenlit & produced by a retired-athlete golden retriever. What’s more surprising is how much of Russell Madness strangely works. There’s a particular shot of the child protagonist (Bobby Draper IV) enjoying his birthday cake with a life-size cutout of his absent father that has a particularly strong pathos to it. Also, as silly as the idea of a wrestling dog might be to some people, it works surprisingly well at garnering heat for his opponents. What heel behavior could possibly trump beating up a dog for money?

If you can get past the cheap CGI weirdness, the awful little moving mouths on the talking animals (à la The Voices), and the idea that people would somehow be more impressed by a wrestling dog than a talking monkey with managerial skills, you might find yourself enjoying this little wrestling cinema oddity. Personally, I marked out to the point where I was totally on board with even its most ham-fisted messages like “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” and “The strongest tag team is family.” Film producer “Air Bud” Buddy may not have touched every heart with his tale of a dog who takes the pro wrestling world by storm and finds a family to call his own (or even got the film title he wanted), but he at least touched my heart. I’m actually not entirely convinced that Russell Madness wasn’t made specifically with me in mind & it’s highly likely that it will remain my favorite “bad” movie of 2015. Once again, Buddy took it to the hoop.

-Brandon Ledet