The Resurgence of Camp Trash 

Or: the new proliferation of high-concept, low-brow

Kor O’Connell - Modern Languages student at the University of Tuscia

DECEMBER  23, 2021
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Camp trash” might sound harsh as a descriptor for any form of media.

In truth, there’s nothing wrong with either campiness or trashiness. The problem is that the former is difficult to define and can come undone depending on the creator’s intent. The latter, on the other hand, can feel forced and gratuitous if not deployed with the right amount of panache.

The 70’s were an excellent breeding ground for camp trash, thanks to the decade’s turbulent artistic and political panorama, giving us some memorable filmmakers like John Waters and Dario Argento.

Waters realised that indulging in both extravagance and filth could be more countercultural than any chic intellectual mindset, and thus works like Pink Flamingos and Feminine Trouble maintain their shocking power to this day. Argento, conversely, strayed from the more artistic directors of 70’s Italian cinema by relying on shamelessness and camp. This unbridled his films from logic and coherence, giving us some truly audacious production design and dynamic cinematography.

With the 80’s came a heavier reliance on machismo, formulaic plots, and a desire for blockbuster success or franchise potential. Money money money, in other words. Mainstream films were still stupid and trashy, to be sure. But very rarely were we to see the edge and spark of a Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), or the pop-art fever dream of something like the Japanese cult classic Hausu (1977).

The 90’s shifted the conversation around camp trash even further, with some perfectly formulaic films managing to shoot the moon and somehow come back around to being unintentional camp classics: think the high-octane nonsense of Micheal Bay, or the feel-good mush of Roland Emmerich. Yet, precisely, the intentionality was lacking.

Though the idea of auteurs is rather passé in contemporary cinematic discourse, in this context it would be important to mention two names that upheld trashy, campy sensibilities in the 90’s and 2000’s: Tim Burton and Baz Luhrmann. Today both are long past their prime and their best work, but they were truly exciting directors in their early years.

Both employed an irreverent sense of stylism, an unabashed pop sensibility and their own affinity for the bizarre. Who could forget the lyrical imagery of candlelight over neon in Romeo+Juliet? Or the breathtaking frenzy of the Can-Can sequence in Moulin Rouge? Similarly, Burton’s affinity for quirky details gave unexpected actors a chance to flourish in offbeat roles: no-one else would have turned Michelle Pfeiffer into a writhing, leather-clad avenger, or Martin Landau into a tragicomic Bela Lugosi.

Ultimately, when used right, camp trash can give us revolutionary, trendsetting cinema. But can it be successfully inserted into our contemporary cinematic landscape? Is our 2021 attitude toward media perhaps too dour to accomodate such foolishness?

On the contrary, I believe our current penchant for over-seriousness has led to some of the campiest, trashiest films ever made. And audiences are more than willing to gobble it up. Much contemporary escapism has grown tiresome and topical (think Marvel and their ilk). So when something truly ridiculous comes along, one can almost hear a collective sigh of relief behind the scoffing.

Two recent exemplars have taken the internet by storm in the past month: Cinderella (2021) and Malignant. Both are wildly commercial, trashy pieces of nonsense. And both are fascinating in their failures and successes, particularly as it relates to their use of camp.

As far as high profile, mainstream releases go, these films take some risks that shocked even a grizzled film buff like yours truly. To be fair, they are part of two genres that don’t have much to lose: the movie musical for Cinderella (a jukebox musical, at that...) and horror for Malignant.

There is definitely nothing more superfluous than an umpteenth Cinderella adaptation, since the story has been modernised, traditionalised, expanded, simplified and all of the above almost every year for the past century. And yet, here we are. What distinguishes this adaptation is a combination of peculiar casting and dorky aesthetics that amounts to something resembling charm.

Pop-singer Camila Cabello stars as our titular heroine, who has been girlbossified into an aspiring designer, living in an anachronistic magical kingdom. The film punches you in the face immediately with its eclectic musical choices, when the whole village performs a medley of Janet Jackson and Des’ree. Not to be outdone, Camila Cabello punches you in the face with some unusually strained vocals and occasional moments of poise and likeability. Already the film is a mess, but enjoyably so.

More enjoyment is to be found in the casting of Idina Menzel as Cinderella’s stepmother, and her illustrious belting saves the film’s soundscape. Even more refreshing is the dynamic between her and her step-daughter. Instead of catty rivalry, they simply have contrasting worldviews. And the resolution of this conflict is better still: they reach an understanding, they help each other change. This may seem like grade-school tier creative writing, but in 5 million iterations of this same story, rarely has anyone ventured to unite the two female leads in such a way.

The power of camp allows storytellers to free themselves from convention.

Other highlights include an utterly glamorous Billy Porter as Cinderella’s fabulous fairy godmother, decked out in gold lamé and stilettos as though he never left the set of Pose. His conversations with Cabello, laden with trendy queer lingo, border on the cringey, but Porter powers through thanks to his sheer conviction. Add to that some legitimately gorgeous costuming and goofy choreography, and you could have a surefire camp classic on your hands.

But the film buckles under the weight of crowd-pleasing. By trying to be all things to all people, it loses a sense of identity. You can see a film with a personality struggling to come out, only to be swamped by very obvious corporate demands and focus grouped meddling. The film was produced by Amazon, you say? Would’ve never guessed...

On the complete opposite end of the scale, Malignant has a very clear vision indeed. A vision so specific, in fact, that it might only be clear to James Wan, the film’s director, and his co-writer Ingrid Bisu. The two are a couple, and reportedly came up with the film together. There is indeed a sense of intimate, unhinged liberation to the film that makes you feel like they probably understand each other on a deep, problematic level.

Mazel tov, I guess.

The film presents itself as an average James Wan horror joint: a huge haunted house, soapy family melodrama, some sleek spooky imagery. One could be tipped off to some funny business by the film’s characters acting dumber than most horror film protagonists. But no one in their right mind could predict where this monstrosity is headed. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our main character, Madison, starts the film pregnant and abused by her gross husband. An altercation leaves Madison unconscious and her husband murdered by a demonic presence, who looks like a long lost member of SlipKnot. The presence goes by the name Gabriel, a creature who communicates through TVs and phones, and proceeds to show Madison visions of subsequent murders he commits, leaving police baffled and Madison scrambling for answers.

All of this transpires as a sort of Giallo meets The Conjuring, as though Wan were trying to make that particular sub-genre palatable to the bland sensibilities of modern horror fans. Once the ending roles around, however, it becomes clear this film is not here to please anyone. If anything, it’s here to troll you.

It’s impossible to discuss this film much further without ruining the ending. It’s also impossible for me to recommend this film to anyone, given it’s so offensive, stupid and nonsensical that I’d be embarrassed to do so. And yet for that reason I need everyone to see it immediately. The film goes off the rails so whole-heartedly, so spectacularly, I had to pause it and pace my room for a while as I scream-laughed.

The film shifts from Conjuring to Giallo and then backflips into Troma territory. That’s right, Troma vibes, in a Warner Brothers production. The events that transpire in the last third of this film take campy trash to the next level. It’s an instance of high-concept, low-brow that pays off in the worst and best ways possible. Watch it and judge for yourself.

Thus, the film succeeds by being a complete failure. It is also immediately memorable in a way Cinderella is not.

Both, however, take risks, and should be applauded for that. It can’t be said that they are good, though, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Hence, cinema must find a way to not merely sustain itself on campy, trashy moments for low-rent exhilaration, but to elevate itself to more than the sum of its parts. Tentative steps in this direction have been taken by some filmmakers, yet they remain a substantial minority.

So, fellow racoons, back to the trash heap. There may still be gold in these hills.