Even if you spent your summers on the couch watching reruns of The Price Is Right with your babysitter Sonia who smelled like sweat and cheese balls stuck in braces instead of going to summer camp, everyone knows what camp feels like, thanks to the tons of summer-camp movies and TV shows (remember Salute Your Shorts?) that we’ve seen over the years. With summer fully here, we thought it time we revisit some of those camps.
What makes a summer-camp movie great has less to do with the experience of applying bug spray and learning to swim in the lake, and more to do with celebrating childhood, rebellion, groups of scrappy outsiders pitted against the more popular, and like-minded people banding together to make something impossible and wonderful happen. (Most of them have first kisses, too, thanks to all those girlfriends at summer camp that the other kids figured were made up.) Ahead, we rank the most memorable camp movies, from worst to best.
Ernest Goes to Camp (1987)
Jim Varney’s inept Podunk character Ernest has not aged especially well (and neither has this movie’s depiction of Kamp Kikakee’s founder, Chief St. Cloud), but the story of this hapless counselor who takes a pack of delinquents under his wing and ends up saving the camp from destruction by an evil industrialist is just the kind of fun that a camp movie is meant to have.
Indian Summer (1993)
When good old Uncle Lou (Alan Arkin) wants to relive the glory years of Camp Tamakwa (which is an actual place in Ontario), he invites a group of grown campers back to revisit their youth and figure out adulthood. The plot is pretty simple and predictable, and a bit too similar to The Big Chill and others in the same vein, but a great cast, including Elizabeth Perkins, Diane Lane, and Bill Paxton, make up for it.
Space Camp (1986)
All right, this isn’t the woods-and-cabins kind of camp, but if you think about it, the rest of the conventions of the genre still apply. A bunch of underestimated kids who aren’t the best at their camp are placed in an unexpected circumstance where they have to prove that they were the best all along. It just happens to be that the kids are stranded in a space shuttle and have to figure out how to get back to Earth. There is also an unironic robot that befriends the main character. Other than that, classic camp movie.
Camp Nowhere (1994)
This bit of ’90s nostalgia isn’t necessarily a great movie, but it sure is a lot of fun, and a great spin on the usual concept. A bunch of teens don’t want to go off to camp, so they blackmail their no-good drama teacher (Christopher Lloyd) into convincing their parents to pay him to take them to a made-up camp for the summer. They rent an abandoned campground, but when their parents insist on visiting, they have to pretend it’s a computer camp, a fat camp, and a drama camp. Hilarity ensues, mostly, and, like in all camp movies, this coven of misfits learns to love each other, plus some valuable lessons about life and car repossession.
Friday the 13th (1980)
It was just a year after Meatballs that someone decided to cash in on the creepiness of camp life. The rural setting, the isolation, the oversexed teens — they’re all ripe for a slasher to be dropped right in their midst. The creation of the hockey-masked villain Jason Voorhees, who terrorizes Camp Crystal Lake, led to a generation of people being petrified of being alone in the woods with thoughts of the creepy “Jay-jay-jay-jay son-son-son-son” soundtrack echoing in their brains.
But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
This delightfully candy-colored movie takes the theme of misfits finding their place in the world and makes it into an agenda. Before Natasha Lyonne was sent off to camp in Orange Is the New Black (Litchfield is an all-girls camp, right?), she played cheerleader Megan, who finds herself wanting to listen to Melissa Etheridge rather than make out with her quarterback boyfriend. Her parents send her to New Directions gay reparative therapy camp, where she and other gay youth are forced to try to rewire their brains to like the opposite sex. Cathy Moriarty, in full-on campy Nurse Ratchet mode, terrorizes them all, but eventually, with the help of some ex-ex-gays, the kids rebel and, this being a camp movie and all, find their place in the big gay world.
If any movie is only as good as its villain, then Heavyweights is awesome. Well, maybe absolutely psycho is a better description of Tony Perkis. The fitness guru, played by Ben Stiller, takes over Camp Hope, a fat camp for boys, and drives the campers absolutely insane with his bonkers fitness regime. Of course, the kids rebel and lock Tony up so they can eat all the pizza and Cheetos their pudgy hands can hold, but a well-meaning counselor convinces them to fight childhood obesity and actually start to take personal accountability. Maybe Michelle Obama should start showing this flick to kids instead of trying to get them to move. This moves up in the rankings because both Judd Apatow (who co-wrote the script) and Paul Feig appear in small roles. Future heavyweights, indeed!
Addams Family Values (1993)
Most of these movies pit the underdog camp against the snooty rich camp, but what would the underdogs do if they were stuck attending the snooty rich camp? They would burn it to the ground during a play about Thanksgiving, naturally. Wednesday (Christina Ricci) is at her most wonderfully menacing when she gets the outsiders at the camp to band together and literally roast their counselors on a spit. It’s revenge fantasy at its darkest, and it’s absolutely perfect.
The original camp movie now seems tame and formulaic thanks to all the imitators, but this really set the genre in motion. When Camp North Star, the Bad News Bears of the camping world, faces off against fancy-pants Camp Mohawk, who likes to cheat, you would think North Star doesn’t have a chance, until they embrace a stance of apathy, chanting, “It just doesn’t matter!” Of course they clean up in the end, all the counselors end up with a babe, and head counselor Tripper (Bill Murray in his first film role) gets in one last prank on the camp’s director.
The Parent Trap (1961 and 1998)
Whether it’s the Hayley Mills Original Recipe or the Lindsay Lohan Extra-Crispy Edition of the movie, the message is the same: Camp brings kids together and saves families. Identical twin sisters are accidentally enrolled at the same summer camp and, after torturing each other, figure out that they’re sisters. They decide to switch places to see how the other half lives, but mostly so they can get their parents back together. Half of the action happens away from Camp Walden, but it’s the twins terrorizing each other that is always a lot more fun than them being precocious and scheming to get their parents to kiss.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
A parody of all the movies on this list, this ensemble comedy (featuring pre-fame Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, and Elizabeth Banks) has counselors chasing after each other, kids running amok, and a camp that is in danger of being closed. It also has a cook who is an unhinged Vietnam vet, a talking can of vegetables, and a missile that’s going to wipe them all off the face of the Earth. This cult classic shows what happens when the genre is taken to its illogical extreme, and it is completely hysterical in all the best ways.
Why deal with six long, heavy-handed seasons of Glee when you can get all of the sexual high jinks, self-acceptance feel-goodery, and production numbers in just under two hours? When a group of theater-loving losers descend on Camp Ovation, it’s a hot house of conflicting egos, desires, and divas that would make Lea Michele quake in her kitten heels. It also features a young Anna Kendrick delivering pre–Pitch Perfect brilliance with her rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch.” I can’t wait for her to do it on Broadway in 2035, when she’s finally old enough.
Little Darlings (1980)
Anyone who watched this movie when it aired on cable knows that it’s about two teenage girls (child stars Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol) in a bet about who can lose their virginity first at summer camp. Instead of being a stupid race to get naked like American Pie, this is a rather nuanced and dignified exploration of the emotions and complications of having sex for the first time, possibly when the girls aren’t quite ready for it. Unlike most other camp movies, this one isn’t about preserving and revering childhood, but the sloppy, grasping, wonderful transition to adulthood. Bonus points for very young co-stars Cynthia Nixon and Matt Dillon before they were household names.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
If there were ever a summer camp I would like to go to, it would be Wes Anderson’s picture-perfect and rather twee Camp Ivanhoe, the home of the Khaki Scouts, with their perfect uniforms and meticulously crafted tents. But life isn’t as neat for Sam and Suzy (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward), who fell in love the previous summer and decide to run away together. The whole camp, Suzy’s parents, the local police, and, seemingly, everyone in Hollywood with an Equity card are on the lookout for them in this lovingly crafted and wonderfully ludicrous homage to young love.
Troop Beverly Hills (1989)
I know, I know, they don’t even go to camp, so how can this be the best camp movie of all time? It has everything — a group of underestimated misfits, an unlikely leader, an overly sincere adversary who likes to cheat, and the renewal of traditional values through adversity. When birdbrained shopaholic Phyllis Nefler (Shelley Long) tries to bond with her daughter (a young Jenny Lewis) by creating a troupe of Wilderness Girls in the 90210, her privileged charges are as unlikely as her outings. She teaches them more about life at the Beverly Hills Hotel than sitting around a campfire. Of course, Phyllis and her girls triumph in the end and learn what it means to be true friends. Phyllis gets her husband back, they all win a medal, and we forever have the lyrics to “Cookie Time” lodged in our brains. So, why is this one on top? Honestly, it’s because it topples the camp-movie stereotype that the rich always have to be the villains, and because of all of Shelly Long’s amazing outfits. Okay, it’s mostly the outfits.