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At first glance, what goes on in Monster Camp is just so wrong that it might be easy to dismiss this film as a cynical exploitation of a bunch of sad losers. What else would you expect from a documentary about adults who dress up in cheesy homemade dwarf/elf/monster costumes and, for one weekend a month, act out role-playing games?

Welcome to the world of Live Action Role Playing or LARPing. This stuff strikes me as so profoundly stupid that it’s transcendent and the geek factor is off the meter. But after seeing Monster Camp, I’ve got nothing but respect for these folks. If this is because of Director Cullen Hoback’s enjoyable film, then well done Cullen. And if it’s because of the LARPers’ commitment and dogged wackiness, then you go girls.

West Coast Players

Their amateur costumes speak of doing something for the joy of it
Their amateur costumes speak of doing something for the joy of it

Monster Camp, unreleased as of yet but making the festival circuit, is a smaller, less glamourous, more home-spun version of Darkon (2006), another documentary about LARPing.

Monster Camp is on a scale with the subjects. There is a certain amateurishness to their costumes (with a couple of exceptions... there are always a couple of those) that speak of doing something for the joy of it, before it becomes a serious obsession. This is in contrast to the folks in Darkon who take the whole role-playing thing to a more intense level and in the process seem to squeeze the fun and fantasy out of the project.

It’s also possible that Monster Camp represents the relaxed West Coast version of LARPing and Darkon is the agressive East Coast version.... food for thought while buffing your armor on a cold winters night during the off season.

There is also a strange parallel-universe thing going on with the documentary Jesus Camp. Apart from the play on the name, I think they are different sides of the same coin. In both films, the adults involved have invented a magically idealized world in their respective camps for children (one camp is for their children and the other for their inner child).

Fitting the Pieces Together

Hoback keeps his documentary on an even keel, neither making more of what’s there nor pulling any punches. And the subjects of the film seem to have a pretty solid grasp of what they are doing, and they are happy doing it. They don’t need my approval — or yours — to strap on a fake dog nose, take up a duct-taped foam sword and do battle with other folks wearing green serapes who are designated as “killer trees” ( at least I think that’s what they were supposed to be). Laugh if you will, but they’re having a good time. And unlike traditional role-playing games, these folks get outside and run around... all day and all night.

If I have a criticism of Monster Camp, it’s that it lacks a center of interest perhaps because the LARPing itself confounds rational thought. There are several things going on here. There is the general culture and practice of LARPing, there is this specific Seattle-based franchise (yes, it’s a business... and there are others), and there are the particular people participating. None of these aspects is, I think, adequately considered with the possible exception of a mini-drama centered around keeping the franchise up and running. On the other hand, Hoback has at least touched on all of the above.

Battle between the Sexes

The movie also raises questions of role playing in general. I think a case can be made for any non-work activity being a case of role playing, especially for men. Consider the guy who goes hunting; he’s becoming Daniel Boone, or if he’s into camo, then it’s Rambo. Or step up to the plate at the company picnic’s softball game and become, if only a little bit, Babe Ruth (although generally you don’t do it in 1920’s Yankee drag, and perhaps that’s because you lack the nerve and gumption to flout convention, or maybe you have some shred of self respect).

The women in Monster Camp seem to be less into the monster slaying and more into just having their heads in Pink Unicorn Space. There are a couple of women who’ve been dragged there by their boyfriends. Not surprisingly, there aren’t any men who are there because their girlfriend is making them go. On the other hand, there seem to be more men than women which may say something about which sex needs to escape reality the most.

Your Loss

Some who watch Monster Camp will say “There but for the grace of God go I.” Others would say, “If I ever do that, kill me.” These are weak and unimaginative people who would never last a minute in a world of magic, ogres, flesh-eating plants, and truly free spirits. It’s your loss, not theirs.

Picture and Sound

Both picture and sound quality are small-scale and casual. This is not a big budget production and doesn’t need to be.

How to Use this DVD

Sit back and enjoy. Don’t worry about the people in the film. They probably think you’re as strange as you think they are.