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The Monster of Camp Sunshine
Wading through the weirdness of a nudist camp cult classic
I’ve never seen anything quite like the Monster of Camp Sunshine. On paper it makes some sort of sense, but the execution is so outrageous that it feels like my brain is melting every time I watch it. What really baffles me more than anything else is that to this day, it seems like nobody knows who made it!
The Monster of Camp Sunshine or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Nature (yes, that’s the full title) opens with shots of people hanging out and enjoying themselves at a nudist camp with a message overlaid in text: “the motion picture that follows is a fable. In it there are many nudists but only one monster. In life, it is generally the other way around.” Quite a profound statement, but then the opening credits themselves hit, the first sign that this is no ordinary nudist camp movie. There’s paper cutout animation using stills from the film and other photos, not unlike what Terry Gilliam would use for Monty Python some years later. Then there are the names: written and directed by Ferenc Leroget, cinematography and editing by Motley Crue (not the band), and starring Harrison Pebbles, Deborah Spray, and Sally Parfait. None of these are real names! Who are these kooky people, and why and how did they make this movie?
Let’s get to the plot: Claire and Marta are roommates in New York, living together thanks to an IBM machine finding them compatible, according to Claire’s narration. Claire is a model, and Marta is a nurse at a hospital where lab tests on rats are conducted. Their day begins with a pair of bad premonitions: Marta breaks a mirror after telling Claire to turn off the horror movie music they’re listening to, and Claire is scratched by their cat. The two go off to work, wondering if something else bad will happen, and Marta winds up getting attacked by a rat that has been injected with some kind of chemical cocktail that drove it mad, nearly falling out of a window. She comes home in shambles, and the pair decide that they should take a trip to Camp Sunshine, a local nudist park, to spend the next week and unwind. Meanwhile, the chemical cocktail is carelessly tossed into the ocean, caught by an unlucky fisherman, and then dropped into a nearby river, where it manages to infect and mutate Hugo, Camp Sunshine’s janitor. Hugo becomes a raging beast (with a bad wig!), but is found and locked up by his sister, the camp’s owner.
If that series of events sounds ludicrous, it’s because it truly is, and the movie knows it. The Monster of Camp Sunshine is a spoof, both of horror movies and of the nudist camp films that were becoming quite popular in the early 1960’s. It’s such an unusual one, though! If the animated opening credits with fake names weren’t enough, the movie also prominently features plenty of silent movie intertitles, despite, well, not being a silent film at all. There is a very unique artistic vision here. Yes, the movie is still filled with long, dull sequences of the female cast changing clothes and undressing, the male gaze is still at work here, and you of course get the half-assed messaging about the benefits of nudism that these films slipped in as their excuse to film naked bodies, but at least there’s more going on than just that.
There are so many off-kilter little touches of humor throughout the padded runtime to keep one from getting too bored, like the aforementioned music, the full title itself being a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, and the constant smoking taking place, even at the club while health benefits are being discussed. Before the dangerous chemicals are casually lobbed into the ocean, the doctor who does so tells Marta over the phone how glad he is that science has given them the means to properly dispose of them. The performances of course are pretty amateur, with the dialogue all overdubbed, but everyone seems in on the joke.
Another peculiar detail: Claire is seen modeling a topless swimsuit in one scene, which seems fake, but it turns out it’s the monokini, designed by Rudi Gemreich in 1964, the same year that this movie was made. According to Wikipedia, around 3000 of these suits were sold when it debuted, but only two were ever worn in public: one was worn by Carol Doda, which led her to become the first modern topless dancer in the United States, revitalizing the burlesque era.
And then there’s the final act of this film, which words cannot adequately describe. Everyone is having a good time at the camp, hanging out, reading, and playing the zither, when the monstrous Hugo breaks free of his chains and attacks during a birthday party (after recovering from stepping on a bear trap that was sitting in plain sight.) The doctor who “disposed” of the chemicals quickly devises a serum to cure Hugo and parachutes(!) into the camp with it, but the military is also called in, and the film turns into a cacophonous montage of gunfire and explosions, utilizing actual World War II footage AND Civil War reenactors. I was not expecting one of the most striking images of this film to be a man lighting a stick of dynamite with a revolver, but it’s one of the things that truly makes this film a gift. When the dust settles the next day, our cast wander out into the daylight, clearly shaken by the previous evening’s events. But the sun is shining, so they shake off their woes and cast off their clothes, ready to enjoy the day together. And, should you need one, the film then generously provides a two minute recap of everything that happened, because why not?
It’s a real mystery who writer/director Ferenc Leroget or their cohorts are. As far as I can tell, there’s no real knowledge of this film’s existence prior to Something Weird unearthing it in the 1990’s. I haven’t found any press materials or anything about it, no signs of screenings prior to that. Given its reputation, you would think someone who was involved would come forward, like how Something Weird brought Doris Wishman back into the spotlight. The only real name I can find attached to it is producer Gene Kearny—whose credits include Kojak, Night Gallery, and the screenplay for Night of the Lepus, oddly enough—but he passed away in 1979, according to IMDB. How did this movie come to exist, and why was it buried for so long? Have any of the actors appeared in any other films? Did they get to pick their own names for the credits? I have so many questions and I have no real idea how to find any answers!
If you’re intrigued by this review, you can experience the film yourself for free on Tubi. You can also get it on bluray from Vinegar Syndrome, the American Genre Film Association, and Something Weird, where it comes with the additional films Honeymoon of Terror and All Men Are Apes, neither of which are admittedly as entertaining, but the 2K restoration work by the AGFA is incredible and the packaging is delightful if you’re a fan of physical media. It’s honestly my second favorite nudist film, and well worth checking out! 🪐