Monster Camp (review)

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The Reality Behind the Fantasy

Ah, it’s the other documentary about crazy LARPers and the craziness that makes them crazy. Actually, that’s not fair to Monster Camp, filmmaker Cullen Hoback’s look at live-action roleplaying gamers in Seattle. It’s not his fault (well, probably not, anyway) that Darkon, the documentary about live-action roleplaying gamers in Baltimore, managed to hit DVD a few months ago. In fact, the makers of both films should probably be commended, for picking up on whatever is in the zeitgeist that makes us suddenly fascinated by grownups — or near enough — who dress up in pseudo medieval garb, pick up fake swords and maces, and beat the hitpoints out of one another. You know, for fun.
Monster Camp is “destined to become the next Trekkies,” says Film Threat, right there on the DVD box — I’m pretty sure it didn’t say that about Darkon — but I’m not so sure the comparison is apt. The 1997 film about crazy Star Trek fans and the craziness that makes them crazy was full of awe at the phenomenon, and tried to make some sense of it all. But our dread and wonder at fandom, in its many shapes and forms, has clearly been somewhat lessened in the intervening years, because Camp (like Darkon) merely turns a weather eye on its subjects and says, “Huh? Whaddaya know?”

Hoback here introduces us to some of the folks who play a game called NERO — it stands for New England Role-playing Organization, but there are chapters all over North America — and gather for weekends of total-immersion fantasy in the state parks of Seattle. They’re a diverse lot: bored adults, gaming fanatics, the teenagers with active imaginations. Actually, they’ve all got active imaginations: Hoback makes a point on his director’s commentary of noting that the best players are highly intelligent and great at improv. You’ve got to be in order to memorize the involved rulebook and all the “magic spells” you’ll be throwing around at monsters over the course of a game.

Of course there’s always the few who take it too far, though there’s a sense here that these are addictive personalities who would get hooked on anything, given enough interest in it. (One guy admits his daughter complained that he was spending too much time on the online roleplaying game World of Warcraft, which many NERO players seem to also get a kick out of, and not enough time with her… and a bit of a plot twist late in the film seems to say that he won’t be getting over his addictions anytime soon.)

The film is most intriguing when Hoback focuses on the reality that makes the fantasy run, when he follows around Shane, who owns the NERO chapter, organizes the games… and never gets to play himself, he’s too busy keeping everything together and worrying about things like insurance and whether he’ll get a chance to sleep over a game weekend. It’s interesting to hear Hoback say, in his commentary, that while he falls in love with the people he’s making movies about, he doesn’t always quite believe what some of them say, but it’s clear he’s got a lot of sympathy for Shane. It makes for a wonderful complex portrait of the fantasies we comfort ourselves with, and the realities we all must eventually face.

The DVD: Also on the disc are two short films by Hoback, the unrelated “The Everything Machine” — an amusing, Twilight Zone-esque cautionary tale about an “awesome” game system from the future — and “Dragons Are Real,” which was shot to raise money for the production of Monster Camp. Some footage from the short was repurposed for the feature, which serves as a small lesson in how films get made on the cheap.

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