Episodes #5 & 6: Welcome to Camp Nightmare - (Originally aired: Part I 11/27/95 & Part II 11/24/95)
Brian: So we're back! We got through all the introductory yahoo on the last edition so let's jump right into today's five episode slate. Toby, I screened all of these episodes in an abandoned cabin in Camp Nightmoon. I'm fortunate enough to have survived the ordeal.
We start things off with the series' second two-parter Welcome to Camp Nightmare. And I've got to say -- I really enjoyed this one. The summer camp setting is an ideal one for horror tales. We've seen it throughout the years in the horror genre and R.L. Stine has revisited it as a backdrop for several stories in his various horror series'.
Our protagonist is a likable lad named Billy who gets shipped off to Camp Nightmoon. The bus ride ends prematurely as the driver kicks the youngsters off, tosses their luggage out on the dusty backwoods roadway, and unceremoniously speeds out of there.
Once the already frazzled kids make it to the camp proper things only get weirder. Let's dive into some of the mishaps and misfortunes that awaited Billy and his bunkmates. And we also need to discuss two creepers, the camp leader Uncle Al, as well as the iniquitous, contemptible reprobate of a counselor Larry, easily one of the more unlikeable characters in this show's history. There's also the monster Sabre, the excellent juxtaposition of the idyllic summer settings turned foreboding, and one hell of a double twist ending to unpack!
Toby: As you mentioned, Brian, the story begins with a bunch of kids getting dumped off at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Or at least somewhere up in the Great White North, as we quickly determine once the dumpy but suspiciously Canadian "Uncle Al" shows up with his strained efforts to mask all his oots and a-boots, as if trying to disorient the kids into believing that they hadn’t in fact been (illegally?) shipped across the border by their disinterested parents anxious to get a few weeks peace and quiet while school is out. But actor Chris Benson is no William Shatner; we see right through his shallow veneer, as you would expect from a guy who’s first film credit was in Strange Brew. There’s a missing mullet under that cap, which (I am convinced) had we got a glimpse of it, would have somehow foreshadowed all that was to come, and even perhaps served as the key to unlocking the whole bacon-y mystery.
Uncle Al and Canada’s Rowsdower — Separated at birth?
Kids, never trust a man who calls himself “Uncle” unless it he is your actual uncle, and even then you probably ought to keep a close eye on him. Uncle Al seems like a real great guy at first, warning the kids to stick to the path to avoid getting eaten by werewolves, threatening them with sinister horrors should they wander into the “forbidden bunk”… Actually, it went downhill pretty fast with Uncle Al. The guy was clearly up to no good, and when one of Billy’s friends gets bitten by a snake within the first minute of setting foot into his bunk, Uncle Al in his optimistic way ensures Billy that getting bitten by a snake is no big deal, and proceeds to ignore the kid while encouraging Billy to do the same. When the kid later goes missing, Uncle Al denies of ever having heard of such a kid, and things gets really awkward, as you could imagine.
Not helping in the slightest is Billy’s counselor Larry, who shows us that the nineties were an awful time to get a haircut, the days' trends rivaling the worst of the seventies and early eighties. I suppose he was an ass, standing in Billy’s way in his attempts to help his friends and get to the bottom of the mystery of all those disappearances, but honestly that haircut was the worst thing about him.
It all comes to a head in the double-episode’s denouement, when Billy shoots Uncle Al in the chest with a tranquilizer dart. It’s all revealed to be a fake, of course, a “test” arranged by Billy’s parents to prove measure his worthiness to accompany them on a secret and dangerous mission for the government. One wonders what would have happened had Billy elected to shoot Uncle Al in the face at point blank range, instead of the chest where he wore protective padding, or if Billy had simply wet his pants at that moment, or if he had committed suicide or tried to run away at any moment under the weight of the enormous and predictable trauma of seeing all his friends killed off one by one. But thankfully, he passed, and we don’t have to worry about any residual psychological damage or lingering mistrust caused by this whole episode.
And oh, the secret mission is to Earth. We were on an alien planet all along. Hopefully R. L. Stine sent an enormous royalty payment to the estate of Ray Bradbury for that little twist. It would only have been fair.
All in all I really liked this one, Brian. It worked on more than one level. The camp setting, as you mentioned, is a common horror trope and helped to set a certain mood. But I think the real fear present at the heart of this episode, though, is of being a kid and being abandoned into the hands of adults, not your parents, whom you are expected to obey, and who, it becomes obvious, are a danger to you. From time to time we hear in the news that kids do die because of the neglect and sometimes maltreatment of such summer camp councilors, and those events, for me, haunted the entire episode.
Brian: When Billy confronted Larry, the obnoxious counselor with the blonde Dutch boy haircut, at the cafeteria after his bunkmate disappeared and was rudely brushed away, I unsuccessfully tried to will the character to unleash a Little Mac uppercut to his jaw. Kids endangered by snake and bear attacks, flipped canoes, and camp legend Sabre, a werewolf-like monster that prowls the grounds after nightfall. Sounds like a great summer getaway!
Toby: Don’t forget, Brian, that it was clearly established at the beginning of the episode that this was the best camp these kids' parents could find! Uncle Al’s reputation was impeccable. A lie, as we find out later, but one that had to haunt poor Billy as he watched friend after friend die from Uncle Al’s neglect and/or complicity.
Brian: The double twist with it all being an elaborate set-up to test Billy's cunning to ensure he could hold his weight with his globetrotting scientist parents and then that this was all taking place on an alien planet was almost enough for me to gleefully do a spit take with my grape drink.
Episodes #7: The Phantom of the Auditorium - (Originally aired: 12/1/95)
Brian: Deadly dramaturgy is upon us! I'd completely forgotten this was a Goosebumps book until I looked it up. For a brief moment I thought it wasn't adapted from a book similar to the Chillogy three-parter that we'll encounter at the end of Season Three. I believe you mentioned in a chat that you thought this was the first dud in the series' canon. I don't think I'm quite that down on it but I'd comfortably rank it at the back of the pack thus far. A little interesting connection I had to the material is I recently took my teenaged niece Jade to see The Gallows which has an oddly similar plot about a haunted school play that's allegedly cursed. So let's hop into the plot, it's relatively one note characters (including Brian who looked strangely like a goofily-haired middle school version of UFC fighter Renan Barão), creepy night janitors, and your own haunting memories of your time in your school's delicioso drama department.
Toby: The glee club is putting on a production of Phantom of the Opera, a production that is rumored to be... cursed. Bad things happen to good people. There’s some sort of specter. Kind of like in the story The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux. So I guess it’s “meta” in that way, if that intrigues you. It didn’t me. After what seems like an eternity we find out that the new kid is actually a ghost, come from the past to stand in for the part that he never got a chance to play when he was alive, cause he died. But don’t take my word for it. I could have all of that totally wrong because I think I fell asleep around the 12 minute mark.
This episode was a snore. Uninspired acting. A draggy story. A boring plot with no true scares. And I’m a huge fan of the novel.
I did notice, though, that actor Stuart Stone, who plays new kid Brian Colson, has a kind of remarkable resume with voiceovers on a number of animated shows including Swamp Thing, Alf Tales, The New Super Marios Bros Super Show, Highlander: The Animated Series, The Tick, and more. He was even a professional wrestling stable manager for a while in the west coast outfit NWA Championship Wrestling from Hollywood.
Brian, your thoughts? Did you like this?
Brian: Definitely the weakest offering thus far but not without a few pleasures. Production wise in terms of its visuals nobody is going to mistake this for the grace of a Jacques Demy musical as it was largely colorless and flat, and in terms of strength of story, largely dramatically inert. I did like the sub-level underneath the stage accessed via trap door. Sort of a creepy, dusty area with old supplies, etc. reminded me of the few times I got to see the underbelly of my old elementary school during drills, etc. where we'd go down to the boiler room. My biggest complaint was the misdirection of Emil. So, yes, the Phantom turned out to be the ghost of student Brian, but what was up with that creepy homeless guy (in bad need of a shave) living in the corridors of the school named Emil? And how quickly they dismissed it. The police showed up, confirmed it was odd that someone was living inside the school, then the drama teacher shrugged her shoulders and essentially said "On with the show!". I know these episodes are slim but that seemed patently ludicrous. Fun fact the girl who played Tina was later cast in a Disney production titled Phantom of the Megaplex which was another Phantom of the Opera homage.
Episodes #8: Piano Lessons Can Be Murder - (Originally aired: 12/8/95)
Toby: Young Jerry’s family are moving into their new house when he discovers a weird piano the previous owner left behind. The ghostly hijinks begin immediately as the piano starts to play on its own, and a ghostly apparition is seen over Jerry’s shoulder. Despite his understandable reservations, the musically talented girl next door soon convinces Jerry to take up piano lessons. Jerry's choice of instructor is a bizarre, Father Christmas-like madman called Dr. Shreek who has a disturbing predilection for little boy’s hands. After a confusing but earnest warning from the ghost at home to avoid Dr. Shreek and his evil piano school, Jerry (of course) returns to discover that Dr. Shreek is in reality an android created by an evil genius who serves as the janitor of the school, a man who is the former student of a rival piano teacher who is now the ghost haunting Jerry’s house. After a final confrontation with Shreek and the janitor, Jerry’s life is saved by the ghost who sentences her former student to a kind of purgatory of eternal piano practice.
We are left to ponder a couple of disturbing things.
Did Mr. Toggle the janitor kill his former teacher, and potentially even her rival Dr. Shreek, replacing him with an android to cover his tracks and to corner the market on piano lessons in town?
And was Robo-Shreek in fact collecting the severed hands of select children in the neighborhood?
How’s that for Goosebumps?
This episode was a strong recovery from the last and managed to explode a fairly straightforward plot into a nest of odd and disturbing possibilities. Barclay Hope's portrayal of Jerry’s dad was reminiscent of the happy go-lucky, caring but still slightly detached father figure perfected by Roger Dunn in the Ray Bradbury Theater episode The Screaming Woman. Although not graphic by any means, I thought the implied horror in this episode lifted it perhaps beyond the level of the typical Tales From the Darkside entry and into the realm of modern slasher movies. Quite an accomplishment for a kids’s anthology.
Brian: Piano lessons to a rambunctious youngster might sound like a death sentence but here our protagonist actually faces potential imminent doom. I was rooting for Jerry, though, in no small part because he looked like a 4th grade Bill of VeggieMacabre. Dr. Shreek was a freak. Instead of tickling the ivories he wanted to tickle and examine Jerry’s young hands to an almost fetishistic degree. Jerry would have probably been content to stay home up in his room playing Sega Genesis and drinking those tiny cans of Luigi Berry. Instead he finds himself facing down a robotized revolution and musical madman.
Not to mention Jerry can’t even get a decent night’s sleep. His slumber is rudely interrupted by a ghastly apparition with a face that looks rotten spinach. Then in his waking life he’s preyed upon by a red-faced blowhard teacher (who summarily shot down Jerry’s hope of learning rock ’n roll during his first lesson) and later is lost in the corridors of a frightening warehouse underbelly with the patina and eerie glow of a seasonal haunted house. I can imagine the Yelp reviews for The Shreek School were pretty lousy.
Episodes #9: Return of the Mummy - (Originally aired: 12/22/95)
Toby: Gabe is just your typical American nineties teenager whose Egyptian uncle, a distinguished scholar and Egyptologist, has invited him over to Egypt to take part in what could presumably be one of the most significant discoveries of the last hundred years — the opening of a new, undisturbed tomb of one of Egypt’s great Pharaohs, an event curiously attended by only four people, two of whom are children. It is left to the viewer to decide whether Gabe’s uncle’s real intention is to loot the tomb away from the prying eyes of colleagues and government officials. Why Gabe was invited along is anybody’s guess, as he spends most of his time in front of the camera whining and screaming like a little baby. Girl. So proficient and effective is he at that singular activity that it almost rises within him to the level of a super-power. Pertinent to the story is the fact that Gabe appears to have procured for himself on the way from the airport a bonafide magical artifact called a “summoner”, an accident of fate that calls to mind the random adventures of Forrest Gump stumbling his way through the major escapades of world history, for this summoner is key to resurrecting the titular mummy in an unlikely plan to restore Egypt to pharoahonic rule. One suspects that then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak would not have laid down so quietly when confronted with a costumed witch and her brother in bandages, demanding submission and allegiance to their cause. But it was not to be, for our screaming hero and his smartass little cousin somehow manage to stumble their way out of history’s most startling political development.
All in all, I rate this a fairly entertaining episode, if mostly for the exotic sets and accents. Gabe, for all his screaming, had a strikingly familiar voice, and the actor has in fact done lots of voiceover work. In addition to Goosebumps, he also appeared in Are You Afraid Of the Dark and Tales From The Cryptkeeper, completing the trifecta of kids’ horror anthologies. Not bad!
Brian: Stine has revisited mummy stories rather frequently in the various Goosebumps series'. Both this story Return of the Mummy and The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (#23 & #5 respectively from Goosebumps), Don't Wake Mummy (from short story anthology Even More Tales to Give You Goosebumps), Diary of a Mad Mummy (#10 from Give Yourself Goosebumps), The Mummy with My Face (from short story anthology Three Shocking Tales of Terror, Book 2), The Mummy Walks (#16 from Goosebumps 2000), and Who's Your Mummy? (#6 from Goosebumps HorrorLand).
I'm a bit conflicted on this one. On one hand, very impressive production design. At first I didn't know if they built sets, which would surely have been expensive, or, if they actually flew the cast and crew out to some ruins somewhere? But from what all I can gather online it appears it was shot in Toronto, Ontario similarly to most of the episodes. So while I enjoyed the lavish sets and props the story itself was on fast-forward and raced to a middling climax.
Uncle Ben, altruistic explorer, or scheming headliner seeker? I think he he was an honorable guy. And he must have had nerves of steel and infinite patience to put up with the squabbling kids joining him on this historic tomb raid. I've got to point out some bad acting when I see it. Afrah Gouda who played Nila Rahmad, falsely introduced to us as a newspaper journalist, but ultimately revealed to be an ancient ancestor to the titular mummy itself. She delivered her lines with the pathos and poetry of a grocery list. And unsurprisingly I looked her up: this was her first acting role, she didn't act again until 9 years later in 2004 in a small role. Don't quit your day job, Afrah!
The mummy was convulsing in a spastic fit surely to be the next underground dance crave. I wonder if I can find that "Summoner" on eBay? Join us next time boils and ghouls as we tackle four episodes including the first appearance of seminal baddie Slappy the Dummy, a hairy adventure, and a foreboding basement!