It’s Pride Month, and that means it’s time to talk about camp. Not the summer kind. The movie kind.
One of the delightful things about the word “camp” is its syntactic resilience. It can be used as an adjective, noun, verb or the most fabulous interjection (“Camp!”).
Camp movies are just as versatile. There’s camp horror, camp documentaries and camp sci-fi. Of course there’s “Mommie Dearest,” camp’s cinematic apogee, which turns 40 this year and is the starting point for any Camp 101 watch party. (It’s on Amazon Prime.)
Here are five films to stream that show the breadth of camp’s sensational, depraved, glam and very gay exuberance.
‘The Naked Kiss’ (1964)
This film begins with a bald prostitute in a bra beating her pimp with her pocketbook — and gets more bonkers from there.
Written and directed by the genre mastermind Samuel Fuller (“Shock Corridor”), this black-and-white oddity stars Constance Towers as Kelly, a hooker who leaves sex work behind to become a small town nurse who works with disabled children. Kelly figures her relationship with a local rich guy, Grant (Michael Dante), will be her ticket to respectability.
But in one of the film’s most lurid twists, Grant’s sexual interests turn out to be not just perverted, but evil: a “Lolita complex of no mean proportions,” as The New York Times put it.
Prostitution, murder, talk of abortion: “The Naked Kiss” wasn’t afraid to break its era’s cinematic taboos, making it a shocker still. When Kelly gives a beat down to Candy, a local bordello madam, it’s a brawl that camp dreams are made of.
Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” is a camp-on-camp tour de force. But Crawford herself offers camp gold in this bizarre murder mystery, directed by Jim O’Connolly.
Crawford plays Monica, the “cougar” owner of a traveling circus who develops the hots for the hunky young high-wire walker (Ty Hardin) she hired after his predecessor died in a freak accident during a performance.
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After a mysterious black-gloved killer gruesomely kills Monica’s business partner — other bodies also start piling up — Scotland Yard starts sniffing around, putting the circus on edge.
There’s no shortage of late-career Crawford camp, and while “Berserk!” doesn’t have the creature feature appeal of “Trog” or the exploitation lunacy of “Strait-Jacket,” it does have Crawford playing a ring-mistress who wears her hair in a challah-looking chignon and runs a circus plagued by violent deaths. The movie ends with a doozy of a horror-camp twist.
‘Valley of the Dolls’ (1967)
Camp, according to RuPaul, is when you “see the facade of life, the absurdity of life, from outside yourself.” Sounds like a drug, and when it comes to drugs — sorry, dolls — there’s nothing as camp as this soapy and scandalous film, regarded as one of camp’s crowning achievements, from Mark Robson. It’s hard to argue with Lee Grant, who stars in the film, when she called it “the best, funniest, worst movie ever made.”
Based on Jacqueline Susann’s best-selling 1966 novel, the film is about a group of friends facing fame, misfortune and addiction. There’s the ingénue Anne (Barbara Parkins), whose ambition takes her from secretary to star model. The singer Neely (Patty Duke), after being ousted from a Broadway show by her jealous co-star Helen (Susan Hayward), moves to Hollywood and becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol. Jennifer (Sharon Tate, a victim of the Manson family murders) is a gorgeous actress whose fate is the most tragic.
Bosley Crowther panned the film in The New York Times, calling it “an unbelievably hackneyed and mawkish mishmash of backstage plots and ‘Peyton Place’ adumbrations in which five women are involved with their assorted egotistical aspirations, love affairs and Seconal pills.” In other words: Camp!
‘What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?’ (1991)
Next to “Mommie Dearest” in the pantheon of queer camp cinema is “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” Robert Aldrich’s 1962 horror spectacle starring Bette Davis as Jane, an aging movie star who holds captive her paraplegic sister Blanche, played by Joan Crawford, in their decaying Hollywood mansion.
This ABC movie remake stars two acting heavyweights, the sisters Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave, as Jane and Blanche. Directed by David Greene, it’s an under-the-radar deep dive worth taking because the Redgraves offer something Davis and Crawford, who couldn’t stand each other, did not: actual sisterhood. The sisters’ scenes together have an “utterly unselfish interplay” with “real emotional verisimilitude,” as Michael Wilmington put it in The Los Angeles Times.
Camp needs commitment and urgency, which Davis and Crawford had to spare. The Redgraves seem hampered by the original, and don’t quite give it their all. But that shouldn’t keep camp die-hards away. There’s still plenty to make this film satisfying, including the disheveled makeup and costumes that make Lynn’s Jane look like a club-kid Raggedy Ann variation of Davis’s monstrously maquillaged original.
In her integral 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag says that in addition to “Swan Lake” and Tiffany lamps, camp is “stag movies seen without lust.” That about sums up the camp eroticism at play in this film from the director Paul Verhoeven and the writer Joe Eszterhas about Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), an ambitious heart-of-gold exotic dancer navigating violent, backstabbing Las Vegas.
From the cheeseball dance numbers to the trifling dialogue (“I’m not a whore”), “Showgirls” is like “A Star Is Born” gone horribly wrong and therefore spectacularly camp. Over the years, it’s morphed from critical whipping boy to a reconsideration as an outrageously decadent, ludicrously trashy camp demi-masterpiece, with the French director Jacques Rivette among its fans.
It’s also a queer camp favorite, thanks to the steamy synergy between Nomi and her mentor-rival Cristal (Gina Gershon, a flirtation artiste). Jeffrey McHale, the director of a “Showgirls” documentary said Nomi’s decision to follow her dreams, find a chosen family and use her sexuality to fend for herself is “a story that many queer people understand.”