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Tuesday, March 3, 2009


When I reviewed writer-director Dave Campfield's creepy low-budget thriller DARK CHAMBER a while back, I found an interesting Easter egg on the DVD. It was a promo for something called "The Caesar and Otto Show" and it was pretty darn funny for something that looked like a home video. Campfield played a twitchy, hot-headed, flamboyant (is he a closeted gay or does he just happen to fit the stereotype?) aspiring actor named Caesar, who lives with his big, dumb, terminally-unemployed slob of a half-brother named Otto (Paul Chomicki). Otto barges into Caesar's screen test one day to ask him how to operate the remote control for his TV, and Caesar throws such an entertainingly violent hissy fit that the producers casting the part decide to make a hidden-camera show about them. Thus, "The Caesar and Otto Show" is born.

In the feature film CAESAR AND OTTO (2007), we get to see three episodes of this fictitious reality show as the two morons go about their daily lives unaware that there are dozens of pinhole cameras recording their every dumb move. In the first segment, a theater director (Ken MacFarlane) offers the role of a tough mob boss to Caesar but ends up giving it to Otto after he helps them during a read-through. This prompts the enraged Caesar to stop at nothing to keep Otto out of the play, including trying to run him down "Baby Jane"-style. The second episode introduces their no-good dad Fred (Scott Aguilar), who moves into the boys' apartment after his latest wife kicks him out.

After this comes the season finale, which begins with the tragic death of Otto's goldfish. The drama continues with the return of Otto's ex-girlfriend, a ditzy psychic vibrating with ominous premonitions about their future, and an ill-fated grand scheme by the show's producers to construct a huge television theater connected to the boys' apartment building--without their knowledge--in which the big reveal is to take place before a live audience. When Caesar inadvertently discovers the truth and starts pouring on the histrionics for the hidden cameras, the entire project ends in disaster.
The low budget for this raucous comedy--exactly 707 dollars, we're told--is disguised not only by the hidden-camera premise, but also by the talent and ingenuity of the actors and filmmakers. Here's the rare case in which a project with such meager resources boasts a cast loaded with skilled comic actors and a truly funny script that's kept crackling along by snappy, cartoon-style editing and plenty of old-school slapstick. The DVD itself contains a brief "making-of" featurette, a look at the premiere at Cleveland's Indie Gathering film festival, and a fascinating half-hour interview with the charismatic and funny Joe Estevez (who appears in the sequel).

Dave Campfield is a riot as Caesar, who comes off as a human version of the manic, highly-strung chihuahua Ren from the "Ren and Stimpy" cartoons, with a little Tasmanian Devil thrown in. Caesar sees himself as a great actor even though he's absolutely horrible at it, and, like Bud Abbott and Oliver Hardy (and Ren) before him, thinks he's the brains of the duo even though he's an idiot. Paul Chomicki compliments him nicely as the Stimpy-like Otto, a well-meaning lug who's not much smarter than your average baked potato. (And speaking of "baked", it's nice to see this sort of comedy done without the main characters being perpetually stoned for a change.) As a live-action cartoon done dirt cheap, CAESAR AND OTTO overcomes its budgetary disadvantages with a spunky sense of sheer, kinetic hilarity.
Taking a giant leap from the 707 dollars it took to produce CAESAR AND OTTO, 2008's colorful sequel CAESAR AND OTTO'S SUMMER CAMP MASSACRE is a comparatively lavish (though still very low-budget) epic that places our comic heroes squarely in "slasher spoof" territory with a vengeance. Not only does it feature cool cameos by scream queen Brinke Stevens and Martin Sheen's funnier brother Joe Estevez, but it scores big with the presence of Felissa Rose of SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983), making it a must-see for fans (like me) of that mind-boggling cult classic. Anyone who is still emotionally scarred by the last shot of that film, when Felissa's character "Angela" reveals her big secret, will know what I'm talking about.

The action shifts into high gear right from the start when a frantic Caesar flies off the handle during a road rage incident and beats up a much larger man, who turns out to be the mentally-challenged brother of the chief of police. "Do you have any idea what happens to people...who beat up the mentally-challenged brother...of the chief of police?" Caesar asks Otto as they pack their bags for a quick getaway. After a trip to the unemployment office (where they encounter Joe Estevez in a brief but funny scene), the two fugitives land an out-of-town job as summer camp counselors. Perfect, right? Wrong, because as we all know, every summer camp has its own serial killer, and this one is no exception.

Ken MacFarlane (the theater director from CAESAR AND OTTO) returns as head counselor Jerry Griffen, a sickly-sweet fruitcake whose assistant, Nurse Helen (Robin Ritter), will inexplicably fall for Otto. The other counselors are comprised of the usual kill-fodder, including a belligerent metalhead named Dick (Felissa Rose's husband Deron Miller, who was a SLEEPAWAY CAMP fan as a child), a narcissistic former swimming champ named Chip (Trai Byers), bubble-brained aspiring actresses Monique and Sylvia (Jen Nikolaus, Dawn Burdue), and the unflappably nice Drew (Avi K. Garg), who remains pleasantly upbeat even when the killer is dismembering him with a shovel. Summer Ferguson and Derek Crabbe are also funny as counselors Giselle and Larry. As a bonus, Scott Aguilar pops up again as Caesar and Otto's delightfully deadbeat dad Fred, who passes the time by rummaging through everyone's tents looking for stuff to steal while Caesar keeps them distracted.

Once again, Dave Campfield is a whirling dervish of cowardly, ill-tempered hilarity as "effete tough guy" Caesar, who often comes off like a cross between a crazed chihuahua and a chicken with its head cut off. Paul Chomicki's Otto is his perfect comedy foil, always enduring his half-brother's endless barrage of slapstick abuse with a dull-witted calm. DARK CHAMBER alumnus Felissa Rose, of course, gives the film a welcome hint of the old SLEEPAWAY CAMP vibe, even favoring us a time or two with her famously creepy "Angela" face. Is she the killer? As Bugs Bunny might say: "Ehhh...could be."
Between Caesar and Fred looting the counselors' tents and Otto scampering through a nauseating falling-in-love montage with Nurse Helen, there's enough bloody mayhem to qualify this as a bonafide summer camp killfest even as the gags fly fast and furious. Richard Calderon's thrifty gore effects are pretty good and include a beheading, a shovel to the chest ("My sweater!"), various dissections and body parts, and a comically harrowing sequence inside the killer's bloody charnel house, during which Caesar, Otto, and Fred come dangerously close to being turned into beef treats.

There are two commentary tracks on the DVD--one with Campfield and co-writer Brendan Smith, the other featuring Chomicki, Calderon, and various cast and crew, and both are entertaining. Along with the film's trailer, there's also a 14-minute featurette, "Behind the Massacre", which offers behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew (actually, much of the cast were also part of the crew), who have fond recollections of the 10-day shoot which took place mostly in California's Topenga Canyon.

It's one thing to be wowed by some 200-million-dollar epic, but to see bright and enthusiastic filmmakers take a relatively miniscule budget and turn it into a delightfully loopy comedy like this is a whole different area of film fun altogether. And thanks to some wonderfully zany performances, frenetic pacing, and screwball situations, CAESAR AND OTTO'S SUMMER CAMP MASSACRE turns out to be quite a bit of bloody good fun, indeed.

Watch the trailer


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