What makes a film “campy”? It can be an incredibly difficult quality to define. In his 1983 book Camp, Mark Booth defines it as “to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits.” In other words, it’s making a grand attempt to create something mediocre. Key elements that might make something campy include artifice, extravagance, frivolity, passion, naivete and serious intent.
Originating in gay subculture as a way to navigate oppressive environments, camp began to emerge in 60s cinema as audiences started turning from Hollywood films to more underground films. Camp started out as being unintentional, in which, as Susan Sontag puts it in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”, “the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” Soon after, filmmakers began creating deliberate camp that worked to subvert cultural norms and challenge the idea of what society deems “good”.
So grab some popcorn and join us as we share 7 of our favorite films from the decade that popularized camp. As Sontag once wrote, “it’s good because it’s awful”.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966)
Intended to be cartoonish and extravagant, this black-and-white Russ Meyer film featuring rampaging go-go dancers in the desert is often considered to be a camp classic. The film–packed with sharp dialogue and, as the title suggests, speed, sex, and violence–would later be declared a favorite of the 70s camp legend John Waters. We love it for its action and twisted weirdness.
One Million Years BC (1966)
The film that launched Raquel Welch’s career may feature some excellent work by special effects master Ray Harryhausen, but it doesn’t change the fact that it still has giant turtles and iguanas masquerading as bloodthirsty dinosaurs. There’s also the minor inaccuracy involving co-existing humans and dinosaurs. Even though the film has very little dialogue (Welch only has about three lines) it makes for a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Batman: The Movie (1966)
Before there was dark and gritty Batman, there was campy Batman. Based on the equally-campy television series, this film has Adam West, exploding sharks, and plenty of quotable lines from Burt Ward as Robin. West and Ward’s effortless chemistry results in a film that is colorful and full of tongue-in-cheek humor that still holds up today.
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966)
If you’ve ever wanted to see prolific actor and Hollywood legend John Carradine lurking around in the Wild West dressed as a magician and occasionally turning into a rubber bat on a string, then this is the film for you. Despite the absurd plot and low budget effects, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula is a lot of fun–and Carradine’s strangely intense presence as Dracula is worth the watch.
Valley of the Dolls (1967)
This melodramatic film based on the best-selling Jacqueline Susann novel of the same name just might be the ultimate example of unintentional camp—its attempt to create a serious portrayal of the dark side of corrupt Hollywood fell flat. Valley of the Dolls was popular in its time, but it was ridiculed by film critics–it even inspired critic Roger Ebert to take part in writing a parody of the film with Russ Meyer, called Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). The booze, pills, and drama make for good camp, but the exceptionally bad dialogue is where this film truly shines.
Son of Godzilla (1967)
Although we should probably just declare an 8-way tie for all of the Godzilla movies of the 60s for this spot on our list, Son of Godzilla has a slight edge over the others. In this film, we get to see the paternal side of the King of Monsters–which includes teaching his son how to massacre using his atomic breath, dragging him around by the tail, and struggling with his newly-found fatherhood. Despite the campiness, the final scenes are far more touching than one might expect from a film involving rubber monster suits.
Psychedelic sci-fi Barbarella is a space adventure with eye-catching set design, fabulous costumes, interesting characters–and Jane Fonda’s iconic striptease. Whether you think it’s exploitation or empowerment, this film is a camp and cult classic. We love it for its fantastic aesthetics and its sense of being “pure 60s”–they don’t make films like this anymore.
The concept of camp is highly subjective, and often one person’s campy gold is another person’s trash. We’ve shared some of our favorite campy films from the 1960s that we still love today, but do you agree with our picks? We’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments!