Jason Horton's low-budget style showcase digs up a few surprises

Editor’s note: Jason Horton, director of The Campus, is a friend of  Lewton Bus Editor in Chief Shannon Hubbell. As such, Shannon has chosen to recuse himself from both writing and editing Lewton Bus‘ review of the film.

What do you love about the horror genre? Is it the splatter of young heads on rural floors? The tension of stalked prey, seeking any possible momentary respite? The unknowable supernatural threats, barely conceivable? Why do we keep returning to horror?

I think about this question a lot. Probably more than is strictly healthy or necessary, but therein lies the rub. I’ve got the bug. I’ve had it since I was old enough to watch movies with any semblance of comprehension. I love the horror genre, deep in my bones, and I think I’ve managed to distill the ‘why’ down after years of contemplation. It’s the versatility of the thing.

Horror, as a genre contains multitudes. Ask 10 people about a horror film that’s had an impact on them in their life and why, and you’re likely to get a diverse set of answers. Some of the best creators in film have done some of their most interesting work in the genre, because horror is utterly flexible. Like comedy, horror relies wholly on construction and execution in service to its aim, which is to elicit a response from the audience. But how it gets there is any of several paths. Just like everyone finds different things funny, not everyone fears the same things. You may be terrified of knife-wielding stalkers, but find the very notion of spirits ridiculous. Or perhaps you shudder at the idea of extradimensional demonic invasion, but have had more than your fill of shambling brain-munchers for one lifetime. It’s not really about what scares you, but why. We see in the horror genre the parts of ourselves we’re least comfortable with, and when it’s effectively crafted, we respond accordingly.

For those steeped in the genre it becomes less and less about the primal response than an appreciation for the construction of the delivery vehicle. This is one area where Jason Horton’s new film The Campus succeeds. In offering an assortment to choose from, Horton has created a showcase of multiple genres and influences for horror fans to enjoy.

The Campus is the story of Morgan (Rachel Amanda Bryant), an estranged daughter with a fair amount of paternal resentment and a loose moral code (and a pretty resilient constitution). When Morgan’s father (Robert Pullman) dies, she returns to Glendale for his funeral, seeing her family for the first time in seemingly years. Bearing a little remaining ill-will towards her deceased father (a collector and curator of evil artifacts), she decides to rob his home/office of any valuable goods and skip town to Vegas with her lover. This is where she discovers her role as a bargaining chip in her father’s deal with the devil many years before her birth, and the plot takes a vacation. The central conceit of the film is that when Old’ Scratch comes sniffing for your soul, he’s going to take all five pieces one at a time. For Morgan, this means essentially a trip to a Silent Hill-like descent through memories, hallucinations, and mirror dimensions in which she’s repeatedly stalked and killed by different familiar horror tropes until all five pieces are gone.

1-2, Satan’s coming 4 U

What follows Morgan’s foray into the dark alternate dimensions of GlenHell are unique vignettes ranging from zombie sieges to cult slasher stalkings, with detours into Lynchian ghost stories and Cronenbergian dissolutions of the body, all delivered inventively, if on a modest budget. Mirroring these external torments with Morgan’s internal struggle for forgiveness provides Horton’s frame for allowing our heroine the potential to escape her ultimate fate by unlocking the secrets of the devil’s game. The resultant film, then, often relies on dream logic and shortcuts to achieve its ends, which means some viewers’ mileage may vary along the way. The Campus operates primarily as an Epcot Center of horror; a tour through multiple lands and influences, best enjoyed with an eye on craft over story.

The Campus delivers some fun body-horror goop on a modest budget

Of the most enjoyable portions of The Campus is its star, Rachel Amanda Bryant. Bryant is game for these shenanigans in the best way, stopping to deliver quips as she’s put through the wringer. Slyly laughing in frustration and incredulity at new threats as they appear, Bryant possesses the best gift one can give to a film like this in her ability to convincingly ‘just go with it’. Whether running from masked cultists, setting up inventive solutions to zombie invasions, or facing off with spurty ghosts and ‘roided-out Satans, Bryant does a capable job of demonstrating nimble problem-solving, faced with a universe whose rules shift and evolve by the minute. Bryant manages to carry the main business of the film convincingly, even if she’s a little underserved by the script.

This is an independent, low-budget affair, and that means it sports all the trappings of same. While well-shot and clever in its individual vignettes, the film itself hangs together as little more than a fun excursion into pulplandia from a story perspective. The pacing can be a trifle slow, and some of the connective tissue between Morgan’s memories of her distant father and her current predicaments seems lost in the edit at some points. While the central ideas and concepts for the ‘levels’ of Hell are solid and fun, the overarching conceit seems a little thin, coordinated by a creature-effect Satan that is a little perfunctory and dull. The effect itself is solid and decently shot, but in my opinion the film would have been better served by sticking to the more conceptual representations of horror and damnation, rather than opting for a ‘final boss’ approach. On the plus side, the individual segments on their own are each rewarding in multiple ways, from a construction standpoint. The freedom Horton has given himself to explore different aspects of the greater whole of the genre means we get to enjoy a journey through multiple different styles and types of horror film, and the composition of each segment is varied enough from the adjacent pieces to offer unique experiences within larger structure. Running through that structure in place of a more standard narrative through line is a very enjoyable score tying the pieces together. One thing I’ve grown rather tired of is the recent phenomenon of the ‘Carpenter vibe’ scores employed by mid-budget films to garner positive association in viewers to one of the greats, regardless of whether the material itself warrants that vibe. The Campus, as a spiritual child of Carpenter employs this to much better effect.

For horror devotees, a little dream logic or thinness are no grand obstacle, and for those willing to meet the film half-way, there’s a fair amount of fun to be had with the switches in style and composition inherent in each vignette. In my case, I found a specific enjoyment untangling the filmic influences being nodded to and represented onscreen, from Prince of Darkness era Carpenter to Fire Walk With Me era Lynch, and others. Given the volume of independent horror films released digitally these days, I found it refreshing to see a more recent effort sharing more in common with Fulci and Argento than Romero and Roth. Given a tighter script and a bigger budget, I’m enthusiastic to see more from Horton.

Final note: The Lewton Bus crew recently sat down to interview Jason Horton about The Campus and his career as a director on The Cutting Room, our monthly horror podcast. You can catch that episode here.