Celebrating Wet Hot American Summer

As news arrives that a prequel series may arrive on Netflix, Pete looks back fondly at Wet Hot American Summer...

Here at Den of Geek, we have a regular feature called Mystery DVD Club, in which our overlords send us some of the cheapest, trashiest-looking films they can find and ask us to watch and review them. The films are generally pretty awful, but occasionally we strike gold.

Some of us, however, were taking a punt on Poundland’s DVD shelves long before Den of Geek was even a cheeky glint in Simon Brew’s eye. In 2004, having suffered through such gems as Galaxina and The Shooters, I picked up a film called Wet Hot American Summer. It very quickly became one of my favourite films of all time, despite the fact that very few people this side of the Atlantic have heard of it.

Wet Hot American Summer was released in 2001 and was the brainchild of writer-director David Wain, responsible for the superb Role Models, and comedian Michael Showalter, both fresh from hit MTV sketch show The State. Wet Hot American Summer was a critical and commercial failure, making an estimated $7,000 during its opening weekend. However, it has gone on to become a cult hit, and last week, Variety reported that Wain and Showalter are in talks with Netflix to produce a prequel series featuring the same cast. So why has Wet Hot American Summer endured?

Set twenty years before its release, Wet Hot American Summer tells the story of the final day of summer camp at Camp Firewood, as counsellors and children alike prepare to return home. It tells the story of camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) and her attraction to nearby astrophysicist Henry (David Hyde Pierce), as well as that of beautiful young counsellor Katie (Marguerite Moreau) and her difficulty choosing between the two men in her life.

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It also tells the story of Vietnam war veteran and camp chef Gene, who talks to tinned vegetables and likes to fondle his sweaters in his spare time; counsellor Gail, who is helped to come to terms with her recent break-up by the children in her care; and a group of dungeons and dragons and science geeks (or, as Henry calls them, ‘the indoor kids’) who must try and save the camp’s talent show from being crushed by a renegade piece of Skylab – all with the help of a twenty-sided die.

Put simply, Wet Hot American Summer is not your average summer camp movie. Wain and Showalter’s script feels in some ways like a spiritual successor to the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies, in that it is packed with verbal and visual gags from start to finish, the majority of which hit their mark splendidly. Certainly it’s a film that rewards a rewatch, with little touches such as the repeated use of an incongruous window-smashing sound effect, or quick visual jokes like the needlessly elaborate guitars used by the children in an establishing shot.

Wet Hot American Summer certainly inherits some of the surrealism of the aforementioned films, but adds to it a dark and twisted edge; not all of the children make it out of Camp Firewood alive, while a lunchtime trip to the city for the counsellors turns into a musical montage which ends with the characters taking hard drugs and mugging old ladies. It’s a film which constantly surprises, with Wain and Showalter rarely going for the obvious joke or story.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the film manages to do all of this and still wear its heart on its sleeve. The blossoming romance between Garofalo and Hyde Pierce is awkward and sweet in equal measure, and it’s hard not to feel for Showalter’s character Coop as he has his emotions toyed with by love-of-his-life Katie. Even some of the stranger characters and storylines in the film leave you feeling sympathetic to those involved.

That the film manages to pull this off should perhaps come as no surprise, given some of the names in the cast list. Already-established talent like Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce and Molly Shannon are joined by a talented ensemble of fresh faces, some of whom would later become household names – Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks all feature prominently. There are also smaller roles for The Big Bang Theory’s Kevin Sussman, 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander, and Joe Lo Truglio, better known to viewers as Detective Boyle from Brooklyn Nine Nine. There is a fascinating and exhaustive article by Details magazine detailing the fun the cast had making this film, and it absolutely shows on screen – there’s not a flat performance amongst them.

With such a stellar cast, the one problem with potentially bringing them back together for a prequel series is likely to be, well, bringing them back together. Variety’s article suggests the series would take the Arrested Development approach and film the actors separately, which is sure to prove as divisive as it did for that show. And of course there’s always a worry that if it goes ahead, a series could well tarnish the reputation of the film on which it was based. But if it manages to be even half as surprising, original and downright funny as the film, a Wet Hot American Summer series will be well worth renewing your Netflix subscription for.

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