Return of the Unhappy Teenage-Wasteland Campers: A Retrospective Review of the “Sleepaway Camp” Series, From the Glorious Days of Camp to Summer Burnout.
Good ole’ slashers. They hit the scene in the 1980s and never looked back. Some were good. Some were bad. Some, both. And being both simultaneously is a rare breed in tone, very hard to pull off. In fact, I’d even go so far to call it a happy accident when it does occur, which isn’t that often.
The first in the Sleepaway Camp series is a perfect example of this good/bad phenomenon. Intentional or not, we got it all within this series, but they can’t all be winners, can they?
So, let’s dive into the Sleepaway Camp series and chop’ em to bloody pieces. See what’s inside.
Starting the series off on the right foot, Robert Hiltzik wrote and directed the first Sleepaway Camp and delivered to us a sort of salute to the slashers at the time, but on a budget. Slashers already came with small budgets, but Hiltzik would come with even less; no worries. His plot was a simple one, his cast was more than ready to go, and he had a great twist ending in store for us.
But there’s more to the original Sleepaway Camp than just a great ending and a cheap feel. There’s a charm felt throughout, a charm that overrides any of the film’s flaws and makes them all the more fun and forgivable.
The story goes as follows…
The first day of camp we meet the colorful cast of kids, counselors, cooks, buddies, weirdo perverts, and a raging bitch named Judy who gets our blood boiling and a curling iron shoved into her hoo-hoo later, complete with sizzling sounds.
Our central character, Angela, is a shy girl who is picked on from day one for wanting to be left alone and not participate in volleyball, swimming, or eating lunch. These things piss off her bunk mates to no end (for some reason), and they begin to lash out at her and her cousin, Ricky, who always comes to her rescue and is also a target himself for having the smartest mouth in camp.
Soon, enough is enough, and these bullies begin to get dispatched one by one in low-budget fashion. We are kept in the dark as to whether it’s Ricky or Angela who is doing the killing as the film progresses, but who the killer is really wasn’t the reveal we were in for. This movie came with more than just a character reveal; it came with a double-whammy character reveal which I will not give away here. This was a nice touch compared to usual slasher films about a man in a mask.
Sleepaway Camp’s approach brought the mystery to the slash.
Now about that charm. Even though there is comedy placed in Sleepaway Camp from the teens on screen (usual teen fodder and bad jokes), this movie was billed as horror. But because of several aspects — including some of the acting, dialogue, short shorts, and, in particular, the cop’s fake mustache at the end — these moments cause the film to become unintentionally funny, good/bad by definition, and that makes it a complete gem in my opinion.
In this case, I don’t laugh at the movie, so to speak, I laugh with it. I laugh at the spirit of it all. The cheapness of it. I laugh at the fun. The “just shoot it anyway” attitude. All of these elements blend nicely, and this is why the first Sleepaway Camp in the series might just be the best of the bunch. On a small level, it’s an accepted train wreck of a movie, but still loved by many slasher fans for multiple reasons.
In the end, it is the granddaddy of the slasher ripoffs. It never took itself too seriously, and nobody has ever capitalized on a genre quite like it. It’s a one-of-a-kind movie that has never failed to entertain those who can let the “movie snob” walls down. Great cast, great story, great chemistry, interesting kills, and a slam-bang ending that people still talk about to this day. That is Sleepaway Camp; a fantastic slasher done with shallow pockets and a body double who to this day has never come forward.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP II: Unhappy Campers
Where most of the first film’s laughs came from the amateur mistakes and low budget restraints, Unhappy Campers laughs came from the fact that the filmmakers knew the slasher genre had already ran its course and audiences were no longer scared by the exploits of a hack and slash killer on screen. How could they make up for this and still deliver some kind of goods?
They delivered a satire instead of a horror film, and if you ask me, it belongs in the comedy aisle. But this isn’t a bad thing; this is what they shot for and completely swished.
Mullets, short shorts, a chick shoved down an outhouse and drowned in leech infested feces, battery acid to the face, some more mullets, barbecued twins, and the Tit Patrol kids. This movie goes where others won’t, right for the tasteless fun of these films, and it makes no apologies or tries to hide from this fact. And these are just some of the things that separate it from the original.
All of the things mentioned are played for laughs this time, not frights. It’s true that the first film had its share of comedy, but it was a semi-legitimate attempt at making a slasher on the cheap. The sequel isn’t trying to be scary; it’s trying to entertain. And it does that all the way to the WTF, lazy ending they give us.
The casting of Pamela Springsteen as Angela this go round was definitely a good move.
As much as I love Felissa Rose in the role of Angela in part one, she wouldn’t have worked here. The character this time is just too bubbly. Too bright. Where the first Angela was simply a kid who would stare daggers at her soon-to-be victims (bullies), this Angela is a full-grown Camp Counselor, and she has a hopeful smile for the youth she is about to slaughter.
This Angela isn’t in it for revenge, she is in it to save the youth from debauchery, even if it kills them. This is the ultimate in sleepover movies from the 80s and should be watched with beer, pizza, and your closest friends who are stuck on stupid.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP III: Teenage Wasteland
Here is where it all went down. Down hill, that is. But for what it’s worth, Teenage Wasteland is not a bad movie in comparison to other slashers at the time on similar budgets. Why it gets penalized is because it’s lumped in with a series that houses the classics, Sleepaway Camp 1 and 2. This is unfair, but that’s life.
A third film was needed pronto and this is what we got, which is essentially nothing more than a weaker clone of Unhappy Campers and without any of its spark.
Filmed back to back with Unhappy Campers, the third film in the series comes off as a little tired in the running, and it is. It suffers from lacking any memorable scenes, characters, or kills.
The crew was obviously tired at this point in the shooting, and the weather had turned cold on them; you can see that fall is in the air, so that ruins any summer-camp feel that these movies are suppose to have.
But the climate is the least of the movie’s problems. The casting seemed extremely bland and out of wack this time. The L.A. gang member, Tony, for instance, was too likable, had tight jeans, a handkerchief around his neck, spoke softly, and had a mullet. If this wardrobe choice was played for laughs on a gangbanger, it didn’t work, a very unrealistic and awkward character.
And Riff from Chicago, the film’s token black guy, who carries a switchblade (really?), and a boombox that always plays the same beat throughout the entire film. No lyrics, just a bare drum pattern.
Now, I realize that some of the cast (mixed teens from inner-city youth and the suburbs) were meant to be stereotypes of course, but Teenage Wasteland lacked any real humor or exploitation in delivering these stereotypes. It simply dressed them like a middle-aged white guy would who didn’t know any better, and lazily. In a way, it’s embarrassing.
The main issues with the third film, though, are having too many unfunny moments, using what seemed like one-take shots, bad caricatures, and a serious lack of blood in the kills. This is a slasher film after all; we need that blood! Unforgivable, MPAA! And when the acting or dialogue does go bad like it did in the first film (it goes bad a lot here), it’s not embracingly innocent like before, its not endearingly amateurish, it’s just bad.
There are a few moments going for the film, and there could have been more if it wasn’t for the MPAA butchering the gore from it. These problems, along with the lack of kids at the camp, hurt the entire feel for this movie. The film can be enjoyable as part of the series, but like I said before, it’s tired in the running, and it shows. Making it to the end can be somewhat of a chore for anyone who’s not a fan of the genre. But they didn’t make it for them, did they?
RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP
Expectation, it can kill almost anything. But waiting forever for something with unreasonably high expectations can’t be the only reason for it to fail. It can also suck, and Return to Sleepaway Camp did just that. Now, I know I’m supposed to be kind and point out a film’s good points as well as the bad, but sometimes you just have to say what needs to be said. Here I go.
Now, not to try and tell anyone how to do their job, but the first thing a film needs is a protagonist. Someone who we can root for. Even if we can’t relate to the protagonist as a person, we should be able to relate to their plight, and the plight of the fourth installment in the series is the same as the first, bullying. But the protagonist isn’t the one being bullied here, the protagonist is the bully, and we gain zero sympathy for this kid.
His name is Alan, and he is one of the most annoying characters to ever come out of the film industry. He is loud, obnoxious, always soiled, a lover of frogs, lashes out at everyone for an hour and a half, and it’s not entertaining to watch him in the least. In a big way, he asks for the bullying he gets because of his own boorish behavior toward everyone, except for the frogs in the woods, which he claims are his only friends. I’m sure the frogs hated this kid too.
We get a weak backstory on Alan and find out that he was sick at one time, and it semi-fried his brain. This is supposed to be an excuse for us to gain sympathy for him acting like an obnoxious jerk. It doesn’t work. We get this backstory by him, told by him with the same loud mouth, crying blabber-blasting way that Alan never lets up from. (His main catch phrase is “Your ass stinks,” by the way.)
Why would anyone want to spend time watching this kid? What were they thinking? How can we sympathize with him? In the first minute alone he insults four kids, threatens to punch another, tries to light a fart on fire, and then threatens to flame his other bunk mates with an aerosol can and a lighter. What an entrance for our hero!
The rest of the cast are just as bad; rude and obnoxious. Even Ricky, Angela’s cousin from the first film, shows up, but we don’t celebrate his return because he is just as unlikable here as the rest, bitter and pissed with every line. The kills in Return are also weak and somewhat copycats of the other film’s also. There is even a scene of cruelty that involves the skinning of live frogs that doesn’t have any kind of shock value, it’s just in cruel taste.
It’s odd that the writer and director of the first film delivered a film like this to us after all these years of waiting. My guess is that Robert Hiltzik tried to capitalize on the amateur humor in the first one that was actually just a happy accident. But great camp can’t be made on purpose. Or can it? He has yet to show us he can do it.
I will end on a high note with Return. The only special moment in the film worth mentioning comes from the appearance of Felissa Rose at the end when she finally drops her disguise as the male deputy on the scene and laughs maniacally, but we all knew this deputy was her at the start of the film.
A seriously weak disguise and reveal. To be honest, her, and the character of Angela, both icons of horror, deserved a better resurrection than this. I can see it now. Felissa Rose putting on that fake beard and asking why it looked so unrealistic. Hiltzik probably just smiled and reminded her about how great the reaction was on the cop’s fake mustache in the first film. Yeah, but that was a happy accident. The actor shaved and had to wear a fake.
Return to Sleepaway Camp is bad on purpose, and in a bad way. It’s bad. Bad as lighting a fart for laughs.