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Sleepaway Camp

SLEEPAWAY CAMP parts 1-3

There’s no way around it: SLEEPAWAY CAMP is a blatant ripoff of FRIDAY THE 13TH. It borrows the summer camp setting, the child with a tormented past and messed up guardian, and the unseen killer who’s unmasked in a crazy twist ending that nobody could’ve seen coming because it came out of nowhere. Alot of slasher movies take the same formula and put it in a different setting, this one takes the same formula and puts it in the same setting. It’s like DIE HARD in a building.

The reason it’s survived in the popular consciousness, though, is that it has its own weird brand of sleaziness that gives it a feel different from any other slasher movie, including other summer camp slasher movies. For one thing, the kids at the summer camp are played by actual kids. The vast majority of ’80s slasher movies were about teens played by actors in their early to mid twenties. And FRIDAY THE 13TH focussed on the counselors. Adrienne King, who played FRIDAY heroine Alice, was 20. Felissa Rose, the star of SLEEPAWAY CAMP, was 13. It makes it more uncomfortable.

Sleepaway CampRose plays Angela, a troubled new girl at the camp who barely talks or eats food, maybe because she’s so traumatized by that time 8 years ago when her brother and dad were killed by a motorboat. She went to live with her crazy Aunt Martha and her cousin Ricky. Now her and Ricky are enrolled in summer camp.

But please note, this is Camp Arawak, New York, not the much more polite Camp Crystal Lake in Connecticut. These little bastards swear like a sailor who just dropped an anchor on his toe after listening to Redd Foxx records all day. And they’re mean. Because Angela is a girl, and because she’s new, and because she’s weird, the kids swarm in on her. A stuck up girl says Angela has small boobs, makes fun of her for being shy. In a classic bit of kid logic the bully girl argues that Angela must be a lesbian because she doesn’t take a shower with the other girls.

Then somebody starts murdering people, mostly the people that are mean to Angela. Who could it be? Protective cousin Ricky? Crazy Aunt Martha? The ghost of her dead brother? The ghost of her dead father? Alternating ghosts of dead brother and father, either in cahoots or separately? Oh, who am I fooling, you all know who the killer is and what she has dangling between her legs at the end. This is a pretty weird movie.

After watching the sequels (and especially the recent RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP), going back and rewatching this it seems to have better production value and filmatism than I originally gave it credit for. For example there are lots of kids in the camp, and they pull up in real school buses. And there’s some genuine artfulness involved here and there. The score is good. The opening pan across the empty camp is nicely ominous. The memorable last shot, with that crazy facial expression, is some pretty incredible staging. But to be honest it’s the less successful parts that make it enjoyable: the stiff acting, the over-the-top dialogue, the ludicrous methods of murder. I don’t understand why a guy taking a shit can’t escape from a beehive hanging down into the bathroom stall on a stick, or how the bees so quickly sting him to death. Which is why I like it, I guess.

I think the movie is literally homophobic, as in the filmatists are afraid of gay people. There’s a flashback/childhood memory of kids seeing two men in bed together, and this is portrayed as kind of a freaky thing that apparently fucks the kid up for life. I don’t know, I don’t think it really promotes any existing stereotypes or anything, I don’t find it all that offensive but I bet the people who made this movie weren’t all that in favor of gay people back when they made this. Whether or not they will be voting for proposition 8 I cannot say. But I doubt they are members of PFLAG.

SLEEPAWAY CAMP is a strangely enjoyable rendition of the classic slasher formula. It is definitely not one of the best ones and yet those weird touches make it a must-see if you’re into this type of movie.

SLEEPAWAY CAMP 2: UNHAPPY CAMPERS was made 5 years later by different people. Original director Robert Hiltzik wrote a draft of the screenplay, but they wanted to go in a more “funny” direction so apparently all they used was some of his murder methods. This sequel dumps everything that was original about part 1. Now the kids are played by adults and to take advantage of this they have them already flashing their boobs a few minutes in.

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy CampersActually the opening scene is a direct ripoff of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2’s opening: part 1 recounted as a ghost story/urban legend around a campfire. After that, though, the basis seems to be all the worst aspects of the ELM STREET sequels: shitty heavy metal theme song, clueless portrayal of teenage life, killer who makes unfunny wisecracks while murdering one-dimensional characters using extravagant methods sometimes inspired by the victim’s obsessions or perceived sins. This time Angela (with an assumed last name) becomes a counselor at a different camp called Camp Rolling Hills. She’s been through therapy and gotten a sex change and I guess must be nostalgic for that great, great summer she had at Camp Arawak. So this is just a perfect job for her, what a good idea that was for her to come work at a summer camp.

She’s got these prudish values instilled in her by Aunt Martha, so when she sees a camper do something she considers immoral – sneak out to tell campfire stories about part 1 with the boys, for example – she kills them and tells everybody she sent them home. It starts to get amusing how brazen she is about it. Does she really believe this won’t come back to haunt her, that the parents won’t notice their kids didn’t come home? That’s Rumsfeld planning.

Pamela Springsteen (age 26) plays Angela and yes, I looked it up, she is Bruce Springsteen’s sister. She does make the character kind of amusingly clueless, not seeming to understand that she’s in the wrong on this one. So the movie is mildly amusing though much farther away from legitimate, effective horror than part 1 was.

But you know, I couldn’t help but think the movie has a bit of a puritanical judgmentalness to it. Obviously it’s not advocating for actual murder, but it definitely feels like you’re supposed to think it sort of serves some of these characters right, and root for Angela. After all, that kid used drugs, drugs are bad, let’s burn her alive, etc.

The main thing I remember about this movie from back in the ’80s VHS days was not the movie itself, but the cover. It shows some hot chick in cut-offs carrying a backpack with a Jason mask and a Freddy glove in it. There’s actually a scene where she kills kids who are dressed as Freddy and Jason, which is the excuse for the cover. But I cannot explain why the woman on the cover is not Pamela Springsteen, or if they expect us to forget this character used to be a boy. Maybe the series isn’t homophobic anymore at this point. They definitely want you looking at her cleavage on the cover of part 3, too. The cover model, that is. I assume that’s supposed to be Angela, since she’s holding a knife, but that’s clearly not really her. Then again, who is to say that’s really Bruce Springsteen’s ass on the cover of Born in the USA? It could be someone else. Maybe the Springsteens didn’t do covers back then. It’s hard to say.

SLEEPAWAY CAMP 3: TEENAGE WASTELAND

Shot back-to-back with part 2, part 3 is a pretty similar tone with slightly adjusted plot. This time the story begins in New York, where Pamela runs over a girl with a garbage truck, steals her identity and goes to camp. After her last rampage the camp was closed and is now re-opened as Camp New Horizons under new management who are using it for a social experiment where they bring together rich kids and troubled street kids to learn and share and what not.

Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage WastelandThe troubled street kids are of course the 1989 horror movie idea of a troubled street kid, which is to say they all look about 25 to 30 years old and seem to be dressed up as street toughs for a Halloween party. The title comes from when one of these dipshits (who calls himself Snowboy) for no reason yells “Party all night! Teenage wasteland!” I have no clue what it means, neither did the actor I’m sure or the writer of the line. It’s funny man, they got these guys like this in about a thousand movies made between 1978 and 1990, but I never once ran into one in real life. At the very worst you get some smelly fucker in clown makeup arguing with the bus driver about whether he has to pay for his dog to ride. You never get these giggling goofballs like in DEATH WISH movies or guys like this yelling about “partying.” I just don’t get it. Who writes this stuff? Where does it come from? Do they seriously know people who act like this? Have they seen people like this? Or did one guy make it up at one point and everyone else copied from his test?

To be fair this is not an entirely serious movie, it is definitely trying to be kind of a horror comedy, and it has a good line here or there. I like when one of the rich kids tries to make conversation by saying, “So… you’re underpriveleged?” But more often the jokes are along the lines of somebody asking for coke and Angela thinks she means Coke, or some murder pun like – you better swallow any milk or coffee before continuing – she says “It seems every year I’m at camp someone loses their head.” But get it, the joke is because she cut off somebody’s head. Not because they suddenly become angry or upset, which is one meaning of “losing your head,” but because they actually literally lost their head, it was removed from their body and then presumably the body lost track of where it was because of the lack of signal between the brain and body that occurs upon death. That is why it is funny. Think about that one. Let it wash over you.

If a variety of gimmicky murders is a selling point for you, though, it definitely has those. Some of the better ones include tying somebody to a flagpole, lifting and dropping them, and tricking a reporter into snorting Drano instead of coke. Of course that’s only after Angela figures out she means cocaine and not Coca-Cola. I still can’t get over that crazy mixup, what a bunch of funny stuff they got going on in this one.

The body count is 15, by the way, and the puritanical streak continues. She scolds people about using drugs and about not being virgins, but also about bigotry. Obviously we agree with opposing bigotry, so either we’re supposed to kind of agree with her morals, or she is a complex, multi-faceted character with lots of moral grey area and interesting contradictions. You be the judge.

The low point of the movie, and therefore most memorable, is when she kills Riff, the black guy who you will not be that surprised to hear always carries a boombox (or ghetto blaster we called them sometimes in the ’80s). She decides to play with him by switching his favorite tape with a recording of her sub-BULWORTH attempt at white person rapping: “Angels are pretty / Angels can fly / and here is the angel that’ll make you die! / You got no style and, you got no cares / all ya do is fight and swear / So say your prayers and make amends / ’cause ya life story is about to end!”

This was before Eminem though so nobody expected much out of white rappers.

I cannot make any claims to parts 2 or 3 (or even part 1 come to think of it) being good horror movies. I think “cheesy fun” might apply though, depending on your mood and patience.

RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP (part 4)

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 8:01 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

14 Responses to “Sleepaway Camp”

  1. I like all the hidden treasures around this place, movies I’d never heard of before like this one which I just saw. Which reminds me of another gem – Stuart Gordon’s KING OF THE ANTS, which I never knew existed till I read Vern’s review. That’s a great little 21st century noir horror. Nicely compliments Gordon’s other two noir’s STUCK and EDMOND.

    But fuck me gently with a chainsaw, this SLEEPAWAY CAMP is some crazy good 80’s slasher shit. Can’t add much to Vern’s review, ‘cept to say I found it hilarious and disturbing at the same time. The overacting makes for some cringe worthy viewing early on, especially the mother, but you just gotta go with it, it’s the 80’s. You also got male camp counselors called Gino who think it’s cool to wear those cut off t-shirts exposing their overgrown stomach hair, with tight ball hugging denim shorts and long socks. Don’t question it. Roll with it. Sure, the makers may have been homophobic in their flashback depiction of what fucked this kid up, but it sure as hell aint as bad as what they and we are seeing at the camp.

    Apart from the homophobia, this movie also seems to hate kids. Cause you got the creepy pedophile cook who eyes up the kids as they get off the bus, salaciously commenting to his coworkers about the fresh ‘baldies’, and what he’d like to do to them. You can’t get away with that shit in movies these days. SPOILER – the cook’s the first one to get offed, and in a fucked up way, so there is some justice. Then you got the camp coordinator, who must be about sixty years old, slapping the arses of teenage girls, and even arranging a consensual ‘dinner date’ with one of them. But then she gets killed in the shower before that happens. So it’s her fault. Then this same old guy suspects young Ricky of being the killer and beats the shit out of him. Then three or four kids under ten get axe murdered in their sleeping bags. I mean shit, even Jason would bypass that one and head straight for the canoodling teens by the lake.

    So it sounds like parts 2 and 3 aren’t that good? That’s a shame they went in a less crazy direction without the original director. But I just ordered RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP from the amazon link on that review. Looking forward to that one, since it’s the same director.

  2. The sequels are just campy late 80s slasher flicks, good for a few laughs and nothing more. But RETURN somehow seems to exist in the same bizarro early 80s New Jersey nightmare realm that the first one emerged from, completely unsullied by the 30 years and 80 million self-aware parodies and homages that came between the two films. It can’t top the original’s last shot (What can, though?) but otherwise it’s some kind of schlocky miracle.

    Vern also liked it. There’s a review for when you’re ready.

  3. As a trans woman and a devoted fan of the films of cinema, I gotta tell ya, SLEEPAWAY CAMP is the last place I expected to see (extremely problematic) representation.

    I personally have no interest in bottom surgery, but good on Angela for transitioning her way and becoming The Boss’ sister to boot. I wonder if hormones will make me siblings to someone famous!

  4. Also, regarding that poster: A shoe? Really?

  5. I saw an interesting video once about how transgender people are portrayed often in Hollywood movies as “traps”, and the implicit assumption there that transgenders are naturally duplicitous or untrustworthy. It’s interesting, if somewhat depressing, watching. It specifically quoted THE CRYING GAME and ACE VENTURA, but might very well have referred to SLEEPAWAY CAMP as well. If you’re interested, here’s the link:

    http://www.thebacklot.com/video/needs-more-gay-tropes-traps-and-transgender/

    I’ve not seen the sequels, but reading Vern’s review, I was struck by this: “She’s been through therapy and gotten a sex change…”

    Is it just me, or is this the most morally questionable thing in the whole business? The thing that made SLEEPAWAY CAMP’s blatant “transploitation”, if you like, excusible, was that this wasn’t a choice that Angela made, it was something that had been forced on her by years of abuse. By having her choose to become a woman, it kinda feels like the second film is validating the actions of an insane child abuser. It’s saying, basically, that it is Angela’s fault, that this is how she’d be if she was given a choice. And she’s still killing people too… It feels like this is turning her from “disturbed abuse victim” to “straight-up psycho”. I realise we’re talking about a genre of film with some serious sexual politics “issues” here (it routinely fetishises promiscuous teens while at the same time “punishing” them by having them killed by some maniac with a meat cleaver) but something about that just doesn’t sit well with me.

    I mean, I haven’t seen the second film so I’m just going on what I read from Vern here. And it could be that I’m way off-base and this is just my screwy sexual politics coming into play. If that’s the case, feel free to shout me down. I guess you could look at it the other way as well, and say “now Angela’s not a victim any more! She’s empowered!” But that doesn’t seem to “fit” with the first film’s “abuse” theme, or even with what Vern says about the second film’s “prudishness” and “puritanical judgement”. So now Angela’s not killing to keep her secret any more, she’s killing because she buys into a traditionally patriarchal set of repressive sexual morality and values…? Yeah, I don’t think I buy the “empowerment” theory here.

    I don’t know. I’m a straight white guy, I’m about the worst person possible in terms of qualifications to “pass judgement” on an issue like this. It just feels “icky” to me. Again, validating the actions of a child abuser through the choices of her victim. Yuck.

    Also, on a lighter note: “The unseen killer who’s unmasked in a crazy twist ending that nobody could’ve seen coming because it came out of nowhere.” Vern just defined “irony”!

  6. Or maybe I’m just taking this whole thing way too seriously. I don’t know.

    It’s pretty difficult to make the argument that whoever made SLEEPAWAY CAMP 2 thought that this thing could happen, or has happened, etc. It isn’t one of these “based on a true story”-type deals.

  7. SPOILERS, FOR SHIZZLE
    I thought I had seen SLEEPAWAY CAMP 1 before once, but now I’m thinking it was wrong and that that was SLEEPAWAY CAMP 2. I’ll try to watch 2 to confirm that theory.

    Wow, I don’t know, Vern et al. On first viewing, I have to say that I don’t get it with SLEEPAWAY CAMP 1. Sure, there’s that ending, which is quite something, especially pre-CRYING GAME, but otherwise, this is just such a shoddy, schlocky, and downright plodding film, that I cannot see where the love is coming from. There’s like two kills in the first 3/5 of the movie! Just a seemingly interminable sequence of dead-end squabbling encounters between the mean girls and Angela or between the prickish dudes vs. Ricky and his friends. I can appreciate the film as sufficiently weird enough to warrant comment (more on that in a minute), but it was not an enjoyable film in my opinion, either as legitimate horror or as intentional horror comedy or as unintentional horror comedy. Perhaps if it had imprinted on me as a youngster, I’d have fonder feelings, but coming to it cold, it’s just a hot mess of a boring, half-baked, cheesy film. Like MEATBALLS meets BAD NEWS BEARS meets FRIDAY THE 13TH meets a fraction of the budget or talent or narrative vision of any of those films. Contrast this with THE BURNING, which is a competent and moderately well-styled and atmospheric ditty with some genuinely engaging characters, good performances, and a legitimate sense of dread and unease. SLEEPAWAY CAMP is total amateur hour filmatistically, and it’s weird-balls ending just isn’t enough to justify the prior 70-some minutes, which are equal parts cringe-inducing and soporific.

    I will give the film “discussion-worthy” points for its pervasive oddball sexuality. Vern may be right that film is literally homophobic, but more than that, it’s just deeply sexually confused, preoccupied, and ambivalent. We’ve got the pedophile cook, who gets no real pushback from the fellow kitchen staff as he openly celebrates his attraction to a bunch of kids. Then we’ve got Mel the camp owner, who’s going to have a romantic dinner with Meg, who may or may not be 18, but I don’t think so, given that her friend supposedly used to go out with Ricky, who is no older than 15 if he’s a day. Then we’ve got the flashback scene involving Angela’s father and his male lover, with the clear implication that this memory was traumatic for Angela. Then we’ve got Ricky’s mom (Angela’s aunt) Martha, who is just cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs all around and kind of looks like a man herself (Wikipedia confirms that this is a woman), and who forces the shell-shocked, grieving Angela to pretend to be a girl for a number of formative years. And then we’ve got the end, which speaks for itself. And then, more broadly there is highly sexualized 80s summer attire (which is perhaps historically accurate, but is just something to behold–the cut-offs! oh, the cut-offs!!), along with the rigidly gendered, highly-charged sexual energy both among and between the camp’s boys and its girls.

    So, yeah, for a film that I believe shows no tits, this is probably the most sexually charged, preoccupied, and confused slasher film I’ve ever seen. It’s clearly got sex on the brain, and it’s clearly got some weird and conflicting feelings about sexuality and gender, especially what it regards as “deviant” sexuality. Freudian film critics surely have or would have a field day with this, and it’s enough to make the film interesting to think about and discuss. It just wasn’t enough to make the film enjoyable or satisfying to watch.

  8. Skani: Know I’m late to this one but I still felt the need to chime in cause I wanted to. I agree with you on this one. Outside of the shock ending there’s not a whole lot else to speak about with this one. I watched this one and it’s “real” sequel last year for my Halloween-Horror viewing (*start-plug* full 2016 list on Letterboxd *end-plug*) and I will say this for RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP, Mr. M and Vern are right, it is some bizarre movie that despite being filmed on cheap-digital-cameras it truly it is the ‘real’ sequel. No winking at the camera, no real fan wanking, it’s as if right after making the original they asked the director to make a sequel. It has about the same film-making competence as this one but now on early-cheap-crappy-digital-video. It’s an even worse movie if you can’t tell from what I’m saying but man is it a thing to behold. Just this morning I watched the “original” sequels (well 2 & 3) and I have to admit I ‘legit’ liked them way more. Naturally by being ‘better’ they lose the bizarre ineptness of the “real” movies.

  9. It is somewhere on my list to at least revisited SLEEPAWAY CAMP 2, which I think is the one I saw as a kid that I misremembered being part 1. I know Vern and Majestyk and some other folks dug RETURN, but I’m getting the sense that you have to like part 1 to really appreciate RETURN’S aesthetic.

  10. That is correct. It is VERY much part 1 but except now now on digital and with one of the most hatable lead characters ever. Also where the original NO ONE could’ve seen that ending coming, the ‘shock’ ending is only shocking because the director thought he fooled the audience with this one character. Like I said, it is bizarre and MAYbe worth seeing if you’re up for that or in the right frame of mind but as you deduced, really digging the first one helps an awful lot.

  11. I like the 80s Sleepaway Camp sequel. Part 3 sucks real bad though.

  12. I was going to write a review for 2 & 3 for letterboxd but short version:

    2 – I thought was a fun and felt like it was made by an alien or person whose only heard tales of what these ‘slasher’ movies are. Best part is how casual and friendly and ‘girlie’ new-Angela is when murdering and stalking people.

    3 – Not nearly as good as 2 but clearly I liked it much better than you Stern. I think if they would have gotten the actor who played Angela in 2 back it would have been better maybe. Still liked the actor who played new-new-Angela though. They kinda brought over what made me like part 2 with how matter of factly Angela kills everybody. As where in 2 she’s really feminine and friendly about it, this one she treats it as her damned job and something she needs to do. So maybe that makes me easily pleased (not that you accused me of such!) but it made me laugh and her final line of “Just taking care of business.” cracked me the hell up. Not sure I should make part 3 a hill to die on (I know it is widely hated while 2 is just really disliked) but it had that one joke for me that kept finding funny to get a bunch of enjoyment out of it.

  13. EMBARRASSING ERROR ON MY PART IN THE POST ABOVE: Somehow I watched both these fuckers back-to-back this morning and didn’t notice that it is indeed the same actor playing Angela in both. So yeah, this is pretty damned embarrassing.

    Still standing by part 3 kinda though! Which too is probably considered embarrassing.

    I have earned the ridicule on this one guys!

  14. I just felt that the plot didn’t live up to the potential.
    .

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