Many years back I wrote about SLEEPAWAY CAMP, a unique and noteworthy slasher sleazefest from two-time East Coast indie filmmaker Robert Hiltzik. I also reviewed his only followup, the lesser known but similarly crazy RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP. But until now I never returned to the two odd sequels from the late ‘80s, from the production company behind BLOOD RAGE and some Frank Stallone movies. Because they were new when I came of horror age they actually made way more of an impression on me growing up than the grimier original did.
These ones have a totally different feel, much more tongue-in-cheek, but still pretty befuddling. They were shot back-to-back (you know, like the BACK TO THE FUTURE or THE MATRIX trilogies), and you can tell, though they kindly switch up the premise slightly. Both are directed by Michael A. Simpson (FUNLAND) and written by Michael Hitchcock (WHERE THE DAY TAKES YOU) under the pseudonym Fritz Gordon.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP II: UNHAPPY CAMPERS (1988) sets the tone with a FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II style campfire opening. In the woods of Camp Rolling Hills a girl named Phoebe (Heather Binion) tells a group of boys the legend of the murders that happened five years ago at Camp Arawak. There’s a joke that the killer was never found, but may be dead, or may be “in Hollywood, playing the dark-haired girl on The Facts of Life.” (Is that a joke about Jo being a tomboy or something?)
Phoebe is supposed to be in the girls’ cabin, and she gets caught by her counselor Angela (Pamela Springsteen – yes, Bruce’s sister), who is of course the notorious gender-confused killer, resurfaced with a new last name. I was ready for her to be kind of like Norman in PSYCHO II, trying to start a new life, and creating tension about when she’s gonna crack, so I got a kick out of her just immediately, before the credits, bonking this girl over the head with a log and cutting her tongue out “for telling evil stories and having such a filthy mouth.” These movies, like Angela, are pretty comfortable with what they are: an excuse to string together some jokey violence, with no pretensions of being scary to anyone. (I wonder if Benny from BENNY’S VIDEO ever saw these?)
I wouldn’t say the sequels are more enlightened than the original, except in the sense that they don’t take any of it seriously. Though the kids aren’t quite as hilariously awful as in the original, they’re mostly a bunch of assholes, and throw homophobic slurs around frequently. But for whatever it’s worth Angela’s gender identity isn’t really used for freak show purposes. They just say she got a sex change while she was in a mental institute and they don’t reference it after that other than having her be timid about undressing around others (which I think she would be anyway, as a confirmed prude).
It’s a pretty funny character, and a really funny performance. She’s a caricature of the sex = death subtext of so many post HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH slashers, gleefully murdering campers for what she perceives as naughtiness – for example, barbecuing sisters Brooke (Carol Chambers, DEAD AIM) and Jodi (Amy Fields, A KILLING AFFAIR) on a grill for smoking, drinking and fucking – then lying to her boss Uncle John (Walter Gotell, OCTOPUSSY) that she sent them home. When not in punisher mode (and even sometimes when she is) she stays cartoonishly upbeat, and is very enthusiastic about leading the cafeteria in camp songs and things like that.
There’s much drama going on in the camp. For starters, a panty raid. For furthers, a retaliatory jock strap raid. Angela gets mad at the girls for going topless around the cabin. “Who’s gonna see anyway?” one asks, before it cuts to two little boys (Justin Nowell [FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES; later a writer on Eastbound & Down] and Jason Ehrlich [INVASION U.S.A.]) on each others’ shoulders to take photos through the window, calling themselves “The Titty Patrol.” Later, when Angela confiscates and flips through their collection of Polaroids, the way they sit in their shame is the most realistic thing in the movie.
Angela’s various murders are very jokey. Driving Mare (Susan Marie Snyder, As the World Turns) home for a flashing incident she stops and tells her she can stay if she apologizes. Mare refuses, causing Angela to reach for something in the backseat, at which point Mare jokes, “What are you looking for? A gun?”
“No. A drill!” Angela says, and drills a hole in her head.
As a teen I thought it was hilarious that the covers featured random models who look nothing like Springsteen. Part II emphasizes the butt and part III the boobs. But part II especially amused me because of the joke that she has a Jason mask and Freddy glove on top of her backpack. It seemed like such a pathetic ploy for horror fan attention, but it does in fact refer to a part in the movie. Judd (Benji Wilhoite, “Young Jim Jones,” GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES) and Anthony (Walter Franks, “Film Class Guy #2,” SCREAM 2) dress up as Jason (with a regular hockey mask, not the movie type) and Freddy to scare Angela, but she jumps out wearing Mare’s face and chainsaws them in homage to another great horror icon.
I think my favorite part is when Demi tells Angela that she tried to call all the campers who got “sent home” and all their parents said they were still at camp. She doesn’t seem to make the connection of what happened, and while she’s talking Angela walks over to the other side of the cabin and starts picking up objects – a wire coat hanger, a pencil, a portable radio, a brush – to assess their killing potential. It’s like in PULP FICTION when Butch is trying to decide which weapon to use in the pawn shop.
Is this kind of a both-sides movie? Angela often plays like a parody of society’s scolds and prudes, psychotically enforcing her backwards disapproval of weed smokers and loose women. No character who we’re supposed to side with would accuse someone of “fornicating,” right? But also her victims are meant to be terrible so we’re more likely to laugh at their deaths than be upset. I suppose you could say the same of SERIAL MOM.
But Demi is innocent, and there’s one totally nice camper named Molly, played by Renee Estevez shortly before playing nice girl Betty Finn in HEATHERS. Not knowing about Angela’s activities she often stands up for her when other campers are talking shit, and popular bitchy cheerleader Ally (Valerie Hartman, INTIMATE OBSESSION) is mean to her and makes her cry. In the movie’s most disgusting scene Angela dumps Ally into an outhouse toilet full of leeches. Which seems really unsafe by the way. The camp should’ve done something about that. Too late though.
When Angela gets fired, Molly and the boy she likes, Sean (Tony Higgins, Andersonville), go to try to cheer her up and discover that she hid all the bodies in a boarded up cabin. Sean knows the Camp Arawak story from his dad (a cop) but she assures him “I’m completely cured! If I wasn’t they wouldn’t have let me out.” Then she decapitates him, leading to the part where she says “Look who’s on TV!” and points to his head jammed inside a broken TV.
In the end you could argue that Molly is the Final Girl, only because she falls and hits her head on a rock and Angela leaves her for dead. Then she runs into Angela on the road and it ends on her looking horrified, so I don’t believe she survives. It appears that Angela murders every camper and counselor at Rolling Hills, plus a redneck lady (Jill Jane Clements, “Older Smaller Woman,” NEED FOR SPEED) who picks her up hitchhiking. In the next one they’ll say the body count was 19.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP III: TEENAGE WASTELAND (1989) starts off strong. It opens in a shitty apartment in the city where Maria (Kashine Kessler, staff assistant, VEGAS VACATION) wakes up and yells at her shitty mom that she’s going to camp. She puts on her jean jacket and ‘I heart NY’ shirt and struts down the street, but a garbage truck swerves at her, chases her down an alley and hits her. Out steps Angela, somehow already dressed as Maria, who throws the body in the back of the truck and crushes it. Taking Maria’s place she’s picked up by a van, and as it drives off we see “Angela IS BACK!” spraypainted on a brick wall.
So the gimmick for part III is that Angela is a camper again, blaming her aged appearance on “massive drugs” (though nobody else looks like a kid either). Camp Rolling Hills has been rebranded Camp New Horizons, run by Herman (Michael J. Pollard, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, Toxic Crusaders) and his wife Lilly (Sandra Dorsey, GRIZZLY), and billed as “an experiment in sharing” where lower class kids like (Angela pretending to be) Maria are sent to camp with rich kids.
The cartoonish stereotype campers are introduced when interviewed by TV reporter Tawny Richards (Randi Layne, FUNLAND), who later tries to buy coke from Angela. Angela gives her a bag of Comet, which she snorts and dies right there in her car. You would think the body or her disappearance would be noticed by someone or interfere with running this puff piece, but I guess not. She’s never mentioned again.
Of course the poor kids have switchblades, leather jackets, fingerless gloves, a boombox, etc. They’re all sarcastic and cynical, which Angela doesn’t know how to fake, nor can she avoid volunteering to sing “The Happy Camper Song,” but nobody seems to notice. Friendly rich kid Bobby (Haynes Brooke, FRIED GREEN TOMATOES) introduces himself and says, “So… you’re underprivileged, huh?” He seems well meaning until later when he has the line, “What? I thought you wanted it! Your type always does!”
One of the counselors, Barney (Cliff Brand, PONY EXPRESS RIDER) is said to be a cop, which makes some of the kids nervous. The one who should really worry about it is Angela, though, because this is the cop dad of Sean, who she killed in part II!
These are some real wild boys so they do wild stuff like put fire crackers in a fish’s mouth. Snowboy, who has bleached hair and seems like a punk but wears a Harley Davidson shirt, goes around spraypainting trees and tents and yells “Party all night! Teenage wasteland!” I mean, I don’t know who could possibly be cooler than this guy. It’s overwhelming.
Other cool kids include rocker girl Arab (Jill Terashita, later a stuntwoman in RAPID FIRE and COLLATERAL) and Riff (Daryl Wilcher, “Youth Gangmember,” FREEJACK), who plays cheesy off brand rap instrumentals too loud all the time. Tony (Mark Oliver, WE ARE MARSHALL) is an L.A. gang member who’s very sensitive and striking up a relationship with nice Ohio rich girl Marcia (Tracy Griffith, FEAR CITY), who seems like the Molly character even before Angela says, “You remind me of this girl I used to know. Her name was Molly.”
Best dialogue exchange:
Herman: “Where did you learn to chop wood like that?”
Angela: “I’ve never chopped wood before. But I’ve chopped other things.”
There’s a scene where we learn that Angela’s favorite movie is E.T. and Bobby’s is “movies that make America look great. Like RAMBO III, great film.” Cindy (Kim Wall, “Terrified Woman,” THE MIST)’s is “movies with good acting, like GONE WITH THE WIND or THE CARE BEARS.” The former makes sense because moments later she’s saying that rap is just “a bunch of darkies who can’t sing” and calling Riff the n-word. Lilly says nothing to Cindy but gets mad at Riff for reacting and threatens to “call Officer Whitmore” on him. Yep, that seems authentic.
The main thing I remembered from this one is the part where Angela brings Cindy on a blindfolded trust walk, hooks her to the string of the flagpole and raises her to the top. Cindy asks “Do you know who my dad is!?” and threatens to sue, but Angela drops her on her head. She mentions Cindy being “a nasty, snotty bigot” on her list of reasons to do it, but let’s not go nominating Angela for an NAACP Image Award quite yet. Later she makes Riff listen to her terrible parody rap song shaming him for swearing before nailing tent spikes into him.
The other most memorable death is when she buries Lilly up to the neck and then gets the lawnmower. But I also like when she ties Bobby’s hands around a tree (“but don’t tell anyone, okay? ‘Cause if the wrong person found out I could lose an election some day”) and then hooks the rope to the back of a Jeep and drives off. It’s another part where it seems like we’re supposed to agree with her, because she says, “Thank God there’ll be one less idiot in politics.”
Herman is the sleaziest adult character since the first one – he openly flirts with Jan (Stacie Lambert) and Angela finds him having sex with her. There’s a good cut from Angela unzipping the tent to him unzipping his jeans (below his Playboy logo belt buckle). Jan is into him for some reason (kind of a Troma type joke) but I don’t think she’s supposed to have reached the age of consent. Not that Angela considers her a victim – she beats them both to death with a stick.
I think ordinary horror movie formula would dictate that Sean’s dad would get to avenge Angela. He does find out she’s the killer and confront her, but it’s a reversal of Mare’s death in part 2. He asks her how she plans to kill him, listing all the weapons she used before. “What’s it going to be, a drill?”
“A gun!” she chirps, producing his, and shoots him.
At the end she forces the four survivors to play a game that reduces them to two, and decides to let Marcia and Tony live. But Marcia grabs an ax and chops her.
So two campers do survive an Angela massacre, but there’s a final joke with them: after everything they’ve been through, Tony professes his love and says he’ll move to Ohio and marry Marcia. But she’s like, “uh… I already have a boyfriend.”
There’s one final scene with unconscious, wounded Angela being taken away in an ambulance. A cop tries to convince the EMT they shouldn’t let her live, but she sits up and stabs them in the eyes with syringes. I like that she doesn’t seem to escape, she just lays back down as if she’s still gonna die. She just managed to get two more last kills in before it happens.
Man, what was up with this movement of horror? Was it that famous Gen-X ironic detachment, rising right during the height of mom & pop video stores? It seems like in earlier eras there were these sleazy producers saying “who gives a shit, it’s for degenerates, just make sure there’s tits and blood in it, they won’t notice if it’s shit.” By this point it was a slightly younger set of sleazy producers doing the same thing but knowing that you know what they’re up to, so they don’t have to pretend it’s serious. In fact, in the scene where they discuss their favorite movies, Riff says he likes “anything with tits and blood,” describing the very movie he’s in. And then that’s part of the reason Angela kills him.
So it’s hard for me to know what to make of these two movies. I have no argument for them being good in any traditional sense, and I suspect whatever dopey enjoyment I get out of them results from them imprinting on my brain as a middle schooler. What I can say is that Springsteen’s gleeful performance and the cartoonish sadism of her character (plus short running times) make them among the more watchable of this particular brand of late ‘80s insincere horror (see also: various Troma movies, the SORORITY BABES movies, etc.). Of the two, part III is probly the best due to more ridiculous characters and deaths (though her success in murdering the entire cast of II is an unusual horror achievement).
Screenwriter Gordon later scripted some much more disreputable projects (additional scenes for the Miramax bastardization of THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER, PROBLEM CHILD 3: JUNIOR IN LOVE) plus TV shows Mad TV, Glee and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Director Simpson was an executive producer on Scott Cooper’s CRAZY HEART. Of course he also wrote the made-for-cable Christmas romcoms CRAZY FOR CHRISTMAS and ALL SHE WANTS FOR CHRISTMAS.
Springsteen had been acting for several years, guest starring on the aforementioned The Facts of Life, Cagney & Lacey and Hardcastle and McCormick, plus small parts in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, MY SCIENCE PROJECT and other films, but Angela was her best known role. She did one more movie, THE GUMSHOE KID (1990), but soon shifted to a career shooting photos of musicians for magazines like Creem and Spin as well as for album covers. Yes, she shot stuff for her brother, plus Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Lenny Kravitz, Alison Krauss, Melissa Etheridge, Neil Young, Roseanne Cash, and many others. And get this: despite her character’s terrible rapping in this movie, she worked extensively with Ice Cube, and even shot the cover photo for his classic album The Predator.
p.s. There actually is (sort of) a part IV besides RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP, called SLEEPAWAY CAMP IV: THE SURVIVOR. It was started in 1992 but they only shot test footage before the production company went bankrupt. 20 years later some fans used that footage, archival clips and narration to make it into, I guess, a clip show where an amnesiac survivor returns to the camp and realizes she’s Angela (played by Carrie Chambers of KARATE COP and THE DIVINE ENFORCER). I’m not sure how to see it, but my hopes aren’t high for it.