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Stacie Ponder – The Four Sleepaway Camp Movies: Classic, Worthy, Joke, Snooze

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Horror fans returned to sleepaway camp last week with the DVD release of… err… Return to Sleepaway Camp, the long-awaited fourth film in the series and the first since the original to be helmed by series creator Robert Hiltzik.

I realize there’s a chance you’ve never seen — or possibly, never even heard of — the Sleepaway movies, much less given any thought to the idea of summer camp in November. And so though I’m a tried and true Sleepaway fan, I won’t hold it against you if the films have fallen under your radar. In fact, it shames me to admit it (seriously, don’t tell anyone or I’ll totally get kicked out of the Cool Horror Kids Club), but I became familiar with the series long after the original hit screens in 1983. Once I discovered the nefarious goings-on at Camp Arawak, however, I was hooked and I was hooked hard.

What Makes This Camp So Different
On the surface of things, Sleepaway Camp is just another horror movie typical of that time period — the early ’80s — when you couldn’t throw a cat lest you hit a slasher flick. Banking on the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th , studios pumped out movie after movie with essentially the same set up: Teens go somewhere remote, teens have sex, teens get killed by masked kookadook. Hiltzik and company took that formula and skewed it just enough to make the movie stand out from the pack… and I’m not even talking about that infamous ending, which I refuse to talk about; it’s simply one of those “you just gotta see it” cinematic moments.

What’s so original about a slasher movie set at summer camp? Well,
for one thing, the camp is populated with children. Outlandish notion,
huh? It is when you consider that it wasn’t until Friday the 13th, Part VI
where Jason really encountered actual campers. Kids in horror movies
are little more than an inconvenience; there are still a few lines
audiences are reluctant to cross, a few taboos left, and this is one of
them. It’s generally a safe bet to assume that any l’il tykes present
will live to see the credits roll. I can count on four fingers the
number of horror movies where kids — I’m talking under 17– are
killed, including Sleepaway Camp. Rather than focusing exclusively on the horny, foul-mouthed counselors, Sleepaway focuses on the horny, sexed-up campers and it lends the movie an entirely different vibe than its Friday predecessors.

said, there’s plenty of humor — both intentional and unintentional —
in the movie, and the entire affair is replete with acting that leaves
you unsure whether or not everyone is in on the joke. How much of it is
meant to be taken seriously? Once a B-movie becomes self-aware, the
notion of (ahem) “camp” goes out the window, and Sleepaway
certainly skirts that line. One only needs to run down a list of kills
in order to get what I mean: Along with the requisite stabbings, we get
death by bees and death by curling iron, for crying out loud.

Unhappy Campers and Teenage Wasteland
Robert Hiltzik handed writing and directing duties over to Fritz Gordon and Michael Simpson, respectively, for Parts 2 ( Unhappy Campers ) and 3 (Teenage Wasteland).
In those, there’s no doubt that the exploits of Angela Baker, the chief
character, weren’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. I remember
vividly the VHS box art for Unhappy Campers, which featured a
comely young woman trucking along, a hockey mask and Freddy
Krueger-style knife glove poking out of her backpack. Whoever this
chick was, it seemed she was sure to become a killer on par with the
slasher icons! It took me another decade or so to actually watch the
movie and it didn’t deliver on the promise I projected on to that box
art, but I fell in love just the same. Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers
is nothing if not a good time, a movie to laugh with and laugh at. The
kills get even more outrageous (death by…outhouse?), the acting is
cheesier, and the characters are all named after ’80s Brat Packers. 

The third installment, Teenage Wasteland,
continued on this path, though by this point we’re all definitely in on
the joke and as such, the movie doesn’t have the charm of the first two.

Return to Sleepaway Camp

To remain a member in good standing of the Cool Horror Kids Club, I picked up Return
earlier this week. How fares this sequel to a 20+ year old cult film? I
suppose that depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for
something… good, well, you won’t find it here. If you’re looking for
something scary, why on earth are you watching a Sleepaway Camp movie?

Return to Sleepaway Camp boasts the return of some characters
and cast members from the original, so in that regard it’s more of a
sequel than Parts 2 and 3….but that doesn’t make it any better as a
film. It’s just as silly and aimless — perhaps even more so — than Unhappy Campers and Teenage Wasteland.
There’s no suspense or real terror to be found in this installment, and
that’s a shame. If anything, it reminded me of everything I disliked
about Teenage Wasteland — it’s all a big joke, but not enough
that it calls itself a horror-comedy. The acting is too broad to be
believable and the ending is telegraphed from a million miles away.

And yet there’s something enjoyable about revisiting the Adventures of Angela. It’s great to see that Ricky still has a
foul mouth and Counselor Ronnie is still wearing his way-too-short
shorts. Still, I’m thinking that perhaps this is a series best left fallow. Then again… Argh! Do you see what Sleepaway Camp has done to me? It’s turning my brain and my heart into a perfect storm of conflicting emotions! I no longer know how — or what — to feel. Maybe I should just stick with the first two films and be done with it.

sp.jpgA fan of horror movies and scary stuff, Stacie Ponder started her blog Final Girl so she’d have a platform from which she could tell everyone that, say, Friday the 13th, Part 2 rules. She leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor’s edge of danger and intrigue.

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