An often overlooked (but highly entertaining) horror series is the Sleepaway Camp movies. The films feature one of the greatest twists in a horror movie ever, a really good sequel, and a couple ho-hum sequels. However, the entire series is worth a look to see how good horror can be…and how bad. The movies were never afraid to show the evil side of children, and actually cast children (instead of adults acting as children) in them. The kills are pretty creative throughout to boot.
In Sleepaway Camp, we meet young and troubled Angela (Felissa Rose). Now, spoilers but, Angela is not really Angela. She is a boy. When he was younger, his father and sister (Angela) were killed in a tragic boating incident. After being sent to live with his aunt, she decides to raise him as a girl (as she already has a boy named Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten)). Confused? So was Angela. Her father was gay to boot and her crazy aunt looks and acts like a drag queen. There are quite a few interpretations of the film, but one of my favorites involves reasoning behind her aunt’s madness. She may have been married to Angela’s father’s lover. After he passed, this man took his life and left his wife with homophobic rage to pass on to her young children. Now most children are oblivious to this stuff until they hit puberty. Sleepaway Camp is Angela’s slow realization that she is different from everybody else around her. His two worlds collide in a violent display of anger. And, as the other children discover themselves emotionally, Angela is filled with the urge to keep her secret at all costs while battling her natural instincts and instilled hatred. In a time of same sex marriage, I’m surprised this film doesn’t get more play for this fact alone. We have all heard about how It Follows is an allegory about STD’s. Well, Sleepaway Camp is an allegory about coming out of the closet.
With all that said, this film is really messed up. Camp counselors openly talk about molesting the children. A girl is killed by a curling iron to the you-know-what. While Angela (the killer) is not shown on screen actually committing the murders, the violence is pretty top shelf. And, yes, you kind of expect that Angela was the murderer all along (or her crazy aunt followed her to camp but that would have been completely too much of a Friday the 13th rip-off), but nobody saw the fact that Angela was not a girl. When I first saw this movie, the ending about knocked me on the floor.
And what is the best way to follow up a great ending to a horror movie? It’s to make a great sequel. While Sleepaway Camp 2 drops the homosexuality angle, it is boiling over with 80s horror goodness. Angela is back (but is now played by Bruce Springsteen’s little sister Pamela Springsteen), and her sexuality is no longer driving her murderous ways. Her morals do. She is working at the same camp under an assumed name. While camp has been awful for everybody around her, she has twisted her time at camp to be one of the best memories in her head. She really wants to be a great camp counselor…but today’s kids are just disrespectful and bad people. She begins ridding the camp of these awful children before just taking out everybody at the campsite.
There is no mystery of who the killer is in Sleepaway Camp 2. It’s a tongue in cheek slasher that features some of the best kills in the series. My absolute favorite is when the foul mouthed girl is drowned in the outhouse, but the cabin of horrors is just wonderful. Horror movies today just don’t have scenes like this anymore. She poses all of her victims in the cabin so that (later) another character can discover them. It’s like going to a haunted house, and I really miss scenes into today’s slashers. The final girl (Renee Estevez) is likable to both the audience and Angela, and her fate is unknown at the end.
Unfortunately, the cheesy goodness of Sleepaway Camp 2 did not translate to Sleepaway Camp 3. Angela is back, but this time she is posing as a camper instead of a counselor. The camp has now been converted to a troubled kids camp and Angela formulaically picks off the campers one at a time. She uses a stick often to beat her victims (which gets old fast) and her victims are stock caricatures. Even when the kills are imaginative, the physics are very questionable (115 pound person lifting another on a flagpole with ease) or the kills dampered by questions (Why didn’t the counselor just stand up when Angela pushes her into the trash?). Hell, even her biggest foe of the movie (police officer and father of one of her victims) is easily dispatched with a gun and without much of a struggle. The movie does bring back the cabin of horrors I liked in the second installment, but that may be more a product of the formula used in horror at the time than anything else. Sleepaway Camp 3 feels more like a parody of the second installment than a sequel.
Return to Sleepaway Camp ignores the Springsteen-played Angela and is a direct sequel to the original movie. While the series has teetered on focusing on kids behaving badly, the kids in Return are just downright awful people. They aren’t even caricatures like the third installment. They are just mean, mean people and totally unlikable to the audience. And, as this series has focused on Angela, Return unsuccessfully tries to offer its audience a red herring that is so obvious that my 6 year old could have figured it out. The kills in this one aren’t very imaginative either. Return was made in 2002 but sat in distribution hell until 2008. It’s sad that the series went out on this note.
But don’t take my word for it. The original just got a new DVD release. Parts 2 and 3 are streaming on Netflix regularly. Check them out and let’s all sit back and wait for the inevitable remake that should be coming down the line.