Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: June 9th, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Only five years separate Sleepaway Camp and its first sequel, but it might as well be a lifetime—or at least long enough for the slasher genre to give itself over to the clichés that have defined its reputation for decades now. Where Robert Hiltzik’s first film subversively works within the genre’s conventions with quirky, nigh-camp flourishes, Michael A. Simpsons’s sequels aren’t just completely in on the joke—they are the gags. Most slasher franchises evolve with baby steps (it’s a long way from Friday the 13th to Jason X); Sleepaway Camp cuts right to the chase by embracing the genre’s silliness and cutting loose. These two sequels—and Unhappy Campers especially—are platonic ideals for a certain strain of slasher film, and I suspect they’re exactly the sort of films most people have in mind when they think of this genre.
Usually, such tonal whiplash would be a problem, or at least a clear indication that those involved really missed what made the original so special, but Unhappy Campers defies the odds. More than just a worthy follow-up to Sleepaway Camp, it’s one of the finest 80s slashers, and, dare I say, more purely entertaining than its predecessor. If Sleepaway Camp thrives on a nervous, adolescent energy, then its first sequel has the reckless abandon of a more assured twentysomething who just wants to party. Pounding metal riffs announce its arrival, and its proceedings begin with lurid campfire tales, including one that recounts the horrors five years ago at Camp Arawak. Rumors persist that psychotic Angela Baker spent years in therapy before undergoing a sex change, and, according to one camper, she’s even been released.
The others call bullshit, but when counselor Angela Johnson (Pamela Springstreen) strolls in to interrupt the tale, it leaves no doubt: the shy 14-year-old girl from the first film has grown up to become a confident young adult. One would hardly call her “well-adjusted,” though, as an argument with one of her campers ends with Angela clubbing the girl over the head with a log and cutting out her tongue. In Angela’s parlance, Phoebe has just been “sent home” for being a bad camper, and this is a prelude as much as it’s a mission statement, as the deranged counselor spends the next 75 minutes weeding out every bad seed at Camp Rolling Hills.
Drug addicts, fornicators, unruly pranksters, and generally ungrateful brats are hacked, slashed, and even barbecued in Angela’s quest to find just one ideal camper, perhaps in an attempt to reclaim the idyllic experience she could never have as a teen. With very little pretense of any sort of plot, Unhappy Campers is an unabashed gore showcase that moves quickly from one murder sequence to the next. Suspense-building point-of-view shots are no longer necessary with the camera being chiefly preoccupied with gore and gratuitous nudity. Whatever downtime is spent wallowing in 80s summer camp clichés: mullets, short shorts, bad jokes, panty raids, peep shows, and pranks. If not for The Burning, Sleepaway Camp II would be the ultimate camp slasher. It still might be the most fun.
Under the direction of Simpson, this sequel retains the crude grisliness of its predecessor, with some of the gore gags bordering on disgusting (one girl is drowned in a pile of shit and leeches, for example). However, the film also distances itself with more of a tongue-in-cheek approach that sees it frequently winking at both itself and the slasher genre. A pair of campers dress up as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, the genre’s then-reigning kings of splatter, for a sequence that’s less homage and more gamesmanship, as it climaxes with both clowns being dispatched by Angela (dressed as Leatherface, whose own sexual confusion makes him a kindred spirit). Throughout, the film exhibits an ever-so-slight hint of self-awareness of what’s expected of it (read: a pile of corpses) and sets itself to delivering (the climactic showdown features a literal pile of rotting, grotesque corpses).
Angela herself is the most obvious indication of the sequel’s shift in tone. A far cry from Felissa Rose’s pent-up, vacant-eyed teen, Springsteen is an outgoing, downright loquacious young adult who feels more like a disapproving mom. In many ways, she has become the woman her Aunt Martha would have always wanted her to be: puritanical, chaste, and altogether proper (save for her homicidal fits). What’s more, Angela speaks what is almost always unspoken in slasher film, as her twisted morality is often the guiding force of a genre dominated by moral majority avatars looking to dole out punishment upon the wicked. Angela is essentially a psychotic Nancy Reagan: “just say no,” she says before lighting a pothead on fire.
And yet, Simpson sometimes treats Angela as if she were the same confused girl from the first film. He exhibits some true sympathy for the devil here: while Angela’s portrayal as a wise-cracking maniac is shades of later-era Freddy Krueger, she isn’t exactly an anti-hero but rather a quasi-tragic figure. You sense that she is a well-meaning buzzkill who really wants nothing more than to find some campers with wholesome values. She eventually settles on Molly (Renee Estevez) and Sean (Tony Higgins), a couple of kids that looked to be plucked from the Slasher Movie Survivors Catalogue. Their budding summer love (which is threatened by Valerie Hartman’s camp alpha bitch) represents the only real, sustained story here, yet it seems like a footnote that’s quickly discarded once Angela’s psychosis reaches critical mass.
When this happens, the film cares not for Molly, Sean, would-be heroic head counselor T.C. (Brian Patrick Clarke, sporting one of the great cinematic mullets), or even the young boys (named Charlie and Emilio, for obvious reasons): rather, the sympathies remain with Angela, who endures a trippy freak-out once her illusions begin to crumble. By the end of the film, she has amassed a pile of bodies but can’t stop killing. Less a compulsion and more of a moral obligation, her bloodlust continues because everyone around her can’t stop disappointing her. Springsteen’s bemused eye-roll before one of the last murder sequences says it all: at what point can her moral crusade end? It won’t be anytime soon—not when another sequel lies on the horizon, anyway.
After delivering a definitive special edition for the original film last year, Scream Factory has thankfully not overlooked the sequels. Both Unhappy Campers and Teenage Wasteland arrive with their own stellar editions featuring newly remastered transfers and uncompressed stereo tracks for a presentation upgrade over the now decade-old DVD release.
The extras, too, add onto previously released material. Simpson and writer Fritz Gordon provide an audio commentary, and various cast and crew members participate in “A Tale of Two Sequels: Part One,” the first of two retrospectives on the two follow-up films in the series. The latest Red Shirt production runs about 30 minutes and takes viewers through the typical phases of the film’s production, with anecdotes strewn throughout. “Abandoned” is a tour that takes fans back to the original locations from the two sequels, while short film “What Happened to Molly” finally reveals what happened to Renee Estevez’s character after all these years.
Some vintage behind-the-scenes footage, a home video trailer, and a stills gallery fill out the rest of the disc, which is essential for fans of this franchise. Anyone who couldn’t resist the original cover art—which practically threw down the gauntlet by featuring a razor glove and a hockey mask—should also appreciate that it remains intact as part of the reversible cover art (if there was ever any doubt about the film’s exploitative aims, it should have been put to rest with one glance here).
These sequels don’t exactly carry the same revered reputation as the original, but Unhappy Campers especially is no less deserving of the treatment Scream Factory has lavished on it. As someone who considers it a favorite and places it in the top 5 percentile of 80s slashers, I’m a happy camper indeed. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: