31 Days of Horror(1)


The Original

Sleepaway Camp is an awful movie and a wonderful movie at the same time.  Director/writer Robert Hiltzik had a vision for the film; a camp slasher where the kids are actually played by kids.  Sleepaway Camp explores the darker side of adolescence: abuse, sexual predators both adult and children, bullying, and the awkwardness of coming to sexual maturity.   It’s such an ambitious concept that it almost covers up for the fact that the movie is technically garbage.

The kid actors are mediocre to awful, though young Felissa Rose as the quiet Angela carries herself well.  The adult actors don’t fare much better.  The film looks cheap, it sounds cheap, but randomly a scene will be well-shot and interesting.  The kills are effective, different, and suitably uncomfortable.  Where Sleepaway Camp really comes together is the ending.

Sleepaway Camp has its high points but I’m fairly certain that the movie could be top to bottom bullshit and the ending would still be worth it.  There’s a subplot about Angela’s father and brother being killed in a boating accident and her moving in with her cousin, the payoff to that subplot and its relevance to the killer offing all the people who treat Angela like shit is one of the most chilling shock endings ever.  It’s so great that I’m not going to spoil it in this paragraph.  I will spoil it in the next section though since it has relevance to the sequel, so if you haven’t seen Sleepaway Camp, go watch it.

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The Sequel

Now first of all, let me address the elephant in the room.  Return to Sleepaway Camp is chronologically the fifth Sleepaway Camp film.  Two movies were made, starring Pamela Springsteen (the sister of Bruce Springsteen) as Angela, a fourth movie was started but had its funding cut and was scrapped.  Sleepaway Camp 4 was “finished” by fans of the series, which is to say that the few contextless scenes were heavily spliced with footage from the other movies and then audaciously sold for $15 on Amazon.  Also the film Memorial Day Massacre was perplexingly renamed Son of Sleepaway Camp at one point.  While all those movies happened between these two they are non-canon.  Robert Hiltzik had no involvement in the sequels and the adventures of Angela Springsteen completely jettisoned all that was appealing about the first film in favor of a pretty standard slasher formula.

So Return to Sleepaway Camp is Robert Hiltzik’s attempt to set things right, it’s the “real” Sleepaway Camp 2.  We’re at a new summer camp that appears to be in the same state as Camp Arawak, the original film’s setting.  Counselor Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo) is partial owner but most of the other characters don’t return.

Our focus character, this time, is Alan (Michael Gibney) a fat, loud, whiny, cruel kid who constantly wears the same disgusting filthy clothes, acts out, and is generally a piece of shit.  Alan is so uniquely repellent that he is cited as the reason why this movie sucks for a lot of people.  The only person worse than Alan is every single other person in this movie.  Well, let me walk that back a bit: Ronnie, another counselor named Petey (Kate Simses), and the camp’s head chef (Isaac Hayes) are nice to Alan, everyone else treats him so awfully that they make Carrie White’s bullies seem benign.

Slowly, people who are particularly cruel to Alan begin dying off.  Alan is certainly unhinged and acts violently on a couple of occasions but Ronnie thinks that somehow Angela has found the camp and is on another killing spree.  But Angela’s cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) insists that she’s still locked up in an asylum upstate.

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Does It Hold Up?

This is a controversial statement, but I’m gonna say yes.  In fact, not counting the ending, I think this is a better movie than Sleepaway Camp.  Now the reason that statement is controversial is that ending, the nostalgia fans have for the original, and the debate of Alan vs. Angela.

Alan is an ass, but he seems to be acting out due to awkwardness and insecurity.  Alan is cruel to the smaller kids in his cabin but it seems to be just a way to feel powerful when the rest of the camp dumps on him.  I feel like the film fails in not showing the surely weeks of torture he has already endured as this film opens up after the campers have already been there for presumably quite some time.  The other campers and most of the other counselors are fucking deplorable people, I really don’t see how anyone has fun at this camp.  Were they dropped off for the summer or did their parents just abandon their awful kids in the woods to go Lord of the Flies?

Alan is detestable on pretty much every level but strangely sympathetic as the bullying becomes more severe.  I think to a certain extent you’re not really meant to side with Alan.  The movie is clearly trying to make him out to be a red herring for the killer’s identity (from first glimpse of the killer it is apparent it is not Alan) and Alan’s more psychotic moments are proof of that.  At his heart though it’s clear he just wants to fit in and maybe he wouldn’t be such an asshole if people wouldn’t treat him like human garbage constantly.

Alan’s character is a counterpoint to Angela in the original film.  We sided with Angela instantly, she was timid and shy, people had no reason to be cruel to her but were anyway.  Not to mention we knew about Angela’s traumatic past, we know nothing about who Alan is.  Ultimately I think the film spends too much time trying to shoe-horn Angela into the film.  I understand Robert Hiltzik’s desire to find a way to do a shock ending again but nothing was going to match that first one and though he does a great job of planting seeds of doubt it’s pretty apparent that Angela is back and who she is.  As a result, Alan’s story has no beginning or resolution, he’s just this big piece of misdirection we meet mid-arc.  And I like Alan as a character, making a character so repellent and giving that to the audience as their focal point is a bold move and Michael Gibney acts the shit out of that role it just feels like the movie ends a scene too early because Alan’s story never really comes to a close.

It’s got some narrative problems and the returning actors (save Felissa Rose) are incongruosly terrible, but it’s a well-made movie.  I’m kind of bummed that Hiltzik never got Sleepaway Camp: The Reunion made (though online evidence points to the plot involving a reveal that the real Angela was still alive and was colluding with false Angela/Peter, which could’ve been a mess).  In any case, Return to Sleepaway Camp is still better than all those other sequels.

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Watch, Toss, Or Buy?

I’d say if you liked the original, give it a buy.

Where Can I Find It?

It’s out of print but you can buy it used for dirt cheap on Amazon.