Sleepaway Camp Trilogy: A Retrospective

I have never been to summer camp. Nor did I ever want to be. The thought of being forced to socialize with other children when I was already part of forced socialization the other 10 months of the year was a no-brainer to me. Nor do I think I missed the experience. However, I imagine if I were one of those kids, the last thing I would want is for a homicidal maniac to kill me. Mainly because I swore or did something else “naughty.” Well, the kids at Camp Arawak, Rolling Hills, and New Horizons weren’t so lucky. For us, though, it was a bloody good time.

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Plot: Campers at Camp Arawak begin to die mysteriously, especially if they tease an overly shy female camper (Felissa Rose).

Review: The original Sleepaway Camp vastly differs from its two predecessors. While they were borderline black comedies, this was a serious flick, a mystery that seemed to be a cross of Friday the 13th and Black Christmas. What strikes you watching this movie is, yes, its low budget, but the effects are amazing. The movie looks like a million bucks, and the camera lovingly lingers on the carnage because it shows so damn good. My favourite is the kid who drowns under the canoe.

Another credit to the movie is the cast. Often, in these teen slashers, the adolescents are played by twenty-somethings – it doesn’t look convincing. This movie featured actors in their mid-teens, bringing a verisimilitude that these films often lack. Praise especially needs to be heaped on Felissa Rose, who is completely convincing as the wallflower. You can’t help but feel bad for her – her big doe eyes just lend to sympathy.

This movie has one of the most infamous endings in film history. I won’t spoil it if you haven’t been fortunate enough to see this movie, but it’s something. There’s an intelligence and thought behind this movie while still delivering the kills and gore you demand. I will say that this movie isn’t for everyone, and don’t think you’ll get a cute or watered-down PG flick. There’s some stuff going on in this movie that would get today’s overly sensitive society up in arms.

Sleepaway Camp is a classic for a reason – I can’t think of a better movie in the slasher genre. Great suspense, interesting characters and a decent body camp. The only criticism I may have is that the soundtrack didn’t make much of an impression on me. That’s not inconsequential, but this film has so much going on that I still highly recommend it.

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)

Plot: Camp Counsellor Angela Baker (Pamala Springsteen) goes on a murder spree at Camp Rolling Hills

Review: If you were a big fan of the first Sleepaway Camp movie, this is a vast departure – I could see some fans of the first movie not being impressed with the second. As mentioned above, it’s a black comedy more than a horror flick. To those naysayers, all I have to say is I don’t think they could have gone in a different direction. After the first film, going down the same serious pathway would have been boring. Instead, they went in another direction, and it’s a blast.

Most of that has to be credited to Pamala Springsteen (yes, the Boss’ sister). She is so energetic and downright cheerful while conducting her murder and mayhem, it’s hard not to root for her, even though she’s doing terrible things. Part of the charm is she usually has something funny to say to her victims – I loved how she told the pothead to say no to drugs before setting her fire. The hilarious thing, though, is she always seems genuinely disappointed and depressed, even though she’s doing these horrible things. The Boss’ sis didn’t seem to have a long movie career, but I wish she had done more.

I would say the effects aren’t as impressive as the first film, but the body count goes way, way up. The kill in an outhouse was just plain disgusting – I won’t get into it, but man, that one was hard to watch, even though I hated the character being killed. Unfortunately, there were also scenes where the murdered teens were blinking or seen breathing – it’s unfortunate, but in this sort of film, you kind of don’t care.

This movie clearly knew what it was and what the viewer would want – there’s no nuance or peculiarities like the series’ first entry. Instead, this is like a bludgeon from a hammer wielded by a slight, overly-happy grinning lunatic. I won’t say I enjoyed it more than the first or the third film, but it undeniably is a hell of a good time.

Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989)

Plot: Angela (Pamala Springsteen) returns to inflict more carnage, this time disguised as an underprivileged camper.

Review: Of the three first movies, it seems people don’t care for the third entry the most. I get it. It’s a continuation of the second movie in both theme and story. Whereas the second film took the series in a whole new direction, this one doesn’t add anything. It’s just Pamela walking around, doing her thing.

However, there’s still value to this film. Firstly, it contains one of my favourite lines in any film. Angela goes to camp with high hopes that the other campers won’t be a bunch of douchebags, and within moments, she’s proven wrong. Lamenting her crushed hopes, she utters, “Why did I think this year would be any different?” I love it. It’s a bit of self-referential acknowledgment from the film that they’re going to do the same damn thing as the previous flick. That sort of self-realization is always endearing to me.

Then there’s the number of campers. In the first two entries, there are a ton of campers, and many of them end up dead – it’s hard to keep track. In this one, there are 15 in total – 12 campers and 3 counsellors. Perfect. I know everyone getting killed without needing to rewind to see who the hell is who. Give me a smaller cast in these types of movies any day.

Pamela Springsteen is still outstanding, and I love how she now sneaks into the camp as a camper, even though she’s clearly not 17 (another wink from the movie). I found the two “good guy” leads very solid and more interesting than the previous movies in the series. You still have your kills and Angela being brutal (my favourite being ripping a clueless idiot’s arms off), but I liked the characters in 3 more than 2.

This movie does have its warts. Again, there’s the blinking/breathing problem that you had in two, and the movie can get monotonous as you wait for Angela to decide to kill whichever camping group she’s in. I had a blast in parts 2 and 3, though, buoyed by Springsteen’s charismatic performances and both movie’s naked determination to be exactly what they are, not trying to pretend otherwise.

In Conclusion

Sleepaway Camp isn’t Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It doesn’t feature a killer in an iconic wardrobe or a catchy soundtrack that is legendary to film audiences. However, you won’t find many better trilogies for the slasher sub-genre it sits in (teenagers going to camp to be killed). I love how they were bold with the first movie and equally bold to go in a different direction for parts 2 and 3. That type of innovation is missing in today’s cookie-cutter horror genre of jump scares and no blood, nudity or thrills. Give me Pamela Springsteen quipping goofy humour while chopping up annoying teens any day over today’s critical horror darlings that do nothing for 90 minutes other than make me yearn to watch something else.