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Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers

Say what you will about the original Sleepaway Camp—you can’t accuse it of lacking ambition. All writer-director Robert Hiltzik had to do to sell a movie with that title in that era was cast a bunch of teenagers in a wan Friday the 13th knock-off and splash some Karo blood around in the woods. Yet he made something dark and unique, with queer undertones: the first gender-identity horror film. The story goes that Hiltzik’s script for a follow-up was rejected by producer Jerry Silva, who thought it was too dark. Instead, he forged ahead with plans to shoot two overtly-comic sequels back-to-back in Georgia under the direction of local talent Michael A. Simpson. A 24-year-old writer named Fritz Gordon got the gig on a recommendation from U.S. distributor Nelson Entertainment.

And so two sequels were made—Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (hereafterSCII and SCIII)—that put transsexual serial killer Angela Baker back in action. In the original Sleepaway Camp, Angela was an orphan boy who had been forced to live as a girl, but in Gordon’s narrative, Angela is all woman, having undergone a sex-change operation in the interim. Pamela Springsteen (yes, the Boss’s sister) plays her as a cheerfully-extroverted prude with a mean streak working under an assumed surname as a camp counsellor who remedies moral transgressions by “sending campers home” in a variety of ways, many of them involving blunt-force trauma. Both films are populated by an assortment of 20-somethings playing teenagers, with fading stars—Walter Gotell (known for multiple appearances in James Bond films) in SCII and Michael J. Pollard (an Oscar nominee for Bonnie and Clyde) in SCIII—making what amount to extended cameo appearances as ineffectual adult supervision for the hormone-addled supporting characters.

While both movies are unimaginative no-budget crapfests, SCII is the better film by a good margin, simply because it looks like everyone involved had a pretty good time making it. The sense of fun is infectious, even if the execution is lousy. Angela clocks her first victim over the head just five minutes in, so there is no suspense about the identity of the killer. From there, SCII lurches along from scene to disconnected scene, sprewing clichés drawn from slasher movies and teen sex comedies, interspersing gore, comic skits, female nudity, and pretend sex, along with explicit homages to pop culture of the time—not just horror icons Jason, Freddy Krueger, and Leatherface, but also “Brat Pack” actors who have characters (Mare, Demi, Judd, Emilio, et al) named after them. The overarching aesthetic seems to be ‘1980s sitcom,’ including the equivalent of a clips show partway through: Angela has a bad dream that involves recapitulating earlier scenes in slo-mo, as the filmmakers struggled to fill their contractually demanded 80 minutes of screentime.

Springsteen is OK in the central role, though no one who saw these films could be surprised to hear they vaulted her into a successful career in a completely different field. (She’s known these days as a photographer.) But the MVP of SCII is Valerie Hartman, a blonde with ’80s hair and a sexually-assertive attitude who seems to be alone among the cast members in understanding exactly what sort of movie she’s appearing in. As Ally, Hartman has three nude scenes, two of them full-on sex scenes—a challenge she embraced without self-consciousness, despite the fact that her partner seems to spend one of those scenes vigorously licking her navel. Unfortunately, her character’s exhibitionism codes her as a slut, which leads to the requisite mean-spirited scene in which Angela shoves her face into a latrine full of, yes, shit and leeches, which are lovingly depicted in her death. (“This is a good example,” opines Gordon on the accompanying audio commentary track, “of a girl getting what she deserves.”) At that point the film is barely halfway over, and none of the surviving characters is half as lively as Ally was.

Still, the perfunctory Sleepaway Camp II is a white-knuckle thrill ride compared to the lethargic Sleepaway Camp III. Everyone was tired by the time they shot this sequel—Gordon wrote the script during the two weeks the previous film was shooting—and it shows on screen. The picture opens with a bizarrely out-of-place pre-credits vignette in which Angela runs down a victim on the streets of Atlanta by chasing her into an alley with a Mack truck. The encounter is ridiculously off-message for a Sleepaway Camp movie. Sure, it explains how the by-now-notorious serial killer sneaks into yet another summer camp (identity theft!), but the last thing these movies need is more backstory—not to mention what must have been by Sleepaway Camp standards an insanely expensive siphoning of money away from everything else in the production.

Once the film actually arrives at Camp New Horizon, it introduces two separate groups of campers: the good kids and the delinquents, named after characters from The Brady Bunch and West Side Story, respectively. Among the key players are Riff, a black kid who likes hip hop and movies filled with “tits and blood,” and Cindy, a Southern-fried racist who calls him “a dirty nigger.” Unpleasant, yes, but it’s an excuse for Angela, later on, to hoist Cindy up to the top of a flagpole, then drop her 20-something feet so that she lands on her head, hard. (That’s how this movie thinks.) Also on hand, for some reason, is the father of one of Angela’s previous victims, as well as mild-mannered redhead Marcia (Tracy Griffith, half-sister of Melanie), who becomes the Final Girl in time to join a limp catfight with Angela at the climax.

Like the previous film, SCIII features gore effects by Bill “Splat” Johnson, but when the movie got tagged with an X rating by the MPAA, most of his work hit the cutting-room floor. That’s a genuine shame, because the vim and vigor of a movie like this is found in its gruesome punctuation. The most graphic scene that remains in the R-rated version is probably the one where Angela shoves a lit firecracker up a sleeping camper’s nose and blows his face off. Most of the death scenes have been trimmed to get a rating, and violent grace notes, such as a woman’s head getting shredded in the blades of a lawnmower and a boy’s arms getting torn from his torso by a pickup truck, are missing entirely.

Outside of those kinds of so-so gore effects, the Sleepaway Camp series remains of interest, barely, due to its protagonist’s outsider status. It’s a shame that Gordon and Simpson didn’t have the wherewithal back in 1988 to do something really interesting with the franchise, like cast an actual transgender actress or at least attempt to explore Angela’s internal life in some emotionally credible way. Instead, they mostly paint her as an overly chipper sex- and fun-loathing scold with a special contempt for women. At one point in SCIII, the filmmakers see fit to strip one of their young actresses to the waist and have her roll around in a tent with Herman (Pollard), a counsellor easily twice her age. Although the predatory Herman is clubbed to death with nary a word to shame him, Angela can’t help berating the girl’s semi-nude corpse: “It’s a good thing you’re dead, because in a couple of years your breasts would have been sagging something horrible.” That’s not my idea of a good time, but at least these movies get something right: they accurately capture the feeling of being stranded for a few hours with terrible, terrible assholes.

THE BLU-RAY DISC
Though Scream Factory’s Blu-ray editions of Sleepaway Camp IIand III aren’t quite stellar, they’re plenty good enough for these films, offering generally clean 1.85:1, 1080p transfers from elements in good condition. Print damage, both positive and negative, is visible but not distracting, and the films have a grainy look appropriate to their era and the conditions of their making. Bitrates are similarly generous, set to an identical 36 Mbps for the pair. If anything, Sleepaway Camp III looks a little better than II; it features a lot of daylight exteriors that are vividly presented, with deep autumnal colours providing a rich backdrop. The color overall seems more saturated, too, especially in interior shots, where Sleepaway Camp II can be a bit drab. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA mono tracks are adequate but nothing to write home about; the movies’ mixes are not especially demanding, though some of the dialogue recording has a somewhat hollow-sounding midrange that had me pressing the subtitle key once or twice. The heavy-metal songs that play under the credits sound OK.

The discs recycle the 2002 DVD releases’ audio commentary with director Michael A. Simpson, screenwriter Fritz Gordon, and superfan John Klyza, who runs the officially-recognized fansite for the Sleepaway Camp franchise and is almost as interested in breasts as he is in the films themselves. These yakkers are about as informative as you could hope, without a lot of dead air, and give the movies some replay value for fans as the filmmakers talk about how clever they thought they were being with an attempted takedown of slasher clichés. (“Fritz’s scripts gave us permission to laugh,” says Klyza, whose main critical theory is that these Sleepaway sequels inspired the Scream films.) Most notably, they reveal some of the their thoughts when it came to Angela’s character, whom they tried to portray as sexually confused by suggesting her latent attraction to women. I didn’t really catch it but, sure, that’s possible. More to the point, Gordon explains—with a bit too much satisfaction—that “every Sleepaway Camp has a slut that gets it toward the end.”

Special features are generous, with the new 54-minute HD documentary “A Tale of Two Sequels” presented as a two-parter split across the discs. It covers much of the same ground as the commentaries but with additional voices in the mix. Along with Simpson, participants include the films’ very articulate DP, Bill Mills, and editor, John David Allen, along with a few actors from either sequel. (Many of them seem to have faded back into obscurity in their native Georgia environs.) Springsteen, unfortunately, is nowhere to be seen. The most interesting part is probably the stretch towards the end where SCIII‘s run-in with the MPAA ratings board is discussed, and Allen laments his lack of foresight in failing to save the original film elements for the cut scenes so that they could be presented in something resembling mint condition rather than as grainy outtakes from a VHS copy of the workprint.

That’s a good segue to the very best supplement found on either of these discs: Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland includes that VHS-quality workprint in its entirety. I would actually recommend, with a straight face, that newcomers to these films watch this X-rated version of SCIII in abominable quality instead of the more pristine HD transfer. Not only are the unedited gore scenes outrageous enough to earn the movie probably an entire extra half-star, but the junky image quality is more flattering to the flick’s shitty-TV-show aesthetic. And, face it: if you’re going to spend 80 minutes watching Sleepaway Camp III, you may as well see the whole thing, even if it doesn’t look so pretty.

Other features on the Sleepaway Camp II platter: “Abandoned: The Filming Locations of Sleepaway Camp II & III“, a 15-minute tour of the now-overgrown YMCA camp where the films were shot; 13 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage (with commentary by Simpson) mainly covering make-up FX, save for some glimpses of the costume department and craft services at work; an amateurish “short film” (really, about 30 seconds’ worth of fan footage) titled “What Happened to Molly?” that belongs on YouTube, not here; a two-minute promo (up-res’d from SD to 1080i) aimed at getting video stores to stock the cassette version; and a seven-minute gallery of production photos, promotional stills, and other ephemera.

Filling out the Sleepaway Camp III disc are a whopping eight minutes of behind-the-scenes footage covering the garbage-truck sequence, again with commentary by Simpson; 19 minutes of deleted scenes (basically, this is all of the kill sequences from the workprint strung together at their full length, and thus duplicates material that appears elsewhere); another three-minute VHS promo, this one basically one-liners from the film playing over heavy-metal music; a four-minute stills gallery; and another one-minute fan-service short, this time with actor Mark Oliver appearing as his character Tony from the film in the present day.

Finally, these BDs come in packages with reversible cover imagery, the florid new art by Nathan Thomas Milliner commissioned specially by Scream Factory backed with cheesy promo images from the original releases, which had very little to do with the films they were promoting but have fairly high nostalgia value for anyone who spent a lot of time perusing rental shelves in the late 1980s.