Counselor of the Week

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers

It’s been a while since we last discussed the Sleepaway Camp series with our look at the first film in the series, the eponymous Sleepaway Camp. That film, it should be noted, is a disaster, a terrible slasher film that also manages to be an awful anti-trans screed at the same time. It doesn’t really work as horror, and it absolutely doesn’t work when viewed through the lens of modern opinion. It’s just a bad movie with a shocking end scene that made (and then broke) the whole film. But because of that scene, the film went on to gross $10 Mil at the Box Office against a budget of only $350 thousand dollars. It’s hard to even imagine making a film for $350k. To have it then go on and become a sleeper (sorry) smash hit is something. If only the whole film weren’t trash upon trash upon trash.

Still, producers can never ignore a return on investment like that. Thus, five years later, the first of two back-to-back releases came out in 1988. Credit where it’s due (not that these films deserve much credit) this second film, Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, goes for a different tone and style from the first movie, verging into black comedy. But at the same time it’s crappier, dumber, and not even as gloriously violent as the first film. This is a serious step down from the previous film, and when I have to say, “well, it’s not anywhere near as good as the first Sleepaway Camp,” then you know things have gone off the rails.

This sequel starts with a group of campers gathered around a fire, telling scary stories. One of the campers, Phoebe (Heather Binion), tells a story of murders at Camp Arawak (see the events of the first film. Her story is interrupted when Angela Johnson (Pamela Springsteen), a counselor at the camp, comes to pull Phoebe away so she can go to bed. The girl resists, finishing her story despite Angela’s protestations, but then finally gets dragged off into the woods to return to her cabin. Only she never gets there because Angela kills her for being such a bad, naughty girl.

Angela plays it off, of course, saying she had to send Phoebe home because she was bad and was doing “things” with the boys. But then another camper gets “sent home”. And then another. And every time it’s Angela, killing them, hiding their bodies in an abandoned cabin out in the woods. Despite this, she gets an award for being Counselor of the Week, and the owner of the camp, Uncle John (Walter Gotell), thinks she’s doing a great job. Still, as more and more campers get “sent home”, the other campers start to wonder (especially as their numbers really start to dwindle) if they’re actually going home or if any of them will see home ever again?

As much as there is to hate about the original Sleepaway Camp (and there’s a ton, which we’ve already covered in the review of that movie) it did at least try to play up the mystery of who the killer is and what’s really going on. Yes, it led to an ending that has aged very poorly, but there was tension that led to shock, and it all did amount to something. The same cannot be said for this sequel. There is no shock, no tension, all because the killer is revealed in the first scene and we have no doubts who she is or what’s going on. Angela is just crazy and she likes killing. She might dress it up as “taking out bad children” but, end of the day, she just enjoys killing.

Knowing who the killer is doesn’t always lead to a bad film. The HalloweenThe franchise that both set the standard for Slasher horror and, at the same time, defied every convention it created, Halloween has seen multiple time lines and reboots in its history, but one thing has remained: Michael Myers, the Shape that stalks Haddonfield. and Nightmare on Elm StreetThe brain-child of director Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street was his answer to the glut of Slasher films that were populating the multiplex. His movie featured an immortal character, Freedy, with a powerset like none other, reshaping the expectations for Slasher movies to come. films managed to crank out a few watchable movies where you knew who the killer was and still enjoyed the bloodbath they left in their wake. But this film doesn’t really know how to film its kills so they’re interesting or enjoyable. By and large the kills all amount to Angela finding someone, coming up to them with some device, and then stabbing or drilling or setting them on fire. There is variety to the kills, don’t get me wrong, but the issue isn’t the repetition; it’s the fact that we never see any of it. Angela will go in, the murder happens just out of frame, and then we move on. No fun, no release.

Slasher films, more than anything, thrive on their kills. That means you have to actually give us kills that scare us in some capacity. Angela does not strike an imposing figure, either in personality or scale. Her being able to kill kids should be shocking, but it never is, in part because the surprise of it is ruined early and handled so poorly. But time and again we then have Angela go in for a kill and we don’t see it. A girl getting stabbed by a drill should be a visceral thing that makes us cringe, but since we don’t see the drill going in, or any meat being grinded, it doesn’t play. Same for the girl that gets burned alive, the kids that get stabbed, and so on. None of these kills have any impact, any meaty, bloody fun with their sequences, and they all fall flat.

The blame can be hung on the budget. The film was made for $465,000 which, while higher than the first film, is still a meager amount. As I noted above it’s hard to imagine making a film for less than $1 Mil, even back in the 1980s, and the results here clearly illustrate why. You don’t have the money to do good horror effects, not without getting really creative (and really cheap and silly). Hell, The Evil Dead was filmed for about $400,000 and the only way they could make their budget work was filming out in the middle of nowhere with no-name actors and barely any tech at all. And, as if this even had to be stated, Sleepaway Camp II is no The Evil Dead.

We can thus lay the rest of the blame for this film at the feet of director Michael A. Simpson. When you have a low budget you need a team creative enough to work around the limitations. While Sleepaway Camp II feels glossy and well produced for a camp comedy, and that’s clearly where all the money was spent, it doesn’t understand the process of making horror at all. Simpson, in short, doesn’t have the creative chops to get good horror out of his small budget, not in the same way that Sam Raimi could in that same era. The production team went for gloss titillation over horror scares, which feels like the wrong direction to go for a horror film. You’ll see plenty of breasts, over and over, but not once is there a horror scare in sight.

Many consider this film to be a black comedy, and I even used that descriptor above. Perhaps that was what the creative team was going for, with a camp performance from lead actress Springsteen. But for a black comedy to work there has to be, you know, comedy, and Sleepaway Camp II isn’t funny at all. Hell, it isn’t fun or funny, to be honest, but it does fail to deliver anything like a laugh during its runtime. It’s staid, it’s expected, it’s going through the motions, but it lacks the energy, or subversive charms, to actually earn any kind of comedy (dark or otherwise). It feels like calling it a comedy only works because you can’t call it a horror film. It’s not scary.

This film is dire; there’s no other way to put it. It’s a long, slow, boring slog to get through and, frankly, if I wasn’t watching it for this site I might have stopped it at the first commercial break (I watched it on Amazon Freevee and, sadly, couldn’t skip the ads which only made the experience even worse). This is one of the last fun, and least scary, horror films I’ve seen in some time, and that’s a pretty low bar for this movie to squeak through. I have nothing nice or kind to say about this film as it’s just bad. And, as an added horrible bonus, we get to watch the third film soon, shot back-to-back with this one by the same production team. That will be an absolute treat…