Collins’ Crypt: The Funky History Of The SLEEPAWAY CAMP Franchise

BC takes a look at one of the weirdest slasher franchises ever.

By 1983, most of the classic traditional slashers had come and gone, especially the ones that spawned their own franchises*. The '70s produced a few entries (Black Christmas, Halloween) but it wasn't until the success of Friday the 13th that the sub-genre's floodgates really opened, to the point where there wasn't a single period in 1981 where you would be unable to find a masked maniac in a theater somewhere. It started to die down by late 1982, and by 1983 there would only be a couple of qualifying films in theaters. One was The House on Sorority Row, which was surprisingly successful given its late-comer status (and weak-ass lack of chase scenes!), though it never got an official sequel, just the obligatory '00s remake that every other horror movie from the '80s was given. The other big one was Sleepaway Camp, which was a minor hit but a video smash, eventually spawning three and a half sequels (I'll explain) and a remake in the works. Believe it or not, Angela Baker ranks among the top ten prolific movie killers - if you count The Survivor, she's got more movies than Ghostface and as many as Norman Bates.

But it's been a pretty wonky journey to get to that point, as every sequel has been met with some degree of controversy, two of them sat on shelves forever (one released - twice! - in an unfinished state), and there are seemingly two ongoing storylines. Imagine if Connery had continued making unofficial Bond films after Never Say Never Again while MGM continued with Moore, Dalton, etc, and that's kind of what the Sleepaway Camp series is like in its small-scale way. Oddly they're all pretty consistent in tone - some more than others, but they're all more humor-driven than most slasher films, which is what makes them an acquired taste for horror fans - some love them wholeheartedly, others (like myself) think they're okay at best. Though perhaps I'd feel differently if a) I had seen them when I was younger (a common theme among fans is that they saw them at an early age, whereas I only saw even the original in its entirety in my late 20s) and b) I hadn't had the original's twist spoiled for me long before I actually saw the movie.

That said, the first film is the best, and by a longshot as far as I'm concerned. The dual twist (the killer's identity, and, the uh, REAL identity) was a fine way to give the film some personality, much needed since it was so late to the party and also one of the many summer camp slashers, of which we'd already had several. By the time Sleepaway Camp hit theaters in 1983, audiences had seen the first three Friday the 13ths (only the first two were at camps, yes), The Burning and Madman - the twist was a terrific way to make sure people remembered which one was which down the road. And it needed it, because the plot required that the camp remained open for the duration of the narrative (several days), so many of the death scenes had to look like accidents, limiting the appeal for gorehounds for its first 50 minutes or so. This was well into the more competitive era for these movies, where your plot and setting took a backseat to your ability to provide new ways of killing horny teens (and get as much grue past the MPAA as possible), so the fact that writer/director/producer Robert Hiltzik opted to handicap himself by refraining from getting too crazy with his murders (until the final reel or so anyway) was kind of bold.

However, in that third act he more than made up for it - knife down the back, a beheading, a VERY creative use of a curling iron... this was more like it! Plus, it's offscreen but this is one of the very few slasher movies to off pre-teen kids, as Angela (Felissa Rose) hacks up four of them with a hatchet during her climactic spree. Rumor has it, this was the film that inspired Weird Al's awesome "Nature Trail To Hell," which changed the setting to a Boy Scout camp (and added 3D) but does include a description of little kids getting hacked up, something that never really happened in anything else of that era, far as I know (When A Stranger Calls is another exception, I guess, but the kids' fate is so vague it probably wouldn't even be recalled by Yankovic unless he's a secret hardcore horror fan). Even Jason refrained from murdering any prepubescent types in Jason Lives (the only time the camp was actually open in the series), so Angela's got one up on him.

Far as I know, the film's production was average, and the MPAA didn't have any trouble with it either. Perhaps the slightly goofier tone and fewer on-screen deaths than its peers (seven, as opposed to eleven in the then-most recent F13 not counting Jason himself) made the censors go easier on them, or maybe they just didn't care (they're pretty arbitrary over there, as you know). That said, various cuts were released on home video, making things confusing. For example, Anchor Bay's 2002 DVD was missing some random bits, sometimes it was just cutting down a shot of a corpse but other things missing included "The guys run across the plank and jump into the water," which isn't the sort of thing anyone but a die-hard would notice/miss. Regardless, Scream Factory's 2014 Blu was the first official uncut version released on disc in the US, with all of those minor excisions restored, and now in high def to boot.

Here's where things start getting unruly. Hiltzik wrote a script for a sequel but the money men thought it was too dark, and they wanted to expand on the original's less prominent humor, going into full blown horror-comedy territory. According to the new Blu-ray for Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, he needed money for law school, which he was more passionate about than filmmaking anyway, so rather than fight to get his version made, he signed over the rights to the title and characters and went on his way. Director Michael A. Simpson and writer Fritz Gordon apparently took a few of Hiltzik's death ideas for their film (and its followup, shot back to back with II), but otherwise created their own version of a sequel, where Angela (now played by Pamela Springsteen, Bruce's younger sister) has gotten out of an institution after receiving electro-shock therapy (and a complete sex change) and has gotten a job as a counselor at Camp Rolling Hills. People start dying immediately, but instead of going the Psycho II route of making the audience wonder if she's snapped again or if someone else is killing everyone, Simpson and Gordon do away with ambiguity - Angela is front and center, killing campers who annoy her and telling her employers that they went home. The joke wears thin, as does the narrative, which had to be stretched to hit the required 80 minute minimum, but it's a fun followup and many fans' favorite in the series (I queried Twitter the other day and all but one reply put this one at the top of their list). The MPAA paid more attention to this one, trimming a couple of the gory scenes (and their counterparts in the UK being even more harsh, excising two full minutes out), though it's been available uncut on DVD for years.

Despite the fact that after five years they couldn't come up with enough of a story to make a full feature runtime without padding it out, the decision was made to instantly go to work on a followup, which began filming about a week after Unhappy Campers wrapped. Titled Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland, the film is pretty much the same damn thing, with Angela just going to the camp (posing as one of its counselors, who she kills in downtown Atlanta - a rare journey outside of the woods for the series) and once again killing everyone who annoys her. It's the same camp (renamed and redressed to reflect the new ownership), and despite the addition of Michael J. Pollard (who is unfortunately one of the first to die) the film is kind of terrible, recycling a plot that wasn't great to begin with while also really taking a beating from the MPAA. This time they took issue with pretty much every kill in the film, some removed entirely, resulting in a dreadfully tame affair that didn't help matters any. Worse, for whatever reason the editor didn't save the trims, and according to him (on the new Blu) they were sent to a storage place that likely got rid of them after three or four years. The scenes can be seen (the Blu contains the entire workprint, in fact) but only via a VHS copy, and while I've certainly seen worse quality (F13 7: The New Blood for example) it's not good enough to be re-inserted in the film without creating a jarring viewing experience.

After that the series really got messy. A few years later, Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor began production, but Double Helix, the production company responsible for the previous sequels, went bankrupt after only a few days of shooting. Filming stopped immediately and never resumed, and the footage remained unseen until a boxed set of the films was released by Anchor Bay in 2002. The footage was presented as a bonus feature, though it seemed more significant than it was - while "40 minutes of footage" was claimed, it was actually less than 10 minutes' worth of the actual movie - they just included every take (including the slates) and alternate angles of the same action, so it was hard to even tell what the movie would be about, let alone claim it was enough to warrant trying to finish. The story eventually surfaced and was kind of interesting, involving a woman named Allison, a camper who survived one of Angela's massacres and was now plagued with dreams of murders (the ones from the other three films). She'd be ordered by her shrink to go to the area where the murders happened to see if her memories triggered anything more substantial, where she'd run into suspicious types, and occasionally find a body of someone she might have killed herself but couldn't remember. The body count would be pretty low compared to the others, and seemingly wouldn't have much humor either. Needless to say, it likely would have disappointed the series' fans, though it might have been an interesting approach to a slasher in its own right, sort of a serious version of Silent Night Deadly Night 2.

Because it was always intended to be a clip show, making up for the lack of new bodies by offering a greatest hits of kills from the others, while telling a new story that couldn't be a feature on its own, it's no surprise that someone got the idea to "finish" it. In 2012, a group of folks (who are overly defensive of their work on the IMDb) took the five or so minutes' worth of usable footage, peppered it with even more footage than was originally intended to be recycled from the first three films, and released it online to very little acclaim. I've never seen it, but the non-plant reviews paint a pretty complete picture: poorly transferred footage, zero obvious logic behind the use and ordering of the kill scenes, a new "story" that makes no sense, etc. On the new Sleepaway Camp II Blu, there's a short film from the guy who put this version together, and it's terrible/confusing, so that plus the reviews suggest to me that I never need to watch this thing - I'm simply not gung-ho enough about this franchise to bother.

That said, I agreed to host a screening of the fourth film, Return To Sleepaway Camp (which ran late, causing me to oversleep when I got home and miss a morning flight), in October of 2009.  It showed with the original (on 35mm!), a double feature that was supposed to feature Q&A with Hiltzik, who canceled earlier in the week. Was it worth missing sleep and a flight? Well, no. One of the actresses from the film (not Rose, because she demanded a hefty appearance fee to appear at a Q&A at a non-profit theater) MST3k'd the thing, making it more fun than it had any right to be, because it's kind of a terrible movie. In that same ranking I mentioned earlier, just about everyone put it last, a sad fate for the film considering its long journey to release.

You see, for a while it seemed like Return To would go the way of Survivor and never get finished. The film was shot in 2003 under the direction of Hiltzik (who hadn't made another movie in between, and unsurprisingly he hadn't improved as a filmmaker), and would ignore the previous sequels, offering a direct followup that would bring Rose back as Angela (along with Jonathan Tiersten as Ricky). However, post-production turned into a nightmare, once again due to a lack of funds, and the film took five years to get finished. The main thing holding it back seemed to be CGI effects, which is pretty much the last reason anyone wants to hear for a delay on a slasher film, but almost no one agreed that it was worth the wait. By the time the film came out in 2008, it was doubly late to the party; a delayed release for a movie that took too long to get shot in the first place. Seems history was repeating itself; just as the original came along about two years after the slasher film's peak popularity, the 2003 production was a bit overdue for the Scream-inspired slasher revival that had more or less died out by 2001, and then it had to sit around for another five years after that, when its target audience had long since given up what little excitement they had to see it. By the time it was released, it was to near total indifference; even if the film was really great it's pretty likely only die-hard Sleepaway fans would have bothered to watch it.

The ignoring of the other sequels also put a wedge in the fanbase; some were perfectly fine with ignoring them, especially with Rose and Hiltzik's involvement making Return feel more legit a followup. Others found it to be a betrayal - after all, if not for those films Sleepaway Camp would be one of the many one-and-done slasher films, no more likely to get a sequel 20 years later than Happy Birthday To Me or whatever. But the sequels' popularity helped keep the brand alive, which in turn secured funding for a part 4 (one that would get finished this time), so pretending they didn't exist seemed like a cheap shot. Unlike Halloween 5-6's goofy Man in Black/thorn plotline that was thankfully abandoned for H20, there was nothing going on in the series that needed to be undone, and it would have been easy to work in references to the other sequels and make everyone happy**. Instead, Hiltzik went out of his way to establish a different series of events than the one Unhappy Campers and Teenage Wasteland created, forever splitting the series' continuity, which wasn't exactly rock-solid to begin with. To this day, both the Hiltzik camp and the Simpson camp are threatening further films that would ignore the other guys', which will just make things more confusing if they ever get made. I am used to sequels that ignore others, but this seems to be the rare franchise that is still moving forward (however slowly) with two different timelines. At a time when everyone is trying to get its own "shared universe" thing going, it's actually kind of funny that these clowns are going out of their way to break apart something as relatively tiny as the Sleepaway Camp fanbase instead of finding a way to unify them and ultimately make more money.

Will the threatened Sleepaway Camp: Berserk (Simpson) or Sleepaway Camp Reunion (Hiltzik) ever get made? Probably not. Will the remake? More likely. Producer Jeff Katz has a script and a distributor, and is now seeking a director for the film, which will reportedly retain the original's "psychosexual" elements (though I would assume not the exact same twist, as it'd be too expected). It'd be nice if a real director made one of these things for a change (Simpson has a few other films under his belt, like the unwatchable Funland, but he's more of a producer than a director, and Hiltzik, again, has only made these two films), so hopefully they get someone experienced and/or eager to do it. The title itself is so great and tailor-made for a franchise, so it's a shame that, as far as I'm concerned, the conflicting "visions" and production troubles for the later films are more interesting than anything that's happened on-screen since we saw Angela's penis.

* 1984's Nightmare on Elm Street is a technical exception, but as it served as the gateway between traditional slashers and the more FX-laden, supernaturally driven films of the 2nd half of the decade - and was praised specifically for being more inventive than typical dead teenager movies - it really shouldn't be considered part of that pack.

** Return has a character named T.C., which is also the name of one of the characters in Sleepaway II, though he died pretty definitively in that one so it's probably just a coincidence. The name, for the record, was a reference to Tom Cruise, as all of the characters in II were named after Brat Packers and their associates. In Part III, they were named after Brady Bunch and Munster characters.

Comments