30 August 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: MUSTY OLD CAMP

Making the inevitable sequel to Sleepaway Camp turned out to be a rather acrimonious and challenging affair, involving original writer-director Robert Hiltzik being cut out of his own creation, with his somewhat more expansive vision for the series being turned into a pair of direct-to-video cheapies filmed in one burst of production and released in 1988 and 1989. The first of these was Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers, and while I can't imagine that after a five-year gap, the Sleepaway Camp brand name was all that valuable, the people responsible for continuing its legacy still managed to find a way to fuck it up. Where the original film boasted an unexpectedly sharp screenplay buoyed by legitimate (by slasher standards) characters, undone only by the amateurish craftsmanship of a team of untried filmmakers, Unhappy Campers is... bad. Really bad.

It's a throwback to an earlier age of slasher filmmaking, one that must have seemed tottering and decrepit back in 1988 (and perhaps suggests why it was doomed to an ignoble video premiere). Nothing paranormal happens: just a group of Expendable Meat getting picked off one by one in a series of outlandish murders. And already we see a primary point of difference between this film and the first Sleepaway Camp, in which each of the deaths was motivated by a particular happening in the plot, and most of the cast ended up alive in the end. Here, there's barely a single named character - and a couple of characters who never even got names, at least not until after their death - who makes it all the way to the credits.

It's not possible to describe the plot of Unhappy Campers in anything but the flimsiest manner without spoiling the hell out of Sleepaway Camp, so I'd recommend that anyone who has any thought at all to seeing the 1983 film should probably turn away right now. For the rest of you, let's push on: the sequel opens with one of the most venerable tropes of the "summer camp slasher" sub-sub-genre: a campfire retelling of the events of the first movie. In this case, we find that nearly everyone has heard some version of the horrible tale of Peter "Angela" Baker and his/her massacre at Camp Arawak some years ago. I say "some" because the film isn't completely clear on this point: not only does it flat-out contradict the continuity of the first movie (suggesting that the opening scene happened ten years prior to the rest, not eight), it's not even secure in its own continuity. At one point later in the film, a camper mentions that he almost went to Arawak that year, but couldn't afford to; yet Angela was already one of the younger campers in the first movie, while she's a counselor now. Which either means that she's too young to be a counselor, or the other guy is too old to be a camper. But since Unhappy Campers seems hellbent on giving us campers who are plainly much too old to be there (again, in distinct contrast to the first), it's probably the wisest course of action not to dwell on it very long.

Where was I? Oh, right, they're sharing the story of what happened to Angela after the movie. The only girl around the campfire, Phoebe (Heather Binion), and one of the two young boys whose names I never got straight - I think this one was Charlie (Justin Nowell) - seem to have the most knowledge: after being treated for her psychotic problems, Peter was given a sex-change operation, and released to the world, a well-adjusted member of society. There are plenty of rumors about where she is now - and dammit, but they can't recall her name as a woman - but nobody really knows anything. Speaking of the devil, along comes Angela herself, now going under the surname "Johnson", and played by Pamela Springsteen, the younger sister of some local New Jersey rocker, which I assume is the reason she was cast. Angela is none to pleased to find Phoebe consorting with the menfolk, and all but bodily drags her back to the cabin. Except that they never quite get that far: sick of the girl's backtalk and perceived lack of camp-positive enthusiasm, Angela beats her in the head with a log and cuts out her tongue. Cue credits.

I'm going to share a little scenario with you, and you can decide whether it appeals to you or not: a camper says or does something that violates Angela's strict, peppy excitement about what makes for a great camp experience (and since the campers are all in their 20s, they do quite a few things to piss her off); she yells at them and then pulls them into a secluded place; she then kills them; the next day, when the camp's director Uncle John (Walter Gotell) and head counselor TC (Brian Patrick Clarke) wonder where that camper disappeared to, Angela cheerfully says that she sent them home for poor conduct. John and TC shake their heads in a comical, "Oh, that Angela!" manner, and tell her not to do it again.

Now, I hope you found that mini-drama compelling and rife with potential, because that is the only goddamn thing that happens in the 79 minutes of Unhappy Campers, and it happens something like six times. There is absolutely no story to speak of: the plot consists of absolutely nothing but "camper X pisses off Angela and then dies". Not at their most barbarically straightforward did the Friday the 13th movies manage such a rarefied state: this is about presenting teenagers' violent deaths, pure and simple, without context, consequence, or anything even remotely approaching terror. I have to be honest, there's a certain lizard-like, unevolved part of my brain that is quite in awe of this kind of unabashedly honest treatment of the material. We all know that the only point of a slasher movie is the death scenes, so why bother putting anything else in the film?

Say what else one will about the movie - I will be doing so momentarily - but at least Unhappy Campers avoids one of the great traps of the slasher film, the draggy first act. Its plot all but guarantees that it whips along with a death nearly every ten minutes, so that no matter what else is true, you'll never be bored. My notes for these slasher reviews usually consist of the characters who die, the weapon used to kill them, and what minute of the running time they die (or their dead body is first seen). Here's what those notes looked like for this film, with the character names removed so as to leave some suspense:

1. Tongue cut out, 5 min
2. Burned, 19 min
3. Burned, 20 min
4. Drilled, 26 min
5. Gloved, 36 min (in this scene, two kids dress up as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees to scare Angela. It backfires.)
6. Chainsaw, 37 min
7. Stabbed, put in toilet, 48 min
8. Garrote, 53 min
9. Stabbed, 54 min
10. Acid in face, 64 min
11. Decapitated, 66 min
12. Found dead, 69 min
13. 73 min
14. 73 min
15. 73 min
16. 73 min
17. 73 min (it all happened so fast I couldn't take proper notes)
18. Stabbed, 75 min

The longest gap in between deaths is all of eleven minutes; and since the death that ends that relative drought takes a really long time (in my notes, I had to erase 46 and 47, because the victim just wouldn't die - she was the film's Designated Bitch, so it makes sense), that makes the film seem much more sedate than is actually the case.

That's quality of a sort, and if your main reason for seeing a movie is a big quantity of corpses, then Unhappy Campers is right up your alley. It at any rate explains why the film seems to possess a fairly reasonable cheering section, given the size of '80s slasher film fandom. On the other hand, those deaths are achieved through fairly shoddy effects - the decapitation in particular looks like something that high school students would have put together - which in my opinion goes a fairly long way to negating the effectiveness of the deaths. Certainly, nothing here is a patch on the marvelous "arrow through the neck" death in the first one.

For those of us whose justification for slasher films lies anywhere else (e.g. mine, which is to bask in the '80s signifiers and sometimes to play amateur sociologist), Unhappy Campers provides a long, rough haul, even with its fleet running time. The problems are all over the map, but I think the biggest one is Pamela Springsteen, who delivers a positively unwatchable performance as Angela, not nearly gaudy enough to be fun as camp, but clumsy and unconvincing and shrill and oh God, I have seen plenty of bad performances in cheap horror films, but none that were as hard to endure as this one. And she's in nearly every single scene. It's hell. Not that anyone in the cast does much better; it's just exactly what you'd expect from a horror DTV flick from 1988.

Then there is the issue of tone: while the first film nailed an extremely tricky switch from goofy, bloody fun to rancid nastiness at the end, Unhappy Campers stays goofy throughout; but it wants to be vicious. Hence the protracted death by drowning in an outhouse, or the shot of two kids with their eyes plucked out; moments that I suspect are supposed to be terrifying and disturbing, but just come off as stupid. Director and producer Michael A. Simpson isn't very good at either of his jobs, I think that's the problem; just like Sleepaway Camp, this film appears to have been put together by people who didn't know what the hell they were doing, but at least that film had a script and cast to compensate a little. This has neither, and so the fumbled execution of just about every scene is impossible to ignore. Anyone can film a slasher murder; it takes someone special to film a slasher murder and make it seem tossed-off, boring. And without a narrative, that's a whole lot of boring murders to contend with.

At the lowest level, as trash, there are a few meager offerings to be had. Two of the actresses, Valerie Hartman and Susan Marie Snyder, spend a fair amount of time showing off their breasts, and they are both quite pleasing in that capacity; and the sim-sex scenes are of unusually convincing quality. Jesus H. Christ, when the best thing you can say about a slasher film is that it's like a good porno, you've run out of nice things to say. Not one thing about this film wasn't done better elsewhere, anyway, and if it's not among the very worst of the slasher boom, that's only because it's too damn boring to be absolutely stupid.

Body Count: As outlined above, a whopping 18, which if I am not much mistaken is the largest body count I have personally seen in any slasher outside of the Friday the 13th series.

Reviews in this series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)

1 comment:

KingKubrick said...

This film duped me into renting it when I was a young man solely from that cover with the jason mask and Freddy glove. You pretty much got it's number dead on. It sucked then and it sucks now.