09 September 2009

SUMMER OF BLOOD: SAME AS IT EVER WAS

The direct-to-video sequel to a direct-to-video sequel; ah, the '80s! How have we survived 19 years without you?

To be completely fair, Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland doesn't really represent a drop in quality from Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers, for the unanswerable reason that the two films were made at essentially the same time by the same production team, with the same lead actress on several of the same sets. So it oughtn't come as a surprise that Teenage Wasteland (an indignity on par with naming one of the innumerable Jason Voorhees adventures Friday the 13th: I'd Love To Turn You On) is more or less the same as its immediate forebear. Oh, there are some variations within the story, of course, but the nugget of the two films is essentially identical: crazy Angela Baker (Pamela Springsteen) manages to sneak her way into a summer camp, and kills off everyone who doesn't show the proper camp spirit, that is to say, everyone. Which, now that I'm actually thinking about it, doesn't really mesh all that well with her personality as developed in the first Sleepaway Camp, but slasher franchises in general are not noted as hothouses for deeply nuanced character development.

So, what's the pretext for this one? It's a year after Angela killed pretty much everyone at Camp Rolling Hills in upstate New York, and a pair of dippy ex-hippies - Herman (Michael J. Pollard) and Lily (Sandra Dorsey) - have taken on the blood-soaked ruins to engage in a liberal social experiment that just happens to represent a nice chance to line their own pockets. This is Camp New Horizons, which seeks to assemble an equal number of privileged and low-income teenagers, on the assumption that class consciousness will just melt away when everyone spends some time together in the woods. Like any good psychopath, Angela can't wait to get back to the old killing grounds, and she arranges this in the very opening of the film, even before we've heard of "Camp New Horizons". A horribly stereotyped Noo Yawk chick named Maria (Kashina Kessler) wakes up one summer morning and yells angrily to her mother that she's going to camp, and her mother angrily yells to be quiet. This moment of urban domesticity over, Maria gets in her New Horizons shirt (giving us one of the very small doses of nudity in a film otherwise largely devoid of the signature tits 'n gore that are the common or garden variety slasher film's raison d'être), and schleps herself off to the bus. Or taxi. It's not made clear and it doesn't have to be, because she's just barely outside when a garbage truck starts barrelling down on her, and while this first seems just silly, it quickly becomes clear that the truck driver is aiming to run over our Maria, which is still silly, but at least it isn't like people in New York just randomly almost get hit by garbage trucks every day. It's no surprise to us who's driving the truck, and eventually Angela corners Maria in an alley, bops her on the head, and tosses her in the compactor. With either a bad wig or a worse hairstyle mimicking Maria's, Angela is ready to take over the much younger woman's place at camp, ready to once again spread her unique brand of pep.

Our introduction to the Expendable Meat is given by Tawny (Randi Layne), a local newscaster who is pretty much exactly as clichéd as Maria was. First introducing Herman (who is desperately non-committal) and Lily (who is just desperate), she gives us a walk-through of the kids, and let's just buzz through them really fast, because there's not a dime's worth of difference between any of them, anyways: Cindy (Kim Wall), Bobby (Haynes Brooke), Greg (Chung Yen Tsay), Marcia (Tracy Griffith), Peter (Jarrett Beal), Jan (Stacie Lambert); these are the rich kids. Riff (Daryl Wilcher), Anita (Sonya Maddox), Tony (Mark Oliver), A-Rab (Jill Terashita), Snowboy (Kyle Holman); these are the poor kids. And "Maria", who seems, as Tawny notes, a bit old. "Drugs" deadpans Angela. And in no time at all, she's managed to kill off inquisitive Tawny by selling her a bag of Comet cleanser, under the grounds that it's really cocaine. Not ever having snorted any major brand of cleansing powder, I cannot say if one would really die as quickly as Tawny seems to, but it seems implausible.

By the way, do you see what they did there? The owners are named for The Munsters, while the rich kids are named for The Brady Bunch and the poor kids are named for West Side Story. This, to me, has the distinct tang of a trick a screenwriting trick to keep the characters [sic] separate during the drafting phase, only Fritz Gordon didn't give enough of a shit to take it out when the thing actually went before the cameras. And bless him for it, really, because even through there wasn't a moment when I wasn't wondering why the hell I was watching the Bradys vs. the Jets in Bizarro World, at least it was easy to keep track of the Meat's names, and that is something rarely true in a slasher movie of such eminently disposable caliber as Teenage Wasteland.

Oh, and there's one last cog in the wheel to mention: counselor Barney (Cliff Brand), a cop whose son was killed the year prior in the Camp Rolling Hills Massacre (I swear he said John, but Sean was the one who had a cop dad in Unhappy Campers). He's come to help support the utopian vision of Camp New Horizons because, gosh darn it, he never did show his own son the love and pro-camp enthusiasm that he wanted to, and now it's too late. But oh, if he ever gets his hands on that Angela Baker...! And I must give the filmmakers this much credit, they did different things with Barney than I anticipated they would.

With everybody neat and pretty, it's on with the show: each of the three counselors takes four of the kids a separate direction into the woods for a two-night survival camping-a-thon. Angela ends up with Jan, Peter and Snowboy in Herman's group; Herman turns out to be a bit of a chickenhawk, so he and Jan are the first to go (proving once again that Have Sex and Die is a more important slasher rule than Be Black and Die; African-American Peter doesn't go until a solid five minutes later). She then hops from camp to camp, concocting an elaborate web of lies secure in the knowledge that since none of the counselors really trust each other, nobody will think to check up on her story until they're all dead.

And that points to one of the most surprising truths about Teenage Wasteland: it's actually a touch better than Unhappy Campers, no matter how little right the two films have to be any different whatsoever. Now, we are talking about extremely modest differences here, mind you, but enough modest differences can add up to a whole lot of difference at the end of the day. So let's start with the one I used as as segue: the plot is a whole lot less moronic in the third film. Okay, so "twentysomething psycho who was (theoretically) everywhere in the news uses a shitty wig to disguise herself as a seventeen-year-old, and gets away with it because 'there weren't any pictures of her', if you can believe that bullshit" is a pretty moronic hook for a film, but you're either going to accept the basic concept of a film or you're not. And once we get over that rough patch (it takes about 10 minutes out of the film's 79), the rest of the script is not remotely as contrived as Unhappy Campers. There, we had to believe that for three days running, Angela was able to convince the camp owner and head counselor that she was sending girls home en masse, without them ever thinking to check up on her. Here, she only has to keep a lie rolling through three isolated groups that don't expect to have any contact with each other in the first place, and she gets to exploit Lily and Barney's natural expectation that Herman is a wretched fuck-up.

There are two other points at which Teenage Wasteland is a marked step up: first, Pamela Springsteen is not remotely as awful as she was in that film, which makes not a damn bit of sense whatsoever: she was being directed by the same man literally days after wrapping the preceding film, so it's not likely that there was any lengthy soul-searching attempt to figure out a better approach to Angela than the one she used last time. Whatever happened, it's almost like watching a different person in the role: she's not remotely as stiff, and her line readings feel like an actual human being speaking.

Closely related to Springsteen's improvement, the snarky dark comedy that infects nearly every frame of the movie works a great deal better here than it did the last time. There, it was just unpleasant to see Angela toss unfunny one-liners at people as she murdered them in exceedingly nasty ways. Here - because Springsteen delivers the lines better, and perhaps because the deaths aren't as graphic - the unfunny one-liners are much easier to appreciate on the simple level at which they are offered: proof that this Angela cat is loony, but good-natured about her lunacy and not a raving monster. The film is hardly "funny", something its fans try to claim (and yes, Teenage Wasteland does have fans, not as many as Unhappy Campers, but still more than a resoundingly cheap years-later sequel to a genuinely interesting early slasher ought to have), but it's not as grotesque about as the last one.

Oh, but the blood; and the nudity; there are very few things a slasher film needs to do to actually succeed as a slasher film, and Teenage Wasteland manages not to do them, even in the uncut version available on DVD. The fact of that matter is that, in 1989 (the Year That Killed The Slasher, I like to call it), the well was pretty well dried up, and you could start to see horribly prim, bloodless slasher like this with some degree of regularity that would have been unfathomable six or seven years prior. They're not very fun to watch, even if they have things like marginally more sensible narratives and superior lead performances. In this respect, at least, I can support the consensus that Teenage Wasteland is the weakest of the series: take away the grue and all you really have is a plotless riff about a crazy girl who doesn't like cynical people. It's less interesting than I just made it sound.

Body Count: 16, a touch smaller than the last one, but still a truly awe-inspiring total for a film whose killer isn't a hypertrophic zombie in a hockey mask.

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

1 comment:

GeoX said...

Welcome back--I'm glad you didn't die of swine flu or some such.