Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers. 1988. Directed by Michael A. Simpson. Screenplay by Fritz Gordon.
Starring Pamela Springsteen, Renée Estevez, Tony Higgins, Valerie Hartman, Brian Patrick Clarke, Wlater Gotell, Susan Marie Snyder, Terry Hobbs, Kendall Bean, Julie Murphy, & Carol Chambers.
Double Helix Films
Rated R. 80 minutes.
The original Sleepaway Camp is a gnarly, awesome horror flick. It’s also misunderstood. Although the first movie’s vastly different than this sequel, as well as the rest of the franchise, its DNA lives on. Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers leaves behind the grim tone of its predecessor in favour of a tongue-in-cheek approach.
Where the original had mystery and POV shots of an unseen killer so common to the sub-genre, the sequel ditches anonymity. No question this time around: a grown up Angela (played by Pamela Springsteen, sister of the Boss) is killing people at a new place, Camp Rolling Hills. Angela becomes more like a Freddy Krueger-like slasher than a Jason Voorhees, popping off one-liners while slashing her victims. For some Sleepaway Camp fans this new direction wasn’t what they envisioned.
To start, the first movie was plenty hilarious, though the kill scenes themselves weren’t played for laughs like they generally are here. Most important, the comedy serves a larger purpose. At times, this plays as satire of the sub-genre itself, lampooning slasher horror, and the 1980s as a whole era— America, from reality to the movies, was drowning in sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Unhappy Campers is all about Angela’s awkwardly hilarious and horrific journey as a person during a decade she didn’t understand and one unable to understand her. She’s tragic, and the slasher satire confronts how desperately hopeless she is through dark comedy.
Fittingly, the story opens with references to urban legends, like the tale of the Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket having a deep fried rat in with pieces of chicken. We move to the campers around their fire talking about the real story of the original movie’s finale, again presented as urban legend within the story. The 1980s were huge for urban legends, as modernity continued making the city are scarier place than ever before. Fritz Gordon’s screenplay begins this way to setup an overall satire of the ’80s. Afterwards we get unsurprising transphobia from a frat boy-looking white guy with a cop for a dad, offering up a slice of middle class bigotry in reference to Angela’s time in a psychiatric hospital: “And while he was there, the doctors gave him a sex change, and our parents taxes paid for it— or he, or she, or whatever got out a couple years ago.” A mention of taxes is the cherry on top, calling to mind the Ronald Reagan-era during which this was made in ’88.
Summer camps were much more popular decades ago. They still exist, just not like in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, even the ’90s, when Father Gore was a young Cub Scout. They weren’t as much for kids to have fun, how they’ve traditionally been advertised. Rather, summer camps were another way to keep kids and young adults in a strict societal regimen. There are fun activities, freedom, food, and sports, yet it’s organised like school with times, instructors, and curfews. With all the order and structure of these camps it’s an ideal place to put a fictional character like Angela, whose life in a psychiatric hospital revolved around order and severe discipline, to the point she was given a sex change by doctors— another decision about her gender she wasn’t allowed to make on her own. Due to isolation, as well as a lack of autonomy, she’s unable to relate to others because of her unwavering, if not misguided sense of morality.
“Oh I’m a happy camper,
I love the clear blue sky.
And with the grace of God,
I’ll camp until I die.”
The psychiatric care Angela received did nothing to help her, it only infused her with an unsettling sense of morality, compounded by the way she was raised by her dreaded Aunt Martha. This made her more violent than before and, worse, with a sense of purpose. Angela went to Camp Rolling Hills looking to cure the youth of all society deemed bad behaviour.
Other slashers often inadvertently push a conservative narrative: drugs, booze, sex, heavy metal = death. Unhappy Campers sees its murdered characters enjoying themselves doing all those fun things, from getting laid to smoking pot. Instead of getting killed by a faceless executioner punishing them, these victims are punished by a damaged woman irreparably altered by an isolated and warped upbringing. This is another satire of the slasher sub-genre, subverting the typical punishing villains with an entirely unmasked Angela, giving face and psychology to the death— a killer moulded by those conservative ideals American society’s pushed onto her and other young people. More than that, she’s haunted by the murders. She isn’t an emotionless entity like Voorhees, Myers, Krueger, or Chucky. Angela’s all too human.
The satire-like treatment of slashers gets better with the homage— or middle finger— to other big genre villains. There are Jason and Freddy masks on two campers looking to scare Angela. She later dons an apron/chainsaw wearing a mask that looks like a cross between Leatherface’s skin mask and the Michael Myers-William Shatner mask. Having her wear the costume of a major horror icon(s) is a riot, as she spends the rest of the movie killing people while we know it’s her, and in this scene she puts on a mask AFTER committing murder. And people say this sequel was poorly written? Pfft.
“Keep your morals strong and you’ll never go wrong”
Angela’s tragic loneliness gives way to total mental breakdown during which she murders everyone in an effort to regain what little control she had to begin with, and even outside the campgrounds where she hitches a ride she can’t seem to find the moral ground she seeks. Everybody’s outside her standards, and in this ruthlessness she’s exactly like her other slasher villain counterparts, despite all the black as toast satire. Angela’s loneliness is what ultimately drives her. A perfect dilution of theme, the Obsession song over the end credits embodies her desperate isolation:
“For I‘m alone and a captive of my past /
Solitude, my penance is cast…”
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers isn’t near as good as the first Sleepaway Camp. Father Gore’s not trying to say that whatsoever. The first sequel of the franchise takes things in a different direction altogether. Only natural certain fans weren’t happy. What’s worth taking away is, underneath its morbid laughs and satire, the movie’s a character study of the tragic girl we met in the 1983 classic. And that’s better than untold numbers of pointless horror sequels from the ’80s.