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  • nickkarner

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)

The egregious use of stock footage in horror sequels has always served as a helpful glimpse at a producer’s schlocky, duplicitous nature. Come see The Itchy and Scratchy Movie! ...contains 53% new footage. As always, The Simpsons nail it and it’s the absolute truth. Sequels to popular movies don’t guarantee a healthy budget and cash-grabs have almost zero chance of getting enough money to complete a feature film. Horror sequels like The Boogey Man II and Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 boldly claim to be the next terrifying chapter in an ongoing franchise, but there’s barely any original footage to be found. I once attended a double feature screening of the first and second Silent Night, but the curator cheekily cut out all of the recycled footage from Part 2, making the second “feature” only run about 40 minutes. At least it gave us “Garbage Day!”

This trend isn’t just restricted to horror. The sleaze merchants attempting to capitalize on the popularity and death of martial arts star Bruce Lee were practically robbing the grave when they used various bits of footage from the deceased star’s few films to cobble together a so-called “sequel” or off-shoot. In some cases, it’s not so terrible, as in Disney’s previous tactic of recycling specific animated sequences and simply drawing new characters over them. Animation is time-consuming and this was a cost-effective move, but it’s still ridiculous. The only thing late-to-the-party sequel Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) has going for it is that it’s 100% new footage. Considering how poor the final product is, however, I’d’ve preferred they throw in scenes from the first film. At least then this movie might’ve had something good in it. Parody requires a deft touch, but this one was made by people with clay hands.

Where to begin with this ineptly-directed, poorly-acted, trash heap of a film? As a standalone film, it would be merely crappy, but as a sequel to a unique, golden age slasher that features one of the most shocking and iconic twist endings ever, it’s a disaster. Gone is both original writer/director Robert Hiltzik’s singularly nasty sense of humor, “Eat shit and live,” as well as his wonderfully sadistic murder set pieces. The presence of clinically insane Aunt Martha is also sorely missed. Instead, we get bland imitations of cruel jibes, boring characters played by terrible actors, bald-faced attempts at spicing things up with gratuitous nudity, and unconvincing, slapdash gore effects. The new crew, headed by producer/director Michael A. Simpson (Impure Thoughts, Funland) and writer Fritz Gordon, who would write the next sequel, claim that the approach to the first Sleepaway Camp sequel was parodical. Although they’re not wrong, it’s their lack of talent which sinks the film. Simpson stated that at the time of filming, “the teen slasher genre was thematically exhausted.” Again, this is true. Attempting something different is a bold and admirable move, but if you don’t have the basic ingredients and an overall love for the genre, you’ll end up with Sleepaway Camp II.

Hiltzik gets an “original idea” story credit. Considering how utterly dull the film’s plot is, I assume his idea boiled down to: “Angela is back and she kills people...again.” That’s all there is to it. Sometimes a film takes a little time to show that there may be a few weak links in the cast who wouldn’t make it in community theatre. Here, as the film begins with a campfire spook story scene, a cliché unto itself, it’s made abundantly clear that NO ONE can act in this film. Not only that, but I’m going to make a rare exception to my rule of not judging a performer’s appearance. I refuse to be a John Simon and insult someone based on their looks. That said, the hairstyles in this film are so horrible that I actually found myself repulsed by several characters in the film. None moreso than head counselor T.C. (Brian Patrick Clarke, a prolific soap opera actor) whose astonishing mullet made me want to rip it out of his head with my teeth. His awful telling of a pointless scary story would give Alvin Schwartz a coronary. Of course, some little shithead, attention-grasping kid starts blathering on about a fried rat but gets cut off by the only lady in the group, who relates the story of Camp Arawak. The events of the previous film are explained, then our heroine/murderess Angela (Pamela Springsteen, who would reprise her role in the next sequel and yes, Bruce’s sister) shows up. Right before Angela drags the little lady off, the infamous twist ending that Angela turned out to be a boy is thrown out there.

Years after the production, Simpson stated that he was proud of the film’s decision to address Angela’s presumed transsexuality. Of course, that’s a slippery slope since her guise as a girl in the first film may or may not have been the result of her/his psychotic Aunt’s influence. Still, the idea that Angela would actually transition and undergo an operation is at least a better option than wasting an entire film ignoring it and then having the gall to try and double down on the twist in the sequel. She reveals much later in the film that she “served her time,” got recommendations from “doctors and psychiatrists,” and that’s how she got her job at the Camp Arawak-adjacent Camp Rolling Hills. While I’m willing to believe that her eventual trial would likely have resulted in an insanity plea, it’s highly unlikely that she’d ever be freed due to the jaw-dropping number of adults and children she murdered. The film makes it clear that we’re still in the present day, meaning a character mentions that it’s been five years. Angela’s madness is barely explored and the film trades in what might’ve been an intriguing look at a young woman whose mind was warped by abuse for random, nonsensical killings.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to suspense. One: You know who the killer is, so when another character is in a room with them, you’re terrified and want to yell at the screen. Two: The killer’s identity remains a mystery, so a big reveal will occur much later and everyone's a suspect. Here, they make it totally clear that Angela is homicidal and will be doing a lot of killing. While this could’ve leant the film an aura of danger whenever Angela enters a room, it’s done so tediously that there’s absolutely no suspense, and therefore no interest garnered. Angela orders the mouthy counselor to leave the camp, a trend she’ll repeat throughout the film ad nauseum, causing much stress for the camp’s old fogey owner, Uncle John (Walter Gotell, Gogol in several James Bond films). Angela’s defining trait is wanting everyone to be “nice.” The idea that a single girl would be hanging out with the boys, even if they were engaged in relatively innocent acts, is enough to cause Angela to call her a “slut” then bash her head in with a log. Prior to this, our doomed girl awkwardly stands behind a tree and monologues for an interminable length. It’s as if she’s in a play: “Shit! I can’t see a damn thing! Damn it. This isn’t the way back!” It’s stagey and unconvincing, but that’s par for the course with the acting on display here.

One particular bit that Angela takes offense to is the relating of what’s actually her own origin story to a bunch of “kids” at the campfire. This makes little sense and represented a continuing pattern of frustration for me as I watched the film. Are these “kids” campers or counselors? There are maybe a handful of young-ish children, and the rest of the cast is filled out with “teens” who couldn’t be younger than 20 years old. A few of them have goddamn peach fuzz ‘staches! It’s baffling and confusing and the events come off as illogical due to the advanced age of the cast.

I’m assuming the reason this film is liked by a few individuals is the copious amount of nudity on display by the nubile young cast. Most of it comes from camp trash-talker and slut Ally, played with unapologetic abandon by Valerie Hartman. While Angela is bright and chipper, Ally is pissed-off and horny. She takes umbrage with Angela’s criticism of her lack of a nightgown. She’s particularly insulted when Angela claims: “Nice girls don’t have to show it off.”

Later scenes in the mess hall reveal how truly terrible the dialogue and acting are in this film. The jokes are forced and the rhythm is all wrong. Sort-of good boy Sean (Tony Higgins, In the Heat of the Night (TV)) awkwardly asks his crush, definitive ‘good girl’ Molly (Renee Estevez, Heathers, The West Wing, obviously part of the Estevez/Sheen clan) if she “gets stoned” like the “shit sisters,” a pair of druggies with more awful 80’s hair. Things get lame real fast as Angela is awarded “Counselor of the Week” and uses the opportunity to sing the camp’s awful theme song, which includes the ironic lyrics “I’ll camp until I die.” Later, the rendition by the ‘shit sisters’ goes a little darker. “I’m a happy camper, I love to drink and fuck. And if you pay me money, on my titties you can suck.” Yikes.

I believe this film might’ve worked as a parody if the actors were stronger. The dialogue is bad, but it could be serviceable with the right performers. Instead, it ambles along from scene to scene. T.C. tries to come on to Angela, but she’s not into “green gum.” Overall, Pamela Springsteen’s performance isn’t exactly bad, but it’s deathly uninteresting. She has little to no charisma and the uninteresting camera work, often playing out in budget-friendly masters by documentary-based cinematographer Bill Mills, doesn’t help. The long takes serve to emphasize how weak the actors are and without any cutaways, they’re left twisting in the wind.

Ally has eyes for Sean, which in turn causes her to hate Molly. There’s an astonishingly clumsy sequence in which Rob (Terry Hobbs), a blathering counselor, or camper (who knows?) tries to impress Ally by listing his accomplishments (the saxophone is sexy as fuck). She removes her top under her white shirt and reverse psychologies him to toss her into the pool just so she can pop up and show her jubblies to a disinterested Sean. That little shithead from the beginning comments on her “party hats,” which was originally “nips” until visiting representatives from the Georgia Department of Labor insisted that a child under eighteen years of age couldn’t utter the word “nips.”

Angela systematically eliminates the “naughty” campers as the film drags on. Running at barely 80 minutes, the film’s languid pace makes it feel like 5 hours. The continuous excuse that Angela is “sending campers home” becomes increasingly ridiculous and unbelievable. “Uncle John’s gonna hear about this” is repeated over and over again. The thing is, when it comes to camp, I’m dubious of exactly what the punishment would be. It’s camp. Your parents are paying for you to be there. They could get sent home, but would the camp actually be able to justify keeping their payment?

While I’d like to give the film credit for a high body count, 18 deaths, according to IMDB, the kill scenes lack the gleeful viciousness of the original. One of the “shit sisters” is barbecued alive, which at least features a convincing level of screaming. Speaking of which, the sound effects on the soundtrack are astonishingly awful. In Ally’s final scene, which is admittedly a decently written and staged sequence, she’s stabbed, shoved into a shit and piss-filled outhouse, and gets covered with leeches. This is all well and good, but it’s ruined by a soundtrack which sounds like someone gargling mouth wash and stomping grapes.

The film features some extremely stupid scenes and odd touches that may or may not be intentionally funny:

- Angela strumming her guitar and singing literally one lyric from “Kumbaya,”

- A pointless panty raid.

-Ally’s extremely lengthy sex scene with Rob, which is immediately followed by a comment about AIDS

- A whiny camper who gets a power drill death for her trouble, unfortunately completely offscreen.

-T.C. commenting that Angela can’t call him because he “doesn’t have a phone.”

-An incongruous scene of the popular Halloween-themed “feeling game” where Angela is using “dead teenager’s brains.”

-Two idiots dressing as Freddy and Jason in order to scare Angela (how this film didn’t get sued, I genuinely have no idea. It’s not even subtle!).

-T.C. yelling for Angela is astonishingly bad.

And one of the most obvious examples of actors being forced to pretend non-existent music is good I’ve ever seen.

And a confusing, bonkers scene where I think a guy is going down on Ally, but yet she still seems to be wearing underwear. This particular moment has so many things wrong with it. Candles are lit and some random wine is laying around. Not beer, as you’d expect, but fucking wine. The entire scene is shot from below their ankles, which it turns out is due to the actor being underage, but it still comes off as insane as they bang around. You can’t tell whether they’re fighting or trying to fuck very poorly.

The kills become more and more boring as the film struggles past the 60 minute-mark. One counselor is stabbed, boring. Another, who’s growing increasingly suspicious, gets strangled by a guitar string. We get another padded scene in which Angela dreams about all of the people she’s killed while a blue-tinted, slo-mo version of her “Happy Camper” song is slowed way down so she sounds like Billie Holiday on a bender.

At least the last 20 minutes has something to offer. Angela has been fired for “sending home” every other counselor and Molly and Sean track her down to an abandoned cabin. Bodies are strewn about the room and she captures the duo. There’s a ton of black humor as she speaks to the corpses and utters a semi-iconic line: “I’m a nut when it comes to french fries.” She lops Sean’s head off and places it inside a television set. “Speak of the devil! Look who’s on TV!” Earlier, T.C. mentioned that his car battery had been stolen, although he didn’t seem that concerned. Holy shit, dude. Your car battery is gone! Welp, it at least gets paid off, because Angela fills a mug with battery acid and flings it in his face, resulting in a bloody mess. Again, the sound effects are terrible, with the burning skin noise being something akin to crinkling newspaper. There’s an attempt to justify Angela’s actions and garner her some sympathy because she yearns for Molly’s friendship, but it’s unconvincing.

Molly escapes and in one of the worst cat-and-mouse chases I’ve ever seen, particularly when the two actresses bump into each other or roll around together, Molly finally falls down a hill and supposedly dies. A completely random counselor whom we’ve never seen before discovers all of the campers, counselors, and Uncle John, dead because the movie needs us to see that. Then Angela kills her too. Molly is knocked out for hours, I guess, because by the time she wakes up, it’s nighttime.

Angela hitches a ride with a sassy, vulgar Southerner played by character actress and Georgia native Jill Jane Clements (The Walking Dead). Her best bit of dialogue remains: “I mean, the way I see it, I am just too dumb to drink and I'm too fat to fuck.” This prompts Angela to stab her to death while a train passes. Molly stumbles out onto the road and we all know what’s going to happen, but I was stunned at how much worse the final moment was conceived. We all know that Molly will encounter Angela, but instead of staging the scene with anything resembling craftsmanship, the scene plays out in another master, with Angela sitting in the truck, plain as day and Molly approaching. It’s as if the film is literally throwing up its hands and giving up. It’s horrible.

I can see how the film wants to be spoof/parody, satire, but it simply doesn’t work due to the shoddiness of the production. Despite a high kill count, Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers suffers from the worst sin of all: being a boring movie.


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