[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
Camp hasn’t always been kind to Angela Baker, but that doesn’t keep her from trying to enjoy all it has to offer, whether it’s at Camp Arawak, Camp Rolling Hills, or in the case of Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland, Camp New Horizons (which is just Camp Rolling Hills renamed, but the new camp directors would prefer you ignore the bloodbath that took place the previous summer). The third entry in the Sleepaway Camp franchise, Teenage Wasteland mixes up the franchise’s killer summer camp formula and features Pamela Springsteen further embracing her role as Angela Baker, who just wants to camp until she dies… and will kill anybody who gets in the way of her ultimate goal.
Since her stint as a camp counselor didn’t go exactly as planned last summer (unless drowning someone in an outhouse was on the itinerary), Angela decides to return to her roots as a camper in Teenage Wasteland, taking on the identity of another camper unfortunate enough to cross paths with Angela and her rogue garbage truck one morning in the city. Run by Herman (Michael J. Pollard) and Lily Miranda (Sandra Dorsey), Camp New Horizons isn’t your average camp, it’s a social experiment that brings together teenagers from different cultural and financial backgrounds in the hopes of creating socioeconomic harmony through sharing and caring. Looking to add “killing” to the camp’s mantra, Angela Baker is a murderous variable the camp directors didn’t anticipate in their experiment, though, and most of the teens get along so badly that everyone might have killed each other even without Angela’s interference, with the lack of sensitivity among the group perfectly summed up by politician-aspiring Bobby (Haynes Brooke), who, upon meeting Angela, says, “So, you’re underprivileged, huh?”
Even though it’s set at a summer camp, Teenage Wasteland is more of a camping movie than a summer camp film, dividing the campers and their adult chaperones into three separate groups made of teens from both sides of the economic tracks. Consequently, most of the movie takes place in the woods around the camp rather than at the camp itself (although several key scenes do take place at the lodge), giving Angela the opportunity to leapfrog from group to group without anyone being none the wiser that the previous group has been stabbed, burned, and dismembered accordingly (if only they had just made s’mores instead of getting on Angela’s nerves).
Camp New Horizons is all about new beginnings, and the campsite setup of Teenage Wasteland smartly keeps the third film different enough from Unhappy Campers to keep horror fans on their toes—a wise move, considering that these sequels were filmed so closely together and could have become blood-soaked clones in less careful hands. The camping-trips-from-hell setup also provides Springsteen with plenty of chances to bring out Angela's killer impulses, whether it be putting a firecracker in a sleeping person’s nostril or bringing the axe down on someone who’s been a pain in the neck (pun wholly intended).
Gory details aside, Teenage Wasteland has psychological developments on its mind as well. We see a world-weary version of Angela this time around, as Springsteen’s performance ensures that we notice changes in her character based on the events of the previous film. While she was as happy as could be when she began her short-lived tenure as a counselor at Camp Rolling Hills in Unhappy Campers, this time around, Angela seems more reserved and even straight-up somber. Instead of smiling and trying to make friends with the other campers, she quickly becomes annoyed and perturbed by their behavior, seemingly accepting the fact that most of them are just going to have to die because they don’t jive with her view of what a perfect camp experience should be. Unhappy Campers Angela is optimistic, but Teenage Wasteland Angela is pessimistic. This change in behavior could just be marked down to the fact that Angela is impersonating another camper with a different attitude than her own, and that she’s a fugitive trying to maintain a low profile herself, especially around Officer Barney Whitmore (Cliff Brand), who is on the hunt for Angela after his son was beheaded in the previous film.
After a repeat viewing, though, I realize it’s possible that Angela’s earnestness was worn away from her turbulent times at Camp Rolling Hills, and now her view of the world is more doom and gloom than sunshine and sing-alongs. In Unhappy Campers, she reentered the innocent world of summer camp hopeful that things would be different this time, that the mean kids and misunderstanding adults of Camp Arawak were a distant nightmare from her past. The events of Unhappy Campers reminded her that some things never change, and we see the results of that shattered hopefulness in Teenage Wasteland. The exhilarating joys of camping are largely gone for Angela, replaced by a desire to kill members of the outside world who have forever murdered that joy for her. Or maybe I’m reading between the lines too much and Angela would happily kill campers with one hand and roast marshmallows with the other no matter what happened in her past. Who knows for sure?
Either way, the kills in Teenage Wasteland are some of the franchise’s best. In addition to the aforementioned firecracker and axe kills, we see Angela go 50 Shades of Sleepaway Camp to pull off someone’s arms, she uses a lawnmower in a malicious manner that would make Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery proud, and she even goes full-on Michael Myers à la Halloween 4 in an ambulance. And let’s not forget the showdown with the vengeance-seeking Barney, which has some of the highest stakes and genuine tension (and emotion) of the entire franchise. Too often the action cuts away just before Bill Johnson’s gore effects can be completely shown and fully appreciated, but to make up for it, there are enough viciously humorous one-liners from Springsteen, who is clearly having a blast while killing her fellow campers (and camp directors) in increasingly innovative ways.
Not every element of Teenage Wasteland is as comfortable to watch as the kills, particularly the homophobic and racist remarks shared between the campers, and there is an overload of gratuitous nudity in the film’s first third, but overall, director Michael A. Simpson and the screenplay by Fritz Gordon (based on characters created by Robert Hiltzik) deliver a movie that can stand strongly on its own in the Sleepaway Camp franchise, while also serving as the second half of a satisfying-as-hell double feature of Unhappy Campers and Teenage Wasteland (which were both released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory back in 2015, so if you haven't yet, start planning your Sleepaway Camp marathons).
As someone who is both Team Felissa Rose and Team Pamela Springsteen when it comes to the Sleepaway Camp franchise and the character of Angela Baker, I firmly believe Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland still has a lot of laughs, highlight reel-worthy kills, a bold ending (especially when it comes to the romance between two love-struck campers, which is on par with the shocking conclusion to The Last American Virgin), and a hard rockin’ soundtrack to enjoy 30 years after Camp New Horizons first opened (and closed) its cabin doors.
My biggest takeaway after revisiting this horror comedy is that I wish Springsteen had been given more sequels to play Angela in the Sleepaway Camp sandbox. Teenage Wasteland may poke fun at Friday the 13th with the discovery of a hockey mask and a mention of it being Saturday the 14th, but if given a few more films to flex her murderous tendencies, Angela Baker could have become just as legendary as Jason Voorhees. Based on her work in Teenage Wasteland and the other Sleepaway Camp films, though, Angela will forever have a spot reserved at the campfire of horror icons—and she’d no doubt happily lead them all in killer acoustic sing-alongs.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 89!