Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers is actually the first movie in the Sleepaway Camp franchise that I’d ever seen. The VHS cover art lured me in as a kid by teasing possible appearances from iconic villains, with Freddy’s glove and Jason’s hockey mask poking out of a woman’s backpack. I was a bit too young to understand the concept of trademarks at that age, so you can imagine my disappointment when neither character made so much as a cameo. Since I hadn’t seen the first film and didn’t have any context for the franchise as a whole (or that twist), I just thought of the movie as low-budget trash.
As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve discovered that low-budget trash can be a lovely thing. And I think it’s important to distinguish trash from “so bad they’re good” movies like Troll 2 or Manos: The Hands of Fate, whose entertainment value relies on people getting together to get drunk and make fun of them. When I talk about trash, I’m talking about joyous monuments to off-kilter filmmakers and actors coming together to make something so zany that they can’t help but win you over.
Of course, the foundation of any good trash movie is a ridiculous premise. In this case, said premise carries over from the original Sleepaway Camp, as five years after the events of the first movie, Angela Baker (Pamela Springsteen, taking over from Felissa Rose) has decided it’s time to return to the lodge. She changes her last name to Johnson and gets hired as a counselor at Camp Rolling Hills in the hopes of getting the wholesome camping experience that she missed out on as a kid. Naturally, these hopes are dashed when she realizes that, much like at Camp Arawak, most of the campers are obnoxious little turds. The inevitable murder spree ensues, with Angela using a cornucopia of grisly methods on campers and counselors who she believes need to be “sent home.” Only wholesome Molly (Renée Estevez) and well-meaning dunderhead Sean (Tony Higgins) prove to be the type of campers that Angela could see making it to the end of summer... maybe.
For Unhappy Campers, Michael A. Simpson stepped in to take the helm from the original film’s director Robert Hiltzik. You may remember Simpson from other classics such as... uh, Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland. To be honest, though, I think Simpson’s success with Unhappy Campers is due partially to the fact that he hadn’t had much else to his name other than a few obscure TV movies. Had he been more well-established, he may not have taken the job or, even worse, just cashed a paycheck and crapped out a movie that he thought was beneath him.
Instead, Simpson decided to make his mark by leaning into the film’s inherent silliness. In an interview on the Sleepaway Camp franchise website, he explained that he “wanted to find a way to express dark humor in a so-called ‘slasher’ movie... The teen horror genre was already in danger of becoming a parody of itself at the time so I figured, what the heck, call attention to it and have some bloody fun.”
This sense of fun is the highlight of the film, and why it works better than other low-budget contemporaries, including the original, which lacks the feeling of homicidal joy you get from Unhappy Campers. Most of the humor in Sleepaway Camp seems to be more incidental, while Unhappy Campers doesn’t shy away from revelling in its insanity without ever making the whole thing into a punchline. Everyone is having fun with the movie rather than making fun of it.
This is particularly true of the cast, who find the right balance of being the type of snotty, selfish kids that would put them in Angela’s crosshairs while still maintaining some semblance of likeability. In the original movie, everyone at Camp Arawak was pretty much the worst, from Artie the sex offender cook to Mel, the camp director who almost beat a kid to death because he was angry from not being able to have sex with one of his counselors. At Camp Rolling Hills, however, we get campers like Jodi and Brooke (Amy Fields and Carol Chambers), “the Shit Sisters.” Sure, they may chuckle to themselves to the point of being obnoxious, but overall, they’re just a couple of harmless stoners. Their only real “sin” is to overindulge in drugs and booze at a camp where one of the counselors views this type of behavior as a capital offense. Even the prerequisite mean girl Ally (Valerie Hartman) gets a few moments of vulnerability to give some context as to why she’s such a pain in the ass.
Ally also gets shoved down an outhouse, which brings me to another of the movie’s highlights: the effects. For a movie with only a budget of a little more than $450,000 (a lack of funds is often another hallmark of good trash), makeup artists Bill Johnson, Christina Cobb, and Maritza Rogriguez really knew how to stretch a dollar in the name of great visual gags. Skeletons are charred, faces are burned with acid, and blood just flows freely in general. They even go the whole nine yards and whip up a head cast for a gnarly decapitation scene in the film’s climax. They clearly wanted Angela’s work to shine.
Which brings us to Angela, a character with whom I have a bit of a conflicted relationship. On one hand, Pamela Springsteen absolutely kills the role (pun intended). Her gleeful delivery as she dispatches campers and counselors in progressively creative ways is downright charming. If Felissa Rose’s version of Angela is the quiet, unassuming killer you never see coming, Springsteen's version is a boisterous, confident woman who will smile while drowning you in a pool of leeches and feces if you don’t stop acting like an asshole.
[Editor’s Note: Original Sleepaway Camp movie spoilers to follow…]
On the other hand, the thing that most people remember about Angela is a typical product of ’80s trash. As most people know, the original film’s big twist is that Angela is revealed to be a boy who had been dressed up as a girl by her nutball of an aunt, and in Unhappy Campers Angela has a sex change, implying that the trauma of being forced to dress like a girl led Angela to actually wanting to be a woman.
Aside from the fact that it’s pretty icky to imply that trauma is what leads to a character being transgender, the “she was a boy” gimmick isn’t necessary in Unhappy Campers. It may be the element most remembered about the series, but for me, none of the psychotic charm that Pamela Springsteen brings to Unhappy Campers is at all reliant on the notion that her character used to have a penis.
In fact, part of what makes Unhappy Campers the best movie in the franchise is that, for the most part, I can separate it from the original Sleepaway Camp and just enjoy it as its own thing, and a pretty damn fun thing at that. It doesn’t have much in the way of cultural value, but that’s kind of the point. It’s supposed to be lowbrow. It’s supposed to lack substance. It’s supposed to be an excuse to check out a bunch of people who wanted to make a buck by making us smile, laugh, and groan for ninety minutes. Like I said, it’s trash. Glorious trash.
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