Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers / III: Teenage Wasteland (1988; 1989) dir. Michael A. Simpson

Loglines: Five years after she racked up quite the body count at Camp Arawak, Peter/Angela Baker has received a sex change, been released from psychiatric care, assumed a new last name, and taken up her favorite hobby: creatively murdering naughty teens at summer camps. Let's all sing the happy camper song.

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland are the well-titled late '80s direct-to-video sequels to 1983's Sleepaway Camp. Both share the same creative team (director Michael A. Simpson, writer Fritz Gordon, star Pamela Springsteen) and, despite being low-budget slasher productions in the era of video, have the distinction of being shot on 35mm. Neither film is particularly good, though their attempts to elevate Angela to the top-tier of the pantheon of slasher villains is admirable (if flawed and partially unsuccessful).  

Unhappy Campers is far more enjoyable than its continuation, Teenage Wasteland.* The relentless stupidity on display in this first sequel is just about matched by the relentless entertainment it provides. The film is brisk and perfectly watchable; one of the more enjoyable latter day slashers I've seen (while still in no way equaling the quality of the dawn-of-the-'90s slash epics like Soavi's Stagefright (1987) or Spiegel's Intruder (1989); this is decidedly cheap art, after all). The film is gory with a bile black sense of humor (a drunken young camper waking up tied down in a barbeque pit next to the charred corpse of her sister is played for laughs), and of course needlessly crude ("Tit Patrol"; "Shit Sisters") and exploitative (unsurprisingly, most of the featured campers are female and around 20 years old. This may make it difficult to accept them as realistic campers, but makes it very easy for the film to encourage them to repeatedly flash their chests). Moreover, it looks and feels about as scrappy as a film can, and the visible talent-- both in front of and behind the camera--is paltry. Pamela Springsteen, as Angela, is probably the best case for why this absence of talent does not necessarily make the picture a bad one: an almost sublime non-actor, she monotones through her numerous one-liners and zingers with the enthusiasm of dried sap, and yet we still find her appealing. She, and the film itself, exude a certain je ne sais quoi attitude towards the whole affair, as if they are keenly aware that their endeavor is a silly one and so are able to squeeze every bit of deadpan fun out of it without possessing formidable skills or the desire to try hard. This is, whether consciously or not, a postmodern film, and it benefits from its metareflective moments (say, for instance, when Angela admits that she really ought to have killed her top adversary first, as if acknowledging the restrictions of her narrative) and, more importantly, its intertextuality with the slasher canon.

This leads me to a brief discussion of what I found most interesting about these sequels: their attempt to launch Angela as the first bonafide female slasher villain. Now of course, there are numerous instances wherein the killer in a slasher film is revealed to be a woman (Happy Birthday to Me (1981), Friday the 13th (1980), Curtains (1983)), but none of these killers would go on to recur in their own franchises--it seems absurd to imagine the Friday the 13th sequels featuring a reanimated Mrs. Voorhees donning the iconic hockey mask. But why does it seem absurd? Why do we need a hulking, monstrous male as the unconquerable madman? Carol Clover's theories on the slasher film and their interactions with gender provide us some help here: the rage and brutality of slasher killings is most easily embodied by a form of masculinity in crisis and run amok. It would be tough--though, as we'll see, not impossible--to capture that same masculine confusion in the body of a woman. Unless, of course, we are presented with a situation akin to what the original Sleepaway Camp's coda left us with: a boy ideologically trapped in a girl's body. And so in saunter the Sleepaway Camp sequels, attempting to rectify these gendered matters with curious results. Besides some more subtle touches (like the graffiti wall at the opening of Teenage Wasteland that reads "Angela is Back!" as if we were all patiently waiting), this attempt is explicit: a scene in Unhappy Campers plays out as a nascent Battle of the Slasher Titans, as Angela (dressed as an amalgam of Michael Myers and Leatherface) quickly dispatches two boys dressed as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees with some finger blades and a chainsaw, respectively. As this scene and the VHS box art (above) make abundantly clear, in the Sleepaway Camp films we are presented with a villain exactly if not more monstrous than the baddies we're used to, but all the more threatening because of the disarming external appearance she presents to the world. Angela is a pretty young woman, not a beefy, scarified zombie killer--you might actually invite her into your cabin. Yet the films also take pains to remind us that Angela's homicidal tendencies derive from her transgender status--it is the male raging within her that compels her to kill, or so we are led to believe. While her transgendered status allows her to at least present the image of a memorable, recurring female slasher villain, it's unfortunate that this also leads to some curt vilification of transgendered people (as Angela's story is being told around a campfire, one camper spits that her doctors "gave him a sex change... and our parents' taxes paid for it!"). We may never be blessed with an uncomplicated female slasher icon, but (her troubling origins aside) I believe these films amply demonstrate that such an icon is feasible. In the end it's not her conflicted masculinity that makes Angela such an appealing villain, but her hokey clear-cut moral compass--only she would make a statement like "weeding out the bad kids" and mean it literally. All that, plus her quips are funnier than Freddy's.

 *I have nearly nothing to say about Teenage Wasteland, and so will relegate it to a footnote, out of spite. The film carries over the appealing elements of Unhappy Campers (the groan-inducing humor, the creative bloodshed, the Angela myth-making), but everyone present seems to be simply going through the motions. Where is the inspiration or enthusiasm behind the shoddiness? With only a little over a year separating it from its predecessor, it's possible that the team behind these films didn't really have an idea for a proper third entry but rushed this one out because Unhappy Campers had been a rental success. Everything feels like an afterthought. The campers are older and more deplorable than ever. Springsteen plays Angela as over-the-top nutty, rather than the slightly-more-restrained and sympathetic moralist of Unhappy Campers (unraveling the second film's development of her wise-cracking Norman Bates persona). Worst of all, it's dull: while almost exactly the same length as Unhappy Campers, Teenage Wasteland crawls like a grievously wounded camper to the end of its running time. It does, however, have a couple good lines, which I will now repeat: 1) "You look older than the rest of the campers..." "Massive drugs." 2) "I like films that really make America look great. Like Rambo III."

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