Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008)
NOTE: SPOILERS FOR THE ORIGINAL ‘SLEEPAWAY CAMP’ ARE HEREIN. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT GO AND DO THAT THEN COME BACK AND READ ON!
Every horror lover has seminal moments in their fandom, whether it’s the first time they heard Freddy Krueger’s razor blade fingers on a rusty pipe, the first time they saw David Kessler’s transformation in ‘An American Werewolf in London, the WTF? ending of ‘Don’t Look Now’, or poor little Regan’s involvement with naughty old Pazuzu. For those of us who call the sub-genre of the slasher movie home, the original ‘Sleepaway Camp’ gave us one of those moments. Made in 1983 to take advantage of the voracious appetite for slasher movies the film took a very small budget and copied many of the tropes of the genre; the camp in the forest, the victimisation of marginalised children by their peers, a historical tragedy and , of course, a faceless killer. The original budget was apparently around $300,000 so it was low-budget even by the Eighties standards and re-watching the film with modern eyes it remains a fun, if unremarkable, slasher. Until that ending. Unless you’ve recently seen it you will most likely remember very little of ‘Sleepaway Camp’ but the final five minutes or so. I was in my early twenties before I first saw it and I found it tremendously, physically even, affecting and I am not alone. Of course, like most Eighties horror favourites, it was followed by some poor sequels that, whilst not shockingly bad, failed to build on the glory of the first (or rather, of its ending). ‘Return to Sleepaway Camp’ is the fifth in the series chronologically in terms of production and its placing in the canon is a little murky; for this reviewer it either acts as the fourth in the series or as a direct sequel to the original. Either way it, like most sane people, avoids ‘Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor’ which had as troubled a production as any film I can remember and has little relation to the events of the previous films in the franchise.
On holiday at Camp Manabe overweight teen Alan (Michael Gibney) is mercilessly bullied by both staff and counsellors alike. When people start disappearing head counsellor Ronnie begins to suspect that the camp’s history as Camp Arawak may be coming back to haunt it and that Angela Baker, its most famous camper, has returned for the summer. When Alan runs into the forest after a particularly nasty incident life at Camp Manabe begins to unravel at an alarming rate leaving everyone in mortal danger from the ghosts of Camp Arawak’s past…
The road to release was not an easy one for ‘Return to Sleepaway Camp’. Filming originally wrapped in 2003 but, through conflict of circumstance, it sat on a shelf until finally released in 2008. In many ways it is a perfect throwback to the slasher heyday of the 1980s; this brings with it the good as well as the bad. Plot-wise everything is reasonably standard slasher fare, as is the cast of characters but it is here that I have the biggest reservations about the movie. The acting is awful throughout with dialogue delivered at varying volumes within sentences, a clearly English actor who frequently forgets to adopt an American accent, and teens that are, even by low budget genre standards, incredibly wooden. Special mention must go to Gibney’s Alan who is both seedily repulsive and maddeningly annoying; even after multiple viewings I am yet to decide whether his performance is deliberately overwrought, and therefore great, or hugely inept.
This leads to my other grave reservation; the script. Criticising a low-budget horror movie for having a poor script feels sometimes like criticising a monkey for liking bananas but ‘Return to Sleepaway Camp’ needs some real polish in this regard. The dialogue is hilariously bad, characters have massive changes of heart for no reason, and some characters exist merely to scream whenever they are on screen. Most serious is the fact that there is no character for whom to feel sympathy. Alan is mercilessly bullied by other children. He is also an offensive, obnoxious bully and, to my mind, the most annoying screen character I’ve seen in a decade. The other teens are similarly violent and offensive, only motivated to be as cruel to each other as possible, so no sympathy there. The adults then? If anything, the adults are more unpleasant than the teens in their care motivated as they are by sex or greed. The film is also very short about 75 minutes plus credits and director / writer Robert Hiltzik pads this out with several shots that are far more extended than they need to be, a highlight being an intentionally cruel and amusing jeep vs penis scene. It takes a really long time to get to the kills too and the opening act feels flabby and slow.
Slow to get to the good bit. A cast stuffed with horrendous and aggravating characters. Porno-grade acting. So why bother? It’s really good fun. The kills, of which there are a fair few, are very creative including one that, as jaded as I am, I had never seen before. The special effects are generally very good and the practical make up does a very good job of realising the carnage on-screen. Special mention must go to the disguise that one character wears; it is singularly the worst make up I have ever seen on film and I defy anyone watching the movie to not immediately work out the rest of the plot machinations as soon as it appears. There’s also a sly sense of humour at work here that is a lot rarer in more modern slashers. The fact that the characters are so annoying actually works in the film’s favour when the killer does get down to business too and it has that old popcorn feel to the kills; the film knows why you are really watching and, whilst it makes you wait, it delivers some really cool, inventive deaths.
Ultimately what you’ll take from ‘Return to Sleepaway Camp’ depends on what expectations you have. I love slasher movies and part of that love is I know exactly what I’ll get from a good one; creative kills, a sense of mischief and some excellent practical effects. I am also used to looking beyond wonky scripts, terrible acting and nonsensical plot developments. If story is important to you, don’t bother. If stellar performances are important to you, my friend, there is nothing for you here. If you want to be frightened ‘Return to Sleepaway Camp’ is not for you. It reminded me of the early ‘Friday The 13th’ sequels; a fun, silly, gory, honourable mess. If you share my tastes then there is plenty at Camp Manabe to enjoy.
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