• Gabe Powers

Sleepaway Camp Trilogy Blu-ray Reviews (originally published 2014/2015)



Sleepaway Camp

After a terrible boating accident killed her family, shy Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) went to live with her eccentric Aunt Martha and her cousin Ricky. This summer, Martha decides to send them both to Camp Arawak, a place to enjoy the great outdoors. Shortly after their arrival, a series of bizarre and violent ‘accidents’ begin to claim the lives of various campers. Has a dark secret returned from the camp’s past…or will an unspeakable horror end the summer season for all? (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)


On paper, Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp is a standardized, rather unremarkable entry in the early ‘80s slasher boom. Even though it was released only three years after the original summer camp body-count movie, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, it came at a time when the formula was already losing traction with audiences. It’s murder scenes aren’t particular gory (it required only minimal MPAA cuts at a time the organization was gunning for the subgenre), its sex scenes aren’t particularly graphic, and it sticks strictly to the slasher blueprint in terms of its story. I can even name at least a dozen similar films that do the same thing more effectively – yet, Sleepaway Camp sustains a stronger, more loyal cult following than any of them.


It’s easy enough to hang this abiding popularity on that notorious twist ending, which certainly a more outrageous outcome than the average whodunit’s climax. I’m assuming even those of you that haven’t seen the film are aware of how it ends, but in case you didn’t – and you aren’t concerned with having a 30-year-old slasher movie spoiled for you – it turns out that not only is the main protagonist, Angela, the murderer, but she’s also a boy who was raised as a girl (dun, dun, dun). But movies usually don’t inspire such diligent fandoms via a single shock following 90 minutes of interchangeably blasé moments, leaving us with a burning, seemingly unanswerable question: what is it about Sleepaway Camp that endures?



Objectively speaking, Sleepaway Camp is ‘good’ only because it’s so campy (excuse the pun) and difficult to define. I think that it is meant to be taken as subversive – even after culling hours of commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes documentaries. Further appeal lies in Hiltzik’s limited skill-sets. Unlike ‘lesser’ slashers, where the scenes between kills are merely an excuse to use the bathroom/get popcorn without missing anything important, Sleepaway Camp’s dialogue-heavy, non-horror scenes of summer camp life are genuinely great. The dialogue is funny in a very natural way and the actors – especially the children – are all much better than what is usually associated with the genre. In contrast, whenever Hiltzik tries his hand at earnest horror, he fails miserably, prompting a charming string of accidental laughs. Despite mimicking genre/subgenre convention (even that famous reveal is a grotesque variation on the secret identity of Norma/Norman Bates) doesn’t appear to understand the basic functions of the genre he’s aping, but its very charming to see him try. Again, it is possible to assume Sleepaway Camp is a spoof of type, even without on-the-record proof of the director’s intentions.


Sleepaway Camp’s failure as a horror movie is easy enough to dismiss as faulty filmmaking, but its pointed disregard for traditional sexual titillation is fascinating. Hiltzik appears intent on mocking the slasher genre’s proclivity for gratuitous nudity and sex by replacing ‘fun’ kinks with more complex and uncomfortable perversions. For example, the camp’s head cook is presented as an active, even vocal pedophile, but his brief attempt at raping Angela is only a plot device ­– the fact that none of the other adults seem to have a problem with his blatant sexual tastes is much more disturbing. There’s no indication that Hiltzik is endorsing the behavior, of course (the cook gets boiled nearly to death in the next scene), but he’s certainly stoking the issue for the sake of reaction. Further proof is found in the fact that he dresses most of his adult male counseling staff in clothing that is about two sizes too small, equating their masculine sexual appeal with childlike apparel.



Despite the homophobic/transphobic subtexts running through its veins, Sleepaway Camp has developed a loyal following in the gay community. This is thanks in large part to campy performances and fiercely homoerotic undertones. It’s possible that Angela and Peter were raised by two men (their mother is never mentioned) and just as possible that Angela isn’t a transgender adolescent, but a plainly gay young man who was raised as a girl. The homophile implications are made visually evident by the aforementioned counseling staff’s costumes and the complete lack of feminine nudity – even the skinny-dipping scene is an all-male affair. In fact, the closest the film comes to the T&A that usually accompanies the genre are completely un-sexualized scenes of campers in bathing suits and a ‘from the collarbone up’ shower scene murder. The subtext was, according to interviews with Hiltzik, intended as ‘foreshadowing’ – an answer that, out of context, actually seems to verify that he thought of the film’s gay elements as perverse. Whatever his intent (at the very least, he was exploiting the era’s homophobia for the sake of shock), Hiltzik has embraced the following, proving his heart was in the right place in the end.


There are also hints that the supporting cast is racist – almost every adult in charge of camp maintenance is a minority who serves the all white the counseling staff and campers. The issue is emphasized by the fact that the only minority actor with lines is a throwback to African American “Yes, sir” stereotypes. This is more likely an act of tone-deafness than subversion, however.

Sleepaway Camp was available completely uncut on VHS for years, but its official US and UK DVD releases, via Anchor Bay entertainment, featured a censored version. The cuts included censored violence alongside a number of random dialogue edits/miss-synced effects. When fans approached Anchor Bay with the problem, the studio claimed (on the record) that the dropped scenes were too damaged to bother including with their remastered, anamorphic print. That claim was disproven when the now-defunct Monsters HD channel aired a relatively clean, fully HD version of the film that was completely uncut. Some fans still feared that Scream Factory wouldn’t be working from the uncut source, but, to the best of my knowledge, all cuts have been reinstated.


A complete rundown of the edits and the controversy that followed can be read at sleepawaycampfilms.com/dvdcontroversy.htm



Video

To reiterate, Anchor Bay released the first anamorphic version of Sleepaway Camp on DVD, but it was censored. Later, a Canadian grey market version was released by Legacy Entertainment, but it used a pan & scan, VHS copy for their transfer. Fans were forced to choose between a good-looking cut disc and a hideous uncut disc. Scream Factory’s new 1080p, 1.78:1 (slightly re-framed from the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1) Blu-ray probably would’ve been considered successful, had they simply reproduced whatever transfer Monsters HD used. However, knowing the strength of this particular film’s fanbase, they didn’t take any chances and rescanned the original negative in 2K (likely working from Hiltzik's personal print). This is a fantastic transfer overall, featuring only minor print damage and relatively even grain levels. Most of the notable shortcomings tend to be side effects of the film’s slightly fuzzy focus during daylight shots (perhaps CRT machine noise?), which limits the contrast and dynamic levels, and the persistently dark nighttime shots (these are notably grainier than their daylight counterparts). The dark scenes are the more problematic ones, but the limitations are no longer heightened by muddy compression noise. Fine textures and background patterns are sharp without any edge haloes or unnatural DNR effects. Colors are vibrant and natural, including lush greens, crisp blues, and consistent skin tones. Some of the punchier reds bleed a smidge, but feature no notable blocking effects.


Audio

The uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio improvements aren’t as fantastic as the HD video upgrade, but I do appreciate the presence of the original mono soundtrack. Anchor Bay’s US and UK discs were given 5.1 remixes and the results were problematic. Many of the sync and missing dialogue issues were likely symptoms of the remixing process and nothing serves a cheap and dirty slasher film from 1983 better than a relatively uncomplicated, single-channel soundtrack. This release corrects most of the offending mis-syncs and missing lines, including valued chestnuts like ‘wrinkled old dick.’ Even with the corrections, the dialogue is still a bit tinny and flat. Volume level discrepancies cause some minor high-end distortion and hiss on aspirated consonants. The incidental and environmental sounds are a mixed bag in terms of the material available, including both well-mixed background noises (crickets, frogs, breeze, et cetera) and stiff Foley effects. Edward Bilous’ underrated symphonic score has no such problems and has never sounded richer – even the DVD’s stereo spread sounded flatter than this mono version.



Extras

  • New commentary track with actors Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten, moderated by Scream Factory’s Justin Bean – I expected this first track to be the least informative, but Bean’s moderation and Rose’s familiarity with the commentary process, following the original DVD’s track ensures that the facts outweigh the nostalgia. This is a good place for behind-the-scenes stories that are told without a technical slant.

  • New commentary track with writer/director Robert Hiltzik, moderated by SleepawayCampMovies.com Webmaster Jeff Hayes – This track is something of a ‘round two’ for Hiltzik and Hayes, following their work on the original track. It is a more focused showing that actively tries to avoid overlap, but also features the most blank space of the three.

  • The original Anchor Bay disc commentary with Hiltzik and Rose, also moderated by Hayes – As stated above, this track isn’t as focused as the new director/moderator track, but is probably the best one to start with in terms of overall content.

  • At the Waterfront After the Social: The Legacy of Sleepaway Camp (45:40, HD) – A series of newly recorded, retrospective interviews with various members of the cast and crew that takes us through both the Sleepaway Camp filmmaking process and, briefly, their careers. Subject matter includes casting, secrecy surrounding the final twist, make-up effects, the location/sets, on-set relationships/friendships, and the film’s lasting impact. Curiously, the HD film footage included here looks awful. Perhaps this doc was completed before they had the 2K scan ready.

  • Judy (15:50, HD version of SD material) – A silly, amateurish fan film by Webmaster Hayes, starring Karen Fields.

  • The Princess (5:30, HD) – A music video featuring a performance from Jonathan Tiersten (it is unrelated to the movie).

  • Camp Arawak Scrapbook still gallery

  • Theatrical trailer & TV spot reel (2:10, HD)

  • Rare images from make-up effects artist Ed French

  • 2K film scan demonstration/comparison (9:00, HD)





Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers

Five years after the horrific slaughter at Camp Arawak, Angela (Pamela Springsteen) has created a new position for herself as a counselor at Camp Rolling Hills and she’s about to teach "bad campers" a brutal lesson in survival. (From Scream Factory’s original synopsis)


When Robert Hiltzik made Sleepaway Camp in 1983, he was trying to cash-in on Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) and its summer camp slasher formula. But Hiltzik’s instincts proved too weird for standard slasher fare. Even without the benefit of any particularly gory sequences, Sleepaway Camp’s oddball sexual politics and awkward scares ushered it into status as a cult classic. It was followed by two back-to-back sequels from director Michael A. Simpson in the ‘80s – Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989) – then an unofficial sequel, Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor, which was unfinished and abandoned for years, before turning up as an extra on Anchor Bay’s DVD collection. Finally, Hiltzik himself produced an officially ‘official’ sequel, Return to Sleepaway Camp. It wasn’t released until 2008.


Despite Hiltzik ignoring their ‘continuity’ when he finally had a chance to make his version, Simpson’s more comedic sequels garnered a following of their own. The first, Unhappy Campers, is somewhat famous in non-horror circles for featuring Bruce Springsteen’s sister Pamela, plus Emilo Estevez and Charlie Sheen’s sister, Renee Estevez, in starring roles. After quickly filling the audience in on the continuing adventures of Angela (including the fact that she had her sex change), Simpson introduces a pretty rigid structure where people offend her (she has become an impossibly corny prude that spouts slogans from anti-drug campaigns and forces other counselors to join her in sing-alongs) with deviant behavior and she murders them. He caulks the grout between these unconvincing, but entertaining slaughter scenes with as much nudity (the T&A is certainly eclectic) and dopey, Meatballs-esque comedy as possible. The stiff performances and rocky dialogue fit the nonsense tone of the original film (not to mention its homo/transphobic tendencies), which makes the down time surprisingly entertaining in spite of the jokes never being funny. Screenwriter Fritz Gordon’s fumbling attempts at understanding young ‘80s culture, specifically young women, is hilarious enough to overlook the botched gags. The spirit of the slasher satire endures as well, even if it isn’t particularly graceful (it’s difficult to resist the scene where two boys try to scare Angela dressed as Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees).


Video/Audio

As mentioned above, Unhappy Campers made its official stateside DVD premiere courtesy of Anchor Bay Studios as part of a Sleepaway Camp trilogy collection. There was also a non-anamorphic, budget release from Canadian company, Legacy Entertainment. Scream Factory’s 1080p. 1.85:1 Blu-ray is the first HD version available on home video. The image quality is about as sharp as expected from the material. Detail and texture are beyond SD capabilities, especially in the busier outdoor shots, but are limited by uneven grain, minor print damage (mostly white scratches), and some posterization effects. Darker interiors and night sequences also include some minor edge enhancement. Colors are natural and consistent, despite the grain and posterization/banding.


The original mono sound has been preserved in a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It is a thin and occasionally mushy affair, but it gets the job done. Dialogue is understandable and the music, including James Oliverio’s underused score and a handful of period-appropriate pop music pieces, has some depth. Effects are very weak, though, specifically incidental cues, and the noise-reduction during louder outdoor sequences is clumsy.


Extras:

  • Commentary with director Michael Simpson and writer Fritz Gordon – The writer and director seem happy to oblige fans with their memories of production, but don’t seem to have a whole 80 minutes worth of information in them. Still, their honesty is quite charming and moderator John Klyza (from sleepawaycamp.com) does his best to keep the conversation moving.

  • A Tale Of Two Sequels: Part One (28:00, HD) – The first of two retrospective featurettes includes new cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. Everyone involved seems to think they’ve made a better and more important movie than they actually have, but the content is still solid and the production values are higher than some other Scream Factory featurettes.

  • Abandoned (15:30, HD) – Fans of the series tour the eerily abandoned locations of both Sleepaway Camp sequels.

  • Behind-the-scenes footage (13:20, SD) including commentary with the director,

  • Home video promotional trailer

  • Whatever Happened to Molly? (1:00, HD) – A fan-made short that fills in a minor plot hole.

  • Still gallery







Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland

Welcome to Camp New Horizons, where an autumn retreat brings together a group of obnoxious rich kids and surly city thugs for an "experiment in sharing." Under new inept management, this is the ideal setting for notorious psychopath Angela Baker (Pamela Springsteen again) to join the camp and do what she does best – eliminating "immoral" teenagers with everything from a knife to a lawnmower. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)


Simpson and Gordon’s second crack at the comedic slasher formula is stripped down to its essentials. For better and worse. On the better side, we get less character-driven nonsense and an even more consistent stream of dead bodies (the murders are conceptually more creative, though stifled by MPAA censorship). On the worse side, Simpson seems to be working from an even smaller budget and tighter time constraints. The editing is too loose (this and filler from the previous film makes me assume Simpson’s first cut was too short for release), the photography is uninspired, and every scene seems more like a rehearsal than a final take. Things start off on the right foot by re-introducing Angela as she runs down some punk street kid with a garbage truck, disposing of the body and taking the girl’s place on the way to a different summer camp. It sets the stage to amplify the camp (again, no pun intended) appeal of the concept, but the filmmakers quickly fall into a rut of more of the same that can’t live up to this promise of absurdity. Gordon’s comedy also comes loaded with an uncomfortably mixed social message that spoofs the white conservative culture of the era, while also casting half of the badly-behaved characters as ethnic stereotypes.


Video/Audio

Teenage Wasteland was included as part of the aforementioned trilogy set from Anchor Bay, then released by Legacy in Canada, and, once again, this 1080p, 1.85:1 disc from Scream Factory represents its Blu-ray debut. This disc is more of a mixed bag. Though the grain structure is smaller, it’s also more pervasive. The grain causes some discoloration in the otherwise more vibrant hues. Details are a bit flat and include another tinge of edge enhancement (along with similar minor compression effects), but the contrast levels are more dynamic than the Unhappy Campers transfer. The wider range helps separate elements, despite the less impressive textures. Print damage effects crop up from time to time, including some pretty invasive water damage near the center of the film.


The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack is an improvement over the Unhappy Campers disc. The dialogue isn’t muffled and sound effects have more depth. There are still some crackly bits and minor distortions at high volume levels, but fewer problems with noise-reduction effects. Oddly, some of the foley effects are off-sync, but the incidental effects and dialogue remain appropriately timed. It’s probably just a case of sloppy work on the part of the filmmakers. Oliverio’s electric score barely makes an appearance, but is warm and well-balanced.


Extras:

  • Commentary with Simpson and Gordon – Another low energy track with the writer and director, once again moderated by Klyza. There’s plenty of good info and amusing anecdotes shuffled between awkward silences.

  • A Tale Of Two Sequels: Part Two (26:10, HD) – The second part of the new retrospective featurette. This time, the interviewees focus on the challenges of making the third film. The discussion of everything that was cut to avoid an X-rating is heart-breaking.

  • Behind-the-scenes footage (8:30, SD) including commentary by Simpson

  • Workprint of the longer cut taken from a VHS (1:24:50, SD) – The uncensored version is included for prosperity. The image quality is low, but not unwatchable.

  • Deleted scenes featuring additional gore footage (18:50, SD) – Those fans that don’t have the time to rewatch the entire film in VHS quality can watch a montage of the violence that was cut.

  • Home video promotional trailer

  • Tony Lives (1:10, HD) – Another fan short

  • Still gallery





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