Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Census Bloodbath: I'm A Happy Camper

Year: 1989
Director: Michael A. Simpson
Cast: Pamela Springsteen, Tracy Griffith, Michael J. Pollard
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you may recall, I enjoyed Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, but only reluctantly given how it skated by on a bare bones, unembellished recitation of the slasher formula. Considering that that movie and its sequel were both filmed in the same six week period on the same sets with the same crew and lead actress, it’s truly mind-boggling how much of a vast improvement Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland turns out to be. I guess practice makes perfect, even if that practice is merely the first three weeks of what must have been a pretty fun shoot.

Except for those poor people who had to clean up a month’s worth of Karo syrup.

Like all good slashers, Sleepaway Camp III opens with a murder. Everyone’s favorite wickedly peppy camper killer Angela (Pamela Springsteen) murders and takes the place of Maria (Kashina Kessler), who was on her way to Camp New Horizons. An “experiment in sharing” that will pair underprivileged inner-city youths with rich kids from around the country, New Horizons was opened on the site of the Camp Rolling Hills massacre that took place a year (AKA three weeks) prior. The camp is owned by a couple named after The Munsters – the lascivious Herman (Michael J. Pollard of American Gothic, but also Bonnie and Clyde!) and the lazy Lilly (Sandra Dorsey) – who ostensibly want to bring two cultures together but are quite transparently scamming government funds to go on a tropical vacation.

Let’s not pretend there’s any more “plot” to get through and Meet the Meat, because there’s a hell of a lot of them. Representing the inner cities are: Tony (Mark Oliver, who played “Boss,” in The Boss, so I guess he’s technically the title character?), a profoundly sexy Latino from East L.A.; A-rab (Jill Terashita of Night of the Demons), a profoundly sexy leather-clad punk girl; Snowboy (Kyle Holman), a bottle blonde douchebag who’s so addicted to graffiti that he spray paints everything that isn’t nailed down – and everything that is; and Riff (Daryl Wilcher), who’s obsessed with rap music, insofar as this movie’s idea of “rap” is “license-free synth instrumentals with light scatting.”

And on the rich snobs side we have: Marcia (Tracy Griffith, Melanie Griffith’s half-sister and the third consecutive celebrity sibling to have a prominent role in this franchise), who is so thoroughly bland she has to be the Final Girl, though she has a genuinely sweet romance with Tony; Bobby (Haynes Brooke), a sweetly nerdy Judge Reinhold type who’s always up for a little bondage play; Cindy (Kim Wall), a mousy girl whose shyness hides a deep well of seething racism; and Jan (Stacie Lambert), the obligatory hot girl who inexplicably wants to sleep with the gross camp owner.

And that’s the ABRIDGED list!

You may have noted that the rich kids are named after the Brady Bunch and the poor kids were named after West Side Story. This is either because the screenwriter simply didn’t know as many names as this massive platter of Meat received, or he wanted to engage your brain in some way other than the plot, because that certainly wasn’t gonna do it. Here’s all 80 minutes in a nutshell: the campers play trust games, then Angela kills them. Bada bing, bada bom. Oh, and one of the counselors is officer Barney (Cliff Brand), the father of Hot Sean (a camper who was murdered in the previous film – what a rich mythology we’re building here).

The only thing notably about the kills-only plot is that it’s much more structurally dynamic than the episodic slashings of Unhappy Campers. Our meat is divided into three digestible groups of five that Angela splits her time between in what amounts to a series of vignettes. This gives us time to familiarize ourselves with the characters and their one distinguishing trait before their untimely demise. It’s not rocket science, but the flow is smooth as butter and the interpersonal conflicts stand out clearer among the din.

Perhaps something as simple as a comprehensible structure is a small compliment to pay to a film, but when you’re grading on the scale of Unhappy Campers, this is a skyscraping leap in quality. But that’s not the only improvement Teenage Wasteland has to offer. The post-Freddy quips awkwardly shoehorned into Angela’s mouth are likewise much sharper and clearer. This time they’re actually relevant to some element of the character or the kill (probably because we actually have a sense of who any of these people are), and one or two actually made me laugh out loud (although the best line comes from Marcia in her closing scene, when she delivers a stupendously well-timed joke), which not even Freddy can do most of the time.

Angela is ready for prime time!

The kills here are also delightful. They’re not necessarily an improvement, and there’s no gore gag so epically memorable as Sean’s papier-mâché beheading, but they’re again more appropriate to the characters and setting. The preposterous kills are what propel both movies into to the lower tier of the slasher pantheon, but Teenage Wasteland’s grace notes (like Angela roasting marshmallows over a camper’s burning corpse) propel it forward just a smidge more.

Really, the refrain I’m noticing here is that Teenage Wasteland is actually consistent. That doesn’t make it a great film or even a particularly good one (never forget how poorly lit and staged these movies are), but if Unhappy Campers was raw and unpretentious enough to earn respect from hardcore slasher fans, then Teenage Wasteland surpasses that mark by actually giving a crap. Both are unusually watchable for direct-to-video horror, but Part III - as much as the story behind its production should make this impossible - has learned from the failures of its predecessor to deliver a satisfying chunk of gooey 80’s cheese.

Killer: Angela Baker (Pamela Springsteen)
Final Girl: Marcia (Tracy Griffith)
Best Kill: The “firecracker in the nose” gag is one of the greats, even if the special effects aren’t quite up to the challenge.
Sign of the Times: Angela delivers Riff a tape containing a rap about how she’s going to murder him.
Scariest Moment: Any scene with Herman will give you serious Hard Candy vibes.
Weirdest Moment: Angela delivers Riff a tape containing a rap about how she’s going to murder him.
Champion Dialogue: “Good thing you’re dead, cuz in a couple of years your breasts would’ve been sagging something terrible.”
Body Count: 16
  1. Maria is run over by a garbage truck.
  2. Tawny snorts cleaning powder.
  3. Herman has a stick stabbed through his mouth.
  4. Jan is beat to death with a stick.
  5. Peter has a firecracker lit in his nose.
  6. Snowboy is hit in the head with a log.
  7. A-rab is decapitated with an axe.
  8. Cindy is dropped from a flagpole
  9. Lilly has her head run over by a lawnmower.
  10. Bobby is crushed against a tree by ropes.
  11. Riff has tent spikes hammered into him.
  12. Officer Barney is shot to death.
  13. Greg and
  14. Anita are axed simultaneously in a Home Alone-esque trap.
  15. Paramedic is stabbed with a hypodermic needle.
  16. Cop is stabbed in the eye with a hypodermic needle.
TL;DR: Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland is an inexplicable improvement on its relentlessly average predecessor.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1233
Reviews In This Series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Angela's Ashes

Year: 1988
Director: Michael A. Simpson
Cast: Pamela Springsteen, Renée Estevez, Tony Higgins 
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The Sleepaway Camp franchise is a testament to how resilient the 80’s slasher formula truly was. In the face of moral and artistic protest, a strict MPAA crackdown, and declining box office, even a low-profile cheapie from five years prior could bear fruit. The blood squeezed out of the stone that was the delightfully off-kilter Sleepaway Camp came in the form of two direct-to-video knockoffs, shot back-to-back on the same set and released in subsequent years. The first of these belated sequels, released in the declining days of the slasher boom, is Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers.

Now, I want you to keep this in mind. Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers is not very good at all. But such is the cognitive dissonance of the slasher fan that it is one of the more well-respected examples of the form in the artistically bankrupt year that was 1988. As much as I too find it entirely entertaining, take any recommendation with a grain of salt. When you’re buffeted with the likes of The Last Slumber Party and Death Nurse 2 day in and day out, pretty much anything is going to feel like an oasis.

You can put that blurb on the poster.

In Sleepaway Camp II, we find ourselves in the bucolic Camp Rolling Hills deep in the New Jersey woods. Over the campfire, a bloodcurdling tale is told about the murders at the nearby Camp Arawak. Five years ago, one of the campers went psychotic, killing “over 30 people,” which in no way gels with even the most generous of body counts for the original film. The killer is still at large. Now if only they could remember her name…

Story time is suddenly interrupted by the relentlessly peppy counselor Angela (Pamela Springsteen, the most famous Springsteen if you only watch horror movies and don’t ever listen to music or talk to my dad), who it quickly becomes clear is the very same deranged killer: Angela is hell-bent on making sure her campers follow the rules. Those without the requisite amount of pep are given the axe… right in the face. Everything about this flies directly in the face of Angela as we knew her back in 1983, and with a tossed-off expository line removes the single most interesting element of her character, but Bruce Springsteen’s sister delivering terribly anti-witty quips that would make Freddy Krueger cringe is better than nothing.

Here are the campers who are under threat of being “sent home” by Angela: Molly (Renée Estevez of Intruder), who is clearly our Final Girl because she’s the one who says “guys, I really don’t think we should be doing this…”; Sean (Tony Higgins), her beefy love interest who appears to be in some sort of Jack situation because he looks at least 25 year old; Ally (Valerie Hartman, who returns for Sleepaway Camp III holding the coveted position of “raccoon wrangler”), the obligatory Slut character who is so sexually aggressive it’s a surprise the camp is still standing; and a whole slate of anonymous characters played by even more anonymous actors. These characters are given names like Judd, Emilio, Anthony, and so forth.

Geddit?

The defining feature of Sleepaway Camp II is rather the lack of a feature: there is no plot. It’s just a handful of slasher tropes scooped into a garbage bag, which is shaken periodically and dumped out in a new order every 10 minutes or so. Fortunately, the deaths come at a steady enough clip and the run time generously caps it all at around 76 minutes, so nothing stays onscreen long enough to get tiresome.

For all its bareness, Sleepaway Camp II really strips the slasher genre down to its core elements, and it’s rather charming for it. Don’t get me wrong, almost everything in it is impossibly lame: The kills are cheaply constructed. The dialogue attempts to be funny but constantly arrives at hopeless non-quips like “say no to drugs.” And the acting isn’t execrable, but it’s pretty vanilla, with the exception of Pamela Springsteen, who takes home both Best and Worst in Show (her performance is shrill and one-note, but her facial structure has an uncanny ability to shift from chipmunk-cheeked cheer to angular menace, and that’s nothing to thumb one’s pointy nose at.)

But! There’s something genial and compelling about its total lack of pretense. The filler scenes with the campers showcase some fun, unforced character dynamics that breathe life into the campground setting. And the murders, while scarcely as outré as the best of the late 80’s weirdo slashers, have a bare minimum of creativity and a random grab-bag sensibility that make them unpredictable and sometimes even a  teensy bit nasty.

You’ve been a naughty girl, Angela.

There’s something genuine and honest about a film that’s trying so little to impress, and thus most of the badness swings around the horn to become positive qualities. There’s only one unequivocally awful sequence, in which Angela has a “nightmare” that’s just a blue-tinted assemblage of flashback footage slowed down to an excruciating crawl. Now that is indefensible, but although two minutes of filler is admittedly a rather large percentage of 76, it’s still not enough to turn me against the film.

I in no way endorse this kind of lazy filmmaking, but I can’t change what’s already been done. And as it stands, Sleepaway Camp II is a lark I don’t mind pursuing every now and again. Its inextricable link with its simultaneously-produced sequel (more on that next time) makes it a bit of a unique curio, but standing on its own merits it’s a totally acceptable way to while away an hour and change. Also Sean is pretty. Let's take a quick peek before we go.


Killer: Angela Johnson née Baker (Pamela Springsteen)
Final Girl: Molly (Renee Estevez)
Best Kill: Angela tests out a variety of objects in the cabin to assess their murderous capabilities before deciding on a guitar string to garrote Demi.
Sign of the Times: The music playing on the boom box in the mess hall sounds like the soundtrack to Chopping Mall.
Scariest Moment: Sean and molly discover Angela’s secret cabin full of bodies.
Weirdest Moment: One of the female characters seems to think that flashing her boobs is a hilarious punch line to every joke she makes.
Champion Dialogue: “Too bad they haven’t figured out a way to make French fries nutritious. I’m a  nut when it comes to French fries!”
Body Count: 18
  1. Phoebe (not Cates) is hit in the head with a log.
  2. Jodi (not Foster) is barbecued.
  3. Brooke (not Shields) is barbecued.
  4. Mare (not Winningham) is drilled.
  5. Anthony (not Michael Hall) has his throat slashed with a Freddy glove.
  6. Judd (not Nelson) is chainsawed.
  7. Ally (not Sheedy) is drowned in an outhouse.
  8. Demi (not Moore) is garroted with a guitar string.
  9. Lea (not Thompson) is stabbed in the heart.
  10. TC (not Tom Cruise) has battery acid thrown in his face.
  11. Sean (not Penn) is decapitated.
  12. Ralph (not Macchio) has his throat cut.
  13. Charlie (not Sheen) is killed offscreen.
  14. Emilio (not Estevez) is killed offscreen.
  15. Uncle John (not Hughes) is killed offscreen.
  16. Diane (not Lane) is stabbed in the gut.
  17. Rob (not Lowe) is hanged.
  18. Truck Lady (not anyone) is stabbed repeatedly.
TL;DR: Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, for no reason I can properly discern, is a reasonably delightful if thoroughly generic example of the slasher form.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1259
Reviews In This Series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)

Friday, September 1, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Scareplane

Year: 1982
Director: Alfred Sole
Cast: Tom Smothers, Carol Kane, Paul Reubens
Run Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Airplane! is one of my absolute favorite movies. It’s a wacky visual gag-laden parody of a very specific subgenre, and it’s a masterpiece. But it also has a lot to answer for. Suddenly, 80’s comedy directors thought that they too could make a film like Airplane!. Spoiler alert: they couldn’t. The tsunami of imitators fling themselves wholeheartedly into zaniness, but they lack the finesse and craftsmanship to be anything but a pale imitation.

Being as it was the premiere subgenre of the 1980’s, the slasher film attacked its fair share of Airplane! clones, as early as 1981’s Student Bodies, just one year into the Golden Age. In the year or two to follow, a whole host of crackerjack joke-em-ups would come tumbling down the chute, but the earliest would come in April 1982: Pandemonium, helmed by Alice, Sweet Alice director Alfred Sole.

Which – you may remember - is famously a laugh riot where a young Brooke Shields is brutally murdered at her first communion.

Pandemonium follows the hijinks that ensue at a cheerleader camp in Indiana that has recently reopened after a long history of attendees being brutally murdered. The camp is run by Bambi (Candice Azzara), the town’s only surviving cheerleader. When two separate maniacs escape from prison and an institution respectively, local Canadian Mountie Sgt. Cooper (Tom Smothers) investigates with his trusty, reluctant sidekick Johnson (Paul Reubens).

Because this is a parody of the rigid slasher formula, this is the first time in a good long while where we get to Meet the Meat. The cheerleaders on the chopping block today are Candy (Carol Kane), a wholesome and telekinetic riff on Carrie, one of the only films to be directly parodied for some reason; Randy (Marc McClure of Strange Behavior, but also the freakin’ Back to the Future and Superman franchises) and Andy (Miles Chapin of The Funhouse), two nearly identical horny white boys; Sandy (Debralee Scott), a pushy broad with impossibly high standards; Mandy (Teri Landrum), a toothpaste-obsessed beauty queen; and Glenn (Judge Reinhold), the platinum blonde son of a blind pencil salesman. …Don’t ask.

They begin to get killed, presumably at the hands of the same murderer who has been targeting cheerleaders in this town since 1963.

It’s pretty much an American pastime at this point.

As you may have noticed, Pandemonium has a pretty stellar cast of name-brand comedians and character actors. They are the wind in this film’s whoopee cushion, because without them the gossamer thin script would fall apart like tissue paper in a tornado. Carol Kane is a delight in a role that frankly never comes together, salvaging as much charm as she can muster to make up for the fact that Candy doesn’t even possess the one note most parody characters are provided at the door. Judge Reinhold is also superb as the cheerily clueless lunkhead with a  heart of gold. The only real sour note is – surprisingly – Paul Reubens, who attempts to solder his Pee-Wee shtick onto the archetype of the obligatory “random zany guy” and creates an excruciatingly irritating Frankensteinian monstrosity of a character in the process.

So, here comes the most important question of all… Is it funny? My answer is… mostly. Some of the broad comedy gags stick the landing (even the obvious ones like what happens when you order the “Three Stooges pie”), and the screenwriters clearly had a deep well of knowledge about the subgenre (especially in the parts where they less-than gently mock the Canadian slashers that masqueraded as American by having a cop in full Mountie regalia presiding over a Midwest town). It’s generally more “clever” than it is actually “funny,” but there’s one line in particular that had me laughing so hard my head rolled right off my shoulders. That’s a gold star achievement for a parody slasher of this ilk.

Of course, the film weakens considerably once the killings begin in earnest, so it can’t be that good a parody. Although the effects are slightly better than the demure offscreen antics of Student Bodies, they’re charmless and tend to focus on character traits that haven’t really been explored beforehand. The only worthwhile kill is in the prologue, in which a group of cheerleaders walking in an absurdly tight single file are shish kebabed with a javelin. 

This is what makes me laugh. Please don’t call the cops.

Now that’s not to say it’s funny all the time to begin with. The gags spray wildly in every direction, and forty percent of them plummet straight into the dirt. This is the nature of these films, but there’s nothing more exhausting than bad comedy, and even at a brisk 82 minutes, Pandemonium slightly overstays its welcome. The story isn’t interesting or consistent enough to pick up the slack when the jokes fail, and it sags desperately every ten minutes or so.

Is it funny to paste the Jaws score into a random chase scene? And since when has there been the stereotype of “Girl Obsessed with Toothpaste”? When Pandemonium is grounded in real tropes it excels (like the way the killer’s hands can effortlessly burst through mattresses and walls), but sometimes it can be a bit senile, wandering off in completely arbitrary, inexplicable directions.

The whole affair has a bit of a ramshackle charm to it, but frankly, Pandemonium is too piecemeal for me to proclaim that it’s a hidden gem. I sure as hell had a fun time watching it, but there’s not enough There there for me to want to firmly commit to standing in its corner. It’s about on par with Student Bodies, which I also don’t dig all that much. I respect the existence of both the films, with their occasional giggles, but there’s a reason Scream was hailed as a groundbreaking slasher satire 14 years later: Nobody cared enough to remember that either of these films existed.

Killer: Blue Grange (a briefly cameo-ing Tab Hunter)
Final Girl: Candy (Carol Kane)
Best Kill: Mandy being impaled with a cheerleading bullhorn, because it’s pretty much the only death that feels like the genuine escalation of what the slasher genre was working with at the time. (I disqualified the cheerleader shish kebab because I already rhapsodized about it earlier.)
Sign of the Times: The movie makes an absurdly racist Air Tokyo joke that just wouldn’t fly in this day and age.
Scariest Moment: Randy’s dead body is propped up wearing a horse mask.
Weirdest Moment: A man who just quit his job as the wind sock at an airport eats his lunch while wearing a huge chrome sock as a hat.
Champion Dialogue:  “He doesn’t want you to sin, unless He can watch.”
Body Count: 15; not including various cheerleaders killed within a spinning newspaper montage, or the offscreen victims of the serial killer Jarrett, who were turned into furniture.
  1. Five 
  2. cheerleaders 
  3. are 
  4. shish kebabed 
  5. with a javelin.
  6. Glenn jumps on a trampoline loaded with dynamite.
  7. Mandy gets a power drill stuck in her mouth.
  8. Fletcher,
  9. Jarrett, and
  10. Dr. Fuller are simultaneously electrocuted.
  11. Bambi is drowned in a milk bath.
  12. Randy is smothered with a pompom.
  13. Andy is smothered with a pompom.
  14. Mandy is impaled with a bullhorn.
  15. Blue is crushed by a statue of himself.
TL;DR: Pandemonium is a reasonably entertaining, if disastrously thin parody slasher.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1242