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)

3 comments:

  1. You asked for assignments, and I have them.

    Forbidden Planet
    I Married a Monster From Outer Space
    It Conquered the World

    Reminds me, though, that I haven't done a swell ol' 50s sci-fi film myself in almost a year. Actual employment is good, but I've certainly been kept busy.

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    Replies
    1. An exciting list of titles! I know nothing about any of them, except that Anne Francis stars in Forbidden Planet, per "Science Fiction Double Feature" from Rocky Horror.

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  2. Also, dear God, this movie has a lot of dead people. Nice work.

    ReplyDelete