Sleepaway Camp Box Set Review
Spoilers This review goes to somewhat extreme lengths to avoid spoiling the movies for anyone that hasn't seen them. Sadly, the same cannot be said for many other sites who take it for granted that everyone has already seen them. If you'd rather not know any of the plot mechanisms, then you are perfectly safe here, but won't be if you click on any of the links.
It's a box set, so we'll take a look at each disc separately, and grade separately for picture/sound; the final score will be an average.
Disc One - Sleepaway Camp
It's very difficult to tell if the director (and writer) of this film, Robert Hiltzik is an unsung genius or a clumsy hack. For the most part, you would be right to simply label him a clumsy hack, but there are moments that show such flourish that you begin to wonder if the cameras fixed, almost dead, gaze is not simply a device meant to lull you into a false sense of security. A scene that plays by-the-numbers, predictable from the outset, suddenly delivers a nice little shock, or jump, that wouldn't work if you were more aware of the directors presence. It's not documentary style by a long shot, but works quite nicely all the same.
The plot is rather good. It’s not as clear-cut as many in the genre, and there is at least some attempt at subtlety that works very well. At the end, of course, all becomes clear, but not until the very end and even then the film allows you to fill in the gruesome gaps for yourself. Again, it raises the question of whether or not this is a flaw or an intentional device, but, either way, it works. It's set, of course, in that peculiar, cruel and unusual, instrument of torture, the Summer Camp where kids that don't fit in are bullied and harassed all summer long by the Hitler youth that run such institutions. The central characters are Angela, a strange, mute girl and her cousin, Ricky; Ricky deserves special mention for having the foulest mouth ever seen on the cliché all-American young teenager; it's as though he's possessed by the ghost of an especially profane sailor at times and you'll watch in awe as one profanity after another tumble from his lips. It's worth watching just for that alone.
Performances in the film are, in a word, appalling. These people are not actors, that much is clear, and there's something almost compelling in the way they perform. Even the most innocuous of lines is delivered with a false sense of gravity that is at once camp, hilarious and shockingly embarrassing. It's like an especially bad school play, or public information film. You will suffer along with them throughout the film. Watch out for the luckless police constable who has been coerced into wearing a ludicrous false moustache. Lucky old Angela the mute, comes out of the film with the strongest performance, simply on account of her role mainly consisting of sitting there silently taking abuse from various members of the cast.
Right, the most important thing in these films is, of course, the death scenes, and this is where Sleepaway Camp does, actually, deliver the goods. It's all to do with that directorial technique discussed earlier, of course. You don't really ever get to see the murders take place, but you do get long, lingering shots of the gruesome aftermath. Their almost clinical and at least one goes on slightly too long which, in the midst of all the camp acting and creaking plot, suddenly leaves the viewer with a real sense of discomfort. To go into too much detail would spoil the film immensely, but the deaths are wonderfully inventive, and involve a wide variety of tools and devices. No simple slash and hack here, but if you've ever wanted to see 'death by bees nest' then this film is for you.
It also has a great ending, one that catches you almost completely by surprise and is handled very well indeed, and don't look at the chapter titles unless you want it completely ruined for you. Score 5/10
Slightly weak transfer, there's no print damage as such, but the whole thing is very grainy throughout. Colours are muted and slightly washed out. Contrast levels are not high, and there's a lack of detail throughout, but the nighttime scenes, of which there are many, are adequate. Not a great advert for DVD. Score 4/10
It manages to fare slightly better in the sound department. You have three options, a DTS, 5.1 or stereo transfer and you're probably best off with the simple stereo mix. The separations are strong and dialogue clear and bright. The surround options are adequate, but sound quite artificial and hollow sounding. Steering is strong, but there's not much to choose from between the DTS and 5.1 mix.. Score - 7/10
Commentary with Robert Hiltzik and Felissa Rose
With some generous contributions from Jeff Hayes who runs the http://sleepawaycamp.com site. It manages to add very little to the film, but there are some nice little stories told and they let you in on the story behind that awful moustache. They seem likeable enough, and there are some interesting anecdotes, but there's too much commenting on what's on screen ("Oh, look at that/This is my favorite bit etc.") and not enough background stories, but its not a complete waste of time.
A short, sweet trailer running for just over a minute that might slightly spoil it a little for you. Best to watch afterwards, just in case. Anamorphic as well.
Other extras include 9 pages of film notes that would have been happier as an insert, and biographies of Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten, neither of which will contribute much to your enjoyment of the film.
Disc Two - Sleepaway Camp 2:Unhappy Campers
This is possibly the greatest film in the world - Only five minutes to wait until the first gruesome murder which is followed by a pounding heavy metal song and then possibly the most gratuitous topless girl shot ever. It's set in Camp Rolling Hills as well. Ho ho, and so it continues in a similar vein throughout. Wisely, the makers have opted to ditch the faux seriousness of the first film and opted for the most excellent decision to make the film as a gross out comedy and it works.
Pre-dating Scream by a number of years, Sleepaway Camp 2 (1988) is fully aware of the shortcomings of its genre, and so celebrates them. The killer is revealed in the opening seconds of the film allowing the viewer to forgo the misery of idly working out whodunit as it unfolds and instead allows the makers to simply have fun and fun is certainly what this film is all about. Some of it is laugh out loud funny, deliberately so as well for a change. By having the identity of the killer known allows for many a cheap laugh. "What's in the box?" asks one character to the killer, during a party game. "Dead teenagers brains", comes the dead-pan reply. Often, the dialogue is loaded with irony and this gives the film a wonderful edge over pretty much any other you care to mention in the genre. One murder is carried out while the killer is dressed as Leatherface and a chap dressed up as Freddie Kruger is garroted with his own glove so it even pre-empts Scream's supposed postmodernism as well as it's comedy approach.
Performances in the film never approach Oscar nomination level, but the cast concerned do a wonderful job at moving the film along at a cracking pace. Without giving the identity of the killer away, the person who plays the killer gives a magnificent performance. Watch the scene where one character is talking to the the killer from inside another room, as the killer hunts around for a suitable murder weapon outside; the sense of casual violence they exude as a coat hanger, a cassette-radio and so on are examined and cast aside, is superb and, surprisingly, very chilling. Punning lines are delivered with aplomb and the gags come thick and fast. "Hey, look whose on TV!" they exclaim at one point; of course a severed head is inside a broken television. It's full of neat little lines like this, and situations that border on the surreal, such as the aforementioned Leatherface homage. This film unhesitatingly recommended if you enjoy the more tacky type of horror film. The more horror films you've seen, the more you'll enjoy the tongue in cheek wackiness of this. Score 8/10
Much better picture quality this time around. A rich, colorful transfer that catches every spilled drop of blood. There's some grain throughout, especially in some of the night time shots and there's still a low contrast level, but it's bright and cheerful, flesh tones look natural, and there's little to complain about. Score 7/10
Again, the sound quality is very good. The full range of mixes is available and the surround tracks sound much more natural this time around. There's no trace of artificialness that plagued the first disc and the surrounds are used to great effect in some of the more atmospheric sequences and dialogue is strong throughout. The stereo track is also bright and clear. Score 8/10
Commentary by Director Michael A Simpson and Writer Fritz Gordon
Jeff Hayes moderates it once more, and it's always nice when a good film gets a commentary it deserves, as is the case here. It's clear that both are very fond of the film and have many interesting stories to tell about the background of the films and point out little mistakes and details you might otherwise miss, including the excellent fact that all the cast are named after 80's brat pack actors. More importantly, you may feel, they point out scenes where cuts have been made. Well worth listening too.
Behind The Scenes
For once, this is rather more interesting than most. Instead of a made-for-cable puff piece of candyfloss, you get a series of rushes and silent background footage, rehearsals and footage of the make-up effects. It's narrated by Director Michael A Simpson and it's a very nice little feature. Its 4/3, and of fairly poor quality but that doesn't really matter a jot. 13 minutes
Teaser for Sleepaway Camp 3
16 second teaser for the third film, that's little more than a title sequence and contains no actual movie footage.
Fairly odd trailer that looks as though it's been taped from trade trailer tape and has a fairly dreadful quality. It is, however, funny, camp and loud and more than sells the film. Contains many spoilers. 2 Minutes
There's some still galleries, which come in three flavors, first there's some standard behind-the-scenes stuff, photos and the like, then, there's a special Abandoned Cabin Section, featuring behind the scenes and stills from one of the more gruesome sequences and then, finally, a section dedicated to the Make-up effects, which is actually fairly interesting. Each sequence contains around thirty or so shots and it's nice to see a bit of effort has gone into this. After all, it's frequently the most pointless of all extras. Not here.
Disc 3 Sleepaway Camp 3:Teenage Wasteland
This was shot back-to-back with part two, so it's no surprise that it retains the quality. It even ups the stakes somewhat; you've less than a minute, this time around, to wait until the first topless girl shot and then the first murder takes place about a minute later. We've not even got to camp yet and it's the same camp, but with a different name. This time around, it's Camp New Horizons and it's a 'social experiment' that brings together rich and poor kids in the name of 'sharing'; it's as dreadful as it sounds and is merely an excuse to make the kids even more obnoxious than usual. What a great idea.
The script is, again, loaded with clever references to itself and other horror movies. At one point, we are told the date is Saturday the 14th and one character, Riff (Daryl Wilder) is asked what his favorite sort of movies are. "Ones with tits and blood" he replies with tongue lodged firmly in cheek. Of course, all this predates Scream and you will wonder how much of an influence these films were on Kevin Williamson (Scream's Writer). The answer is a lot; this film even features an obnoxious TV news reporter.
The cast give outstanding performances, given the genre. Principal leads are great and one of the stand out performances comes from Haynes Brooke, who plays an archetypal All-American idiot with political ambitions. His response to the favorite movie question is "Ones that make America look great, like.....Rambo 3". Our killer’s performance is, once again, outstanding; managing to camp up the role something rotten and puts much into the performance. The thing that ensures these films rise head and shoulder above their more pedestrian cousins is the quality of the minor characters; even axe fodder characters, with a tiny amount of screen time seem far more rounded and believable than some of the leads in other slasher films. They are given just enough good lines, or character quirks, to ensure they're funny and memorable; for example, Snowboy says little, but graffiti’s everything he sees, trees, tents etc ("He graffiti’d my map", mumbles Bobby.) It’s a testament to the skills of writer Fritz Gordon as much as anything else.
The killings are, if anything, more inventive than any other you will see in these type of films. We see death by truck, death by lawnmower and death by flagpole but perhaps 'see' is the wrong word. There seems to be some heavy butchery going on here of a completely different nature to that seen on screen. The commentary mentions that originally the movie was awarded the dreaded X category so obviously much has been removed to obtain the tame R rating so there's a lot missing (All is not lost, check out the deleted scenes). Usually, cuts in these sorts of film spell the death knell for any sort of enjoyment, as the principal reason for their existence is gore, and once that's gone, there's nothing left. Luckily, here, the rest of the film is of such good quality that the gore removal doesn't really harm this film, or it's prequel for that matter. It's a huge insult, of course, and if there's an unrated version of these films, you should seek them out but these films are more about sharp humour and irony and the removal of the gore doesn't really hurt that.
This is a great little film, and needs to be seen with its prequel. It's funny, gory and very clever and never outstays it's welcome. Score 8/10
Not a good a print this time. It looks slightly washed out and colours are very weak. It looks grainy as well and there's a lack of detail throughout. No damage, though. Score 4/10
Sound quality is much better. A good, clean loud and bright mix. The DTS and 5.1 mixes are quite similar, really, with not much between them but whichever you choose, every slash and hack is crystal clear. Rears are used for ambience only and dialogue is strong. Score 6/10
Commentary by Director Michael A Simpson and Writer Fritz Gordon
Once more, moderated by Jeff Hayes, and once more its warm, funny and interesting. The commentary is helped along wonderfully by Jeff who is clearly a massive fan of the films and has an in depth knowledge of them that far exceeds the director and writer. Without him, many little gems would have slipped by. Never once does it outstay its welcome and great stories are told concerning the background of the characters, shooting problems and small mistakes. Excellent and thoroughly entertaining.
Behind The Scenes
Once more, Michael A Simpson talks us over some rushes and special effect shots. 8 Minutes long and very interesting.
Now this is interesting, remember we discussed cuts? Well, here we have 18 minutes of all the murder scenes, but with all the cut footage reinstated. It's of very poor quality, which perhaps gives some reason as to why these scenes have not be reedited back into the film. Pretty much every special effect has been removed from the film, but it's lovely to have them here in at least some form. Thanks a lot, Anchor Bay. 4.3 and mono and that soundtrack seems vary damaged. It’s hissy and there’s lots missing from it.
Another camp trailer which manages to give the entire film away. 2.38 minutes
Once more, a selection of scenes broken down into categories. Behind the Scenes, Make-up effects and the celebrated garbage Truck Scene. More interesting than most.
Atlanta News Clip
Short three minute sequence that's a local news stories coverage of the making of the film. Funny, and very odd, it attempts to mix fact and fiction and ends up merely looking inept. Interesting, though, and its nice to have it.
The slasher film is an odd genre. Often unpleasantly conservative, they operate on a level that transcends the narrative and instead attempts to play directly to the viewers more base instincts; the desire to see bad kids punished in gruesome ways for disobeying the rules. This combination of morality and violence frequently leaves a nasty taste in the mouth as the clumsier of the films exist merely for this reason. Just think about any of the Friday the Thirteenth films that exist only as special effects vehicles for dispensing punishment. Here, however, once you get past the first, rather po-faced film, the Sleepaway Camp films are very different and very worthy of your time. In many ways, they are more enjoyable than Scream and are very much better than it's rather poor sequels. The Sleepaway sequels are lessons in economical and fast film making and are worth watching for this reason alone. Belly laughs, gore, naked girls and an intelligent, literate script that pokes fun at itself and the genre - What more can you ask for? You get two excellent little films and one average one for your money and some very good quality extras. This is a package well worth picking up.
Note None of the discs, nor the extras, contain subtitles which is slightly annoying.