Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)

by Jimmy "Unhappier Camper" Callaway

On the soundtrack for this movie is a song by The Dead Milkmen. When I was a junior in high school, The Dead Milkmen were my absolute favorite band, not to mention the headliners at my very first punk rock show. But everybody’s favorite band has at least one or two songs they can’t stand. And as I rode the school bus home everyday and listened to the Bucky Fellini album on my Walkman, there was always one song I fast-forwarded through: “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything).” It was a satirical song, a techno-dance pop song about how techno-dance pop songs suck really bad. I got the joke; I even thought it was kinda funny. But it still sucked really bad.

Can you guess which Dead Milkmen song is on this soundtrack?

What really sticks in my craw about this flick is not the derivative plot or lackluster effects or embarrassing acting. I mean, shit like that crops up in good slasher movies too, to no majorly ill effects. No, what I hate about this movie is how much it wants to be a satire. References to other more well-received slasher flicks abound, as well as to the ‘80s teen movie as a genre, and I would guess that we, the audience, are to nod our heads and say, “Ah, a pithy attempt to blend two different genres which appeal to the same demographic, thereby blurring the line between sex and violence in the cinema as well as in reality. Well met, author, and encore!”

Yeah, well, all I see is an uninspired, lazy-ass way to cue up memories of other, better movies, so the same enjoyment they brought us will be associated with a big hunk of shit that still can’t crack the 90-minute mark, even with a full re-cap two-thirds of the way in.

The movie takes place at Camp Rolling Hills, which apparently doesn’t have a very rigorous screening process for potential counselors. Not only do they go and hire Merle “The Pearl” from Eight is Enough, but also Angela Johnson, née Baker, the killer from the first Sleepaway Camp, portrayed this time around by Bruce Springsteen’s little sister, Pamela. No attempt is made at suspense as far as whodunnit (at least, not to the audience); this is clearly a sequel in name only (and about that: within ten minutes of this flick, I began wondering why they even made this a sequel. It has next to nothing to do with the original, in plot, in tone, in character, in anything except name. If they’d called it Teenaged Pinheads Get All Sliced Up in a Woodsy Setting, hell, I’d have watched that. The original couldn’t have been that successful that the producers thought they were gonna really clean up on Angela-mania. Like, Jaws: the Revenge is an unmitigated piece of shit, but you can see the logic there. But this is kinda like making Pure Luck II, with Frank Stallone playing the Martin Short character. Anyway, I digress).

That formula I’ve referred to elsewhere, with slasher movies being morality plays? Well, Sleepaway Camp II is a fairly textbook case. The kids misbehave, and Angela kills them. That’s that. At first, I wanted to say this is a load of preachy bullshit, but the movie clearly doesn’t really think sex and drugs and rock and roll are all that bad (even if every band on this soundtrack was signed to Enigma Records). The avenging angel here is not justified in her murderous acts, but is quickly characterized as being a crazy lunatic who won’t even show off her titties. But it’s still textbook stuff, and textbooks are still boring; as anyone who’s sat through sex education can attest, by-the-book methods can make even the funnest stuff as dull as NPR.

But couldn’t we see this as a delightful send-up of slasher movies? Couldn’t it be that the film-makers employed the stock knife-kill formula and then attempted to point up the inherent shortcomings of formulaic story-telling? Yeah, I guess, but then you’ve just got a crappy Dead Milkmen song.

See, despite all evidence to the contrary, I do my god-damnedest to give any film-maker or writer or any sort of artist the complete benefit of the doubt by absorbing their work as a work of art (however rigidly you define that term [which, in my case, would be not at all]). So I try not to assume that anyone’s cashing in on whatever the trend is at the time. And even when guys like Johnny Rotten come right out and say that’s exactly what they’re doing, I still often end up considering that to be part of how the work in whole should be read and not just dismissed outright. But Jesus Christ, Sleepaway Camp II fights me every step of the way on this.

Right off, the DVD cover shows Angela (I guess: the girl on the cover only passingly looks like Pamela Springsteen or anybody else in the movie, for that matter) in the woods with a backpack containing Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask and Freddy Krueger’s glove. “See, kids, we’re hip to the iconography of this new(-ish) wacky slasher genre you nutty nuts love so much. See? See?” Yeah, yeah, we get it. Sheesh.

Then, two of Angela’s victims try to prank her by dressing up as (can you guess?) Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger! Oh, for fun! But these two little scamps get their comeuppance from an Angela dressed up as Michael Myers (I, again, guess: she looks more like Michael Myers in a community theater production of The Deer Hunter). Ah, I see, Halloween pre-dates Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, so therefore, uh...it’s better. I dunno. It doesn’t really figure into the movie from there.

See, now, I’m forced to assume all these references are nothing more than easily recognizable icons for the 1980s movie-going public, so they could go, “Oh, right, I’ve seen that,” and then chuckle to themselves. Apparently, passive recognition of popular culture equals funny to most people (aspiring writers for Family Guy, take note).

Then, there’s the character names. With only a couple of exceptions, every character is named after a member of the Brat Pack: Demi, Rob, Emilio, Judd, and so on. And lest any of you think this is a mere show-biz inside “joke,” well, let me tell you that, yeah, you’re probably right. I mean, there’s really no evidence to the contrary. And it’s really not a bad idea, if only it had been explored. Is the heroine named Molly because that’s kind of the character Molly Ringwald would often play? Is the bitchy popular girl named Ally because that’s the antithesis of Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club? Is the token black kid named Judd because Judd Nelson was the blackest of the ultra-white ‘80s teen scene? Even the fact that Molly is played by Renée Estevez, baby sister of Emilio Estevez, is never used to any end, except when she mentions in passing that she comes from a big family (and I’m really stretching my own logic to include that)(and I’ll mention here that Renée Estevez being in this flick really proves how devoted Martin Sheen is to not letting his kids trade on his name). So many wasted opportunities, and for what? So we can all wonder whatever happened to Mare Winningham, I suppose.

When I was 18 or so, some guys my friends and I knew started this band, a kinda death-metal/emo-ish thing. It wasn’t the sort of thing we were huge into, but we went and saw them play once or twice. I just kinda shrugged my shoulders, figured I didn’t much care for it, but hey, if this was the kinda band they wanted to do, then that’s their thing. One of my friends, however, was far more cynical about the whole thing. He said these guys had it set up perfectly for themselves: if their band did well as a death-metal/emo-ish thing, then they were sitting pretty; if people thought they sucked, they could just say it was a joke and they were actually making fun of death-metal/emo-ish bands. That they’d left themselves this out, my friend thought, was artistically cowardly, and by not making it clear which way they were leaning, they weren’t so much defying typical musical-genre definitions, but instead exploiting the vagueness there so they’d be able to make out with cute riot grrrls after the show. You can’t have it both ways, he said, and I found myself agreeing with him completely. Fortunately, the band in question dissolved pretty quickly and is all but forgotten.

Not unlike Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers.