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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Sleepaway Camp Survival Kit
The Sleepaway Camp Survival Kit
Starz / Anchor Bay // R // August 20, 2002
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 3, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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Angela: "Are you a cheerleader?"
Cindy: "Yes."
Angela: "Figures. Are you a virgin?"
Cindy: "No!"
Angela: "Do you take drugs?"
Cindy: "Doesn't everybody?"
Angela: "Strike three."
-Pamela Springsteen and Kim Wall, Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland

Anchor Bay Entertainment's DVD release of cult slasher Sleepaway Camp two years ago was apparently successful enough that they decided to give its sequels the same treatment. The newly-released Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland both feature pristine new anamorphic widescreen presentations, audio commentaries, and a respectable smattering of supplemental material. The discs are available individually or in a single attractively priced box set cheerfully titled The Sleepaway Camp Survival Kit.

As Sleepaway Camp begins, a brother and sister are merrily frolicking in the waters of some nameless town with their father. An unfortunate skiing accident instantly kills Pops and one of the kids, and the survivor is shipped off to nutty Aunt Martha. Eight years later, that hapless kid, the indescribably shy Angela (Felissa Rose), tags along with cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) for a summer at Camp Arawak. Ricky almost immediately spots a few familiar faces. Some are welcome, like best buddy Paul (Chris Collet), while others, especially filled-out former flame Judy (Karen Fields), aren't quite as much of a joy. Angela's perpetual silence and disinterest in participating in any of the camp's activities quickly grates on the nerves of Judy and camp counselor M-E-G (Katherine Kamhi), who make it their lives' goal to torment the shrinking violet. Ricky is quick to come to Angela's defense whenever the opportunity presents itself, a habit that doesn't go unnoticed by the camp's bottom-line-focused owner, Mel (the late Mike Kellin). As a series of grisly murders are uncovered, Ricky is almost instantly suspected, though Angela has a big surprise (or, depending on how you look at it, a kinda small surprise) of her own to share.

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers picks up a few years later, with Pamela Springsteen (yes, The Boss' sister) taking the reins of the role of Angela. Thanks to several years of therapy and an armful of recommendations from psychiatrists and assorted doctors, Angela snags a position as a counselor at Camp Rolling Hills. Angela has her own ideas of what a "good girl" should be like, and of the lot before her, only Molly (Renée Estevez, another gal from a celebrity family) makes the cut. Boob-flaunting Ally (Valerie Hartman) is every bit as naughty as Molly is virtuous, and both are vying for the affections of Sean Whitmore (Tony Higgins) with varying degrees of success. Ally and her fellow campers, including some pre-pubescent Peeping Toms and a couple of slasher buffs out for a scare, break the unforgiving Angela's unspoken yet stringent rules. Angela explains away their absences by cryptically telling anyone who asks that she had to send 'em home for being naughty. Psychopaths have somewhat of a tendency to get carried away, and when Angela knocks off all of the female campers but Molly, everyone's fav'rit Uncle John (Walter Gotell) gives her the pink slip. She understandably takes the news very hard, and Molly and Sean's well-intentioned attempts to cheer her up don't end well for anyone.

Finally, there's Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland. Camp New Horizons is participating in a social experiment to bring kids from different classes together for a couple o' weeks of caring and sharing, and, of course, Angela wants in on the fun. She takes the place of scuzzy Maria Nacastro, joining prissy bigots, hardened gangstaz, grabby dimwits, and graffiti-prone faux-Brits. That's all to be expected, but one surprise is the presence of Barney Whitmore (Cliff Brand), the father of Unhappy Campers' Sean and one of the officers that first brought Angela to justice following the events of the original Sleepaway Camp. Still, old habits die hard, and accordingly, so does everyone who gets in Angela's way.

My initial reaction after the end credits began rolling on Sleepaway Camp was "Yikes, and I still have, like, seven hours of this left to go." Well, keep the Valley Girl-ish "like" and pepper that statement with quite a bit more profanity if you want to strive for accuracy. I was hesitant to rush into giving the other two movies the sort of marathon treatment I had previously been eagerly awaiting, but alas, I relented and popped Unhappy Campers into my DVD player. Though I was expecting several hours of agony, I found myself enjoying each entry in the Sleepaway Camp series more than the one before it, a progression that admittedly doesn't take too terribly long when dealing with just three movies.

The original Sleepaway Camp is fairly serious and straight-forward, and only its infamous twist ending differentiates it to any great extent from the countless other slashers inspired by the success of the Friday the 13th series. The lack of gore was by design, and only one of the kills features any blood whatsoever. Regardless, the make-up effects tend to be memorable and very well executed, particularly Artie's blistering bath in boiling brine and Mel's arrow to the neck. The final shot looks awkward and grotesque, though without going into detail, an effect of that order is a pretty large call for a $350,000 movie in 1983 with such a young female lead. Sleepaway Camp does make an attempt to build mystery around the identity of the killer, though the pool of suspects isn't even ankle-deep. The gallant Ricky and creepy Angela are the only two who seem to be remote possibilities, and since Mel names Ricky as the likely culprit fairly early on...well, you know how the formula goes. Sleepaway Camp is perfect for late night riffing in the style of what writer/director Robert Hiltzik calls "Mystery Sci-Fi Theater", and it's tough to look at much of the clothing the male counselors wear without bursting into hysterics. Maybe half-shirts and tiny tight-fitting shorts were stylish two decades ago, or perhaps it's all part of the homoerotic subtext Hiltzik intentionally slipped in.

The DVD of Sleepaway Camp included with this set is, as far as I'm aware, identical in every respect to its individual release. That includes some frequently criticized cuts not present on previous VHS releases. The cuts themselves seem to be pretty minor, limited to glimpses of some male campers' asses and an extension of the shot where a watersnake lurches from Kenny's gaping maw. Anchor Bay has acknowledged that the print they were provided included these cuts, and it's highly unlikely that a follow-up disc including these few seconds of footage will be released in the foreseeable future.

The two sequels don't take themselves nearly as seriously. Dramatic irony takes the place of mystery, as the audience is well-aware from word one that the murderous Angela is among the campers' ranks, though none of the Red Shirts (or more accurately, drab light blue shirts) around her have a clue that they're slasher fodder. The plots get less substantial as the series progresses, with little to speak of at all by the time the 75-minute Sleepaway Camp III rolls around. These sequels lack any of the subtext or darkness of the original, preferring to be more heavily centered around moderately witty one-liners, poking fun at horror clichés, gratuitous nudity, and, of course, hysterical kill scenes. Though there are still a number of comparatively bland kills, including several log-beatings and repeated stabbings, quite a few others really stand out. Among them are a lawnmower to the head, toiletries and unpleasantries, battery acid to the face, and a slow rise and quick plummet on a flagpole. The other characters are developed just enough for the audience to want them to die, though falling short of ever becoming genuinely irritating. That's often a harder balance to strike in these sorts of movies than it might sound The thug with a passion for trebly instrumental hip-hop and the cute but bigoted southern belle from Teenage Wasteland are easily my two favorites. Pamela Springsteen is the real stand-out, though. Rather than aping Rose's performance, Pam makes the character of Angela her own, creating a very funny and very likeable psychopath.

Video: All three movies in the Sleepaway Camp series feature spiffy new 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. Film grain and bland colors appear to some extent in each entry, though I wouldn't characterize them as pervasive in any of the three movies. The original Sleepaway Camp has a couple of minutes of lackluster looking footage with extremely weak blacks, such as portions of Judy's demise and the nighttime exteriors with the isolated kiddie campers. Sleepaway Camps II and III were shot back to back, and though presumably they'd be comparable in quality, I felt the final entry in the series was a bit sharper and boasted more vivid colors. The source prints appear to have been in excellent condition, as speckling is kept to a minimum, and there are no nicks, tears, or jittering throughout. Some scattered shots in all three movies seem a little soft, but, as is invariably the case with Anchor Bay releases, the overall quality exceeded my expectations by a considerable margin.

Audio: Golly, I can summarize everything in nine words: robust Dolby Digital mono soundtracks all the way around. The DVDs all sound decent enough, not coming off as excessively dated or marred by the thrice-damned presence of hiss or crackles. The two sequels feature punchier, gut-wrenching meTAAAAL soundtracks, and I'm fairly convinced that the song that plays on the Sleepaway Camp III extras menu screen (and is briefly featured in the movie itself, of course) is the most awesome song ever.

Supplements: Sleepaway Camp features an anamorphic widescreen trailer and a commentary track with sleepawaycampmovies.com webmaster Jeff Hayes., writer/director/you-name-it Robert Hiltzik, and star Felissa Rose. Hayes remains largely silent, though that gives Hiltzik and Rose the opportunity to chat about other cast members, the difficulties of shooting a movie that was perpetually one day behind schedule, and dealing with ::sniffles:: young love. Among the tidbits dropped are that Ally McBeal's Jane Krakowski was originally cast as Judy, Fake Shemps...errr...Leslies to take her place when the actress caught a bout of mono, and an explanation of why one of the cops seemed to be wearing an electrical tape moustache. Hiltzik and Rose keep a light, entertaining discussion going throughout, with very little in the way of notable pauses, though it may be worth a note that Hiltzik remains reluctant to delve into detail about the movie's make-up effects.

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers kicks off with an audio commentary by director Michael A. Simpson, writer Fritz Gordon, and John Klyza, the webmaster of a different fansite with a strikingly similar URL, sleepawaycampfilms.com. Klyza is a lot more talkative than his counterpart on the DVD release of the original, frequently inserting random notes, comments, and quips throughtout. Despite his best efforts, the energy from the Sleepaway Camp commentary is lacking, not feeling nearly as fun or boisterous. Some of the highlights are the revelation that Tracy Griffith -- yes, Melanie's sister -- tried out for the role of Angela before winding up in the sequel, that Uncle John was originally meant to have multiple personalities, gags about stunt flies and accompanying buzz foleying, and the possibilites of Sleepaway Camp: The Musical.

The 13 minutes of behind the scenes footage takes a peek at a number of different facets of production, including the application of make-up to several actors, preparing T.C.'s acid-scarred head and clothing, catering, and lighting. A teaser for Sleepaway Camp III more or less says "Coming soon...Sleepaway Camp III!" with no ominous music or imagery to really rev anyone's motor. A trailer culled from some decidedly low-resolution source strings together some of the movie's most memorable moments in the space of two minutes. Three still galleries take a look at "Behind the Scenes & Artwork", "Abandoned Cabin Scene", and "Make-Up Effects". The first batch consists of 66 images (allowing for a slight margin of error thanks to my inability to properly count), with 16 a pop or so in the remaining two galleries.

Simpson, Gordon, and Klyza return for the commentary on the Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland DVD. This discussion seemed to move at a brisker pace than the one on the previous disc. Battles with its exceedingly low budget and the MPAA are delved into somewhat, including deaths that were beyond the scope of the movie's limited resources, such as Herman's "weenie roast" and Snowboy's death by spraypaint. There are also musings on the recurring theme of bondage, logs, and Angela's dislike of animals. Klyza speaks some about the uncompleted fourth Sleepaway Camp movie over the film's ending credits.

Simpson narrates eight minutes of behind the scenes footage and outtakes, all from the opening sequence where Angela chases Maria down in a garbage truck. An extensive reel of full-frame deleted footage takes an extended gander at the movie's kills, the great majority of which were trimmed to net an R rating. To save myself the trouble of rattling them off one by one, I'll link to a list on the IMDb. The "theatrical trailer" mentioned on the keepcase is really a promotional reel sent to video store owners. Finally, there is a still gallery divided into three sections -- "Behind the Scenes & Artwork", "Garbage Truck Scene", and "Make-up and Gore Effects". In total, there are close to 90 images, with the bulk (around two-thirds) in the "Behind the Scenes & Artwork" gallery.

Fellow owners of 16x9 capable televisions will notice that all of the 'full-frame' footage on the final two discs are windowboxed in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen frame.

The Sleepaway Camp Survival Kit is packaged in the form of a first-aid kit, and a bloody handprint is spread across the front, spine, and back of the set. A sixteen page "Camp Diary" features lengthy notes from the webmasters of two Sleepaway Campfan sites, interspersed with production stills. The final page of the diary makes reference to an abandoned fourth Sleepaway Camp film, and a half-hour of footage from the aborted project is included on a disc exclusively available through Best Buy's limited edition of the set. I don't have a copy of this fourth disc handy, so I can't comment on it myself.

Conclusion: The Sleepaway Camp Survival Kit is readily available from a number of retailers for $25 or so. That's a fairly incredible price considering that the set includes three full movies, each with audio commentaries and two sporting an impressive assortment of supplemental material that would have gone overlooked if this set had been released by most any other company. This set deserves a spot on the shelf of any slasher fan, and though the quality of the movies themselves are inconsistent, I'd recommend The Sleepaway Camp Survival Kit as a purchase at the very affordable price offered by Best Buy and several e-tailers. Recommended.
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