A few years back, I was wandering through a local DVD store, looking for a cheap thrill, when I caught a glimpse of a first-aid box out of the corner of my eye. Curious, I walked over to the shelf and picked up a film that would forever change bad movie night at my house: SLEEPAWAY CAMP.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP is a tour de force of ridiculousness that could’ve only been made in the 80s. From Desiree Gould’s bizarre performance to the horribly written dialogue that manages to capture the plights of adolescence and inspire laughter, yet never sound natural, there are many reasons to recommend the film. But, above all else, it’s the ending that really sells it. Even though it was ruined for me prior to my first viewing, thanks to Anchor Bay who decided to spill the beans on the back of the box set, those final few seconds made me laugh and drop my jaw simultaneously. It’s so startling and unexpected that to this day, even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, I’m still in awe as to how brilliantly out of left field it is.
Three sequels were put into production over the next decade. UNHAPPY CAMPERS and TEENAGE WASTELAND were only memorable for a handful of fun death scenes and gratuitous nudity, while THE SURVIVOR was never completed. After a 2001 convention reunion, the imagination of director Robert Hiltzik was sparked once again and in September 2003, he began shooting RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP, a direct sequel to his cult classic. Finally being released in 2008, it might only be a coincidence that RETURN is seeing the light of day for the original’s 25th anniversary but it’s shame there isn’t a better way to celebrate.
At surface level, RETURN seems a bit familiar: a camper is picked on while bodies pile up until the shocking climax. Deaths from the original are referenced and the crudity of the camper’s actions and language is intact and still rings true.
In the original, the shy and soft-spoken Angela was a sympathetic character, one who was picked on for no reason whatsoever. In RETURN, Alan (Michael Gibney) is an overweight, dirty and mean-spirited camper who enjoys picking on those smaller than him but when the tables are turned, he runs off crying while shouting his catchphrase, “Your ass stinks!” You can’t blame anyone for picking on him; he’s just a huge asshole. Having only a handful of kids picking on Alan would be one thing but watching the entire camp populace, including his step-brother and almost every camp worker, ridicule him becomes tiresome after twenty minutes. Why doesn’t someone do Alan a favor and send him home for the summer? Or send home any of the truly despicable bullies, rather than giving them a slap on the wrist?
Hiltzik seemed more interested in living up to RETURN’s tagline, “Kids can be so Mean!”, than putting the camp in SLEEPAWAY CAMP. The first two acts drag as we’re given nothing but kids picking on each other, managing to be funny only one-third of the time, and once we reach the last half-hour stretch, only two of the deaths manage to even come close to the ingenuity of the sequels. The ending, which I didn’t even expect to be in the same league as the original, manages to disappoint with its banality. Right from the first death, one character is so out of place that it’s impossible not to justifiably suspect them the entire film.
All RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP had to be was fun. I really wanted to like it and be the guy to tell you that no one else got the joke but that’s just not the case here. Maybe it was Hiltzik’s 20 year absence from the director’s chair or maybe it was that he only ever had one good idea in him. Whatever the reason, RETURN is evidence enough that the fire should be put out and the campground abandoned.
Behind The Scenes (28:24) – Put together by Jeff Hayes (webmaster of sleepawaycampmovies.com and RETURN’s consulting producer), this featurette offers up some interesting tidbits about the special effects and make-up work in the film, as well as rehearsals, raw footage of the production, on-set shenanigans and a tribute to Isaac Hayes.
Interviews (25:39) – A collection of very short and abrupt interviews with the cast, who are asked basic cookie-cutter questions like “What’s it like working with Hiltzik?” and “Tell us about your character.” But with 15 interviews crammed into 25 minutes, I guess it’s asking a lot to expect some insight. Jonathan Tiersten carries the distinction of having the most amusing interview, where he blatantly admits to taking the gig so he could first and foremost promote his band and possibly get back into acting (according to his IMDB page, he hasn’t done anything since an ABC Afterschool Special in 1987).
Behind The Scenes Photo Gallery (2:14) – A slide show consisting entirely of posed behind the scenes photos, none of which offer up anything interesting except evidence that Felissa Rose is aging well.
“Return to Sleepaway Camp” Song Performed by Goat and Friends (3:06) – The theme song plays over the DVD cover art/menu design with a strobing effect. There’s no film clips or footage of the band, making this feature essentially a screen saver with noise.
What really bugs me about the special features on the disc is that Hiltzik’s perspective on the project is mysteriously missing. This was a troubled production, being shot five years ago and sitting in post-production hell ever since (reportedly due to CGI work but there wasn’t a lot in it and what was there was terrible), and it would’ve been interesting to hear, straight from the horse’s mouth, exactly what he’s been doing with the film. Tiersten is the only one who offers up anything related to the delayed project, briefly commenting on the false starts but never the ever-shifting release date. Hiltzik manages to pop up for seconds at a time during the documentary but is only shown giving direction to his actors rather than commenting into the camera. For a guy who has only directed two films, both being in the SLEEPAWAY CAMP franchise, you’d figure he’d feel obligated to give fans the explanation they deserve.
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