Saturday, December 20, 2008
RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP (2008) d. Robert Hiltzik
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
Slipping on a banana peel and crashing to the floor in front of a clique of the prettiest and most popular girls in school, resulting in a series of malevolent glances and coquettish whispers can be said to be a very “bad” experience. Slipping on a banana peel while walking out of your favorite pub, after having a few beers with your pals and then knocking each and every one of your party into a snow bank is more of what we’d call a “good/bad” experience. Nobody likes slipping on a banana peel and taking a dive, but if the pratfall results in some good-natured laughter then the incident could be said to have been positive. Movies can be a lot like both examples. One of the worst cinematic train-wrecks I ever endured was my viewing of MASTER OF DISGUISE at one of my favorite drive-ins. It wasn’t funny, it was poorly acted, even more poorly scripted and I hated myself for not gouging my eyes out afterward. MASTER OF DISGUISE was the essence of a “bad” experience with nothing constructive coming out of that dreadful night. RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP is the quintessence of a “good/bad” experience. While it was not a finely crafted film with layers of intellectual complexity and profound artistic merit, I enjoyed myself, felt the time was spent in a worthwhile manner and was entertained. Even if a film isn’t very good, if you can walk away and say you had fun that is what the “good/bad” motion picture experience is all about.
RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP is the story of teenagers taking in the great outdoors at Camp Mamabe, where teasing and harassment are an art form. The very epicenter of persecution is Alan, an overweight, emotionally disturbed troublemaker whom no one can stand. Whether it is the cool kids like T.C., the pretty girls like Karen or the stoners like “Weed”, or even camp staffers like Randy, everyone takes pains to torment and heap abuse on Alan, especially because he brings it on himself with such gusto due to his obnoxious, loathsome and horrifically irritating behavior. Just as Alan approaches the breaking point, campers begin dying in the most grisly of fashions. Suspicion falls on Alan immediately and staffers, campers and law enforcement begin a race to find out if Alan is the killer before everyone at Camp Mamabe ends up a bloody corpse.
It is not always essential to watch the progenitor of any film “series” and while it may not be absolutely crucial to do so in this case, I would highly suggest it. The original SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) establishes the foundation of both the plot and the tone in such a way that if you haven’t seen the cult classic, you may not fully appreciate this modern updating of the tale to the full extent. Having set the stage with that comment, RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP has an aura all its own. The story is a weird admixture of awkward teen comedy, 80s slob comedy, outlandish horror spoof and slasher violence that makes it hard to really get a handle on in the beginning. Between the slightly disjointed narrative structure, the overacting of the young performers and the “take no prisoners” assault on any and all archetypes and stereotypes, it isn’t clear whether RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP is serious or silly, slick or stupendously bad. As the plot begins to come together and the pacing gains momentum, it becomes much more apparent that RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP is a reasonably smart film and is going for ludicrous laughs, lascivious grins and licentious shocks whenever and however it can. The over-the-top death scenes nicely connect it to the original film and are simultaneously reminiscent of the FINAL DESTINATION films at their very best. As each kill is executed, the bloodiness gets a little more gruesome while at the same time the humorous content is intensified. As a result, each act of the movie gets a little better and by the very end, you’ve passed over the weaknesses and are enjoying this movie for each and every strong point it evidences.
There are other qualities of RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP that are worthy of examination for an endless number of reasons. RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP has a very interesting cast combining talents and approaches that create a very convincing end result. There are uber-veterans like Vincent Pastore (Frank) and Isaac Hayes (Chef Charlie) who both lend an immediate sense of style and substance to a cast that is primarily inexperienced. In addition, there are less well-known but still seasoned actors like Brye Cooper (Randy) and Jackie Tohn (Linda) who know what they are doing and do it effectively. There are youngsters like Erin Broderick (Karen) and Christopher Shand (T.C.) who need more practice and experience to hone their craft, but despite their tendency to overact, they add feeling and energy to the film. Finally, there are the greatest intangibles Paul DeAngelo (Ronnie) and Michael Gibney (Alan) whose company makes RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP what it is. Paul DeAngelo was in the original, and while not a very skilled actor, his presence, preposterous physique and overdone delivery of his lines helps nudge RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP out of the realm of bad flick and into the domain of entertaining drivel. Michael Gibney’s performance is even more essential to the success of this movie. Any astute viewer must be caught up in the quandary of Alan’s character as you spend a great deal of time hating him for being the abhorrent pustule of quasi-humanity that he is, while simultaneously sympathizing with him for the torrent of cruelty and avalanche of abuse he must absorb. Michael Gibney plays his part so completely over the top that you can’t help but get a vibe of a demented cousin of The Little Rascals who escaped from a juvenile mental institution, but it works. I have always said it is better to overact than under perform. At least overacting lends a degree of sincere liveliness to a film like RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP, while under performing seems to suck the life out of a narrative and leave it cold, clammy and corpse-like. A horror film should have many corpses, but the plot and the performances of the cast that drive it should not be among the departed.
Finally, RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP may not be shot with the kind of artistic contemplation and creative flair that Dario Argento’s BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE or Mario Bava’s KILL BABY, KILL were filmed, but the camera work is competent and effective. None of the background scenes were heart-breakingly beautiful compositions ala Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN, but they didn’t have to be. You just had to feel like you were at camp. None of the action/scare scenes were shot like a classic era John Carpenter (e.g. THE FOG), but they didn’t have to be either. You just had to get into the feel of a silly slasher flick and go with the flow. None of the characters were shot with the kind of cinematic loving embrace of Jane Fonda in BARBARELLA, but that wasn’t necessary either. All we had to see is that Alan was a “tub of guts”, the teenage girls were surprisingly hot and busty in many cases, that the gore looked somewhat realistic as the blood ran in rivulets down people’s skin and that when some kind of weapon was used against a character, you knew what it was and how they were being butchered with it. Not long after we turned off RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP and moved on to the next film of the evening, we got an object lesson in how to NOT spend money when shooting a film. DEATH RACE (2008) is an example of what is wrong with the modern film making world. Despite having piles of cash, that was a damn-near unwatchable movie, Natalie Martinez being one of the only elements I was willing to endure just to catch a brief glimpse of her loveliness. If RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP can spend the few pennies it had available and make a flick I could see and enjoy, why did DEATH RACE flush a mountain of money down the hopper to make a movie that looked as if it had been filmed by high octane, jet-pack strapped Komodo Dragons in heat? If you know the answer to this query, let me know so I can solve the problem using the most potent weapons I can find.
In addition to being a feature I enjoyed, RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP has a shockingly deep extras menu that is very rewarding to those who enjoy this quirky pocket universe of cinema. At first, we were very surprised to see that there was no commentary track, but the reason became obvious once I plumbed the depths of the bonus features. There is a wonderful 30 minute “Behind the Scenes” mini-feature that is worth every moment of time spent. There are no less than fifteen segments in the “Interviews” section that may be the gold standard of this disc. There is a photo gallery that is comprised of real set photography and promo pictures, not irritating screen captures that are what make up most “galleries” today. There is a very bizarre RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP song of 3 minutes set over the cheesy-looking menu. It’s odd, but so is the film and for that reason it fits. Finally, at the head of the disc before the menus come up is one of the most disparate selections of trailers in their genre and tone that I can remember. Usually you get just horror trailers in front of a horror movie, but this time you really get the contents that are Magnet Films goulash, and that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it was a “good/bad” experience.
Sometimes I like a film because it fires on every cylinder possible and just blows me away with its superior qualities. Sometimes I leave happy due to some nostalgic element that is raised or a topic that I am fond of is broached. Sometimes I grin with pleasure when I go in with the lowest expectations possible and as a result I end up pleasantly surprised. RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP was a blend of the last two reasons for enjoying a film. I like horror movies and I like it when they don’t take themselves too seriously. I like it when I am expecting to be tipped headfirst into a cinematic manure pile and instead feel like I’ve walked though a field of startlingly pleasurable dandelions. Acres populous of yellow weed blossoms is no stroll through an English Rose Garden, but it is better than a trudge through piles of excrement, especially if that is what you were dreading, so I’ll take the dandelions and count my blessings. See SLEEPAWAY CAMP, and then see RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP, and make sure you do it with some like-minded friends. If you like your flicks absurd and off-center, you won’t be disappointed.