Review: Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989)

Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland

Directed by Michael A. Simpson
Starring Pamela Springsteen, Tracy Griffith, Cliff Brand, Michael J. Pollard

If the “slasher boom” began with Halloween in 1978, then where did it end? One could argue that the genre’s heyday ended with Slumber Party Massacre‘s attempt at feminist critique in 1982, but slasher films continued to enjoy popularity well into the ’80s, with endless sequels of Friday the 13th and Halloween hitting cinemas each year as well as a new franchise, A Nightmare on Elm Street, making its first appearance in 1984. If the genre indeed died, then it obviously did so with a whimper instead of a bang.

Sleepaway Camp III may as well have been that whimper. As the third in a series of increasingly varied entries into the horror canon, it strives not to scare like the original Sleepaway Camp or incite laughter like II, but instead makes obvious its belief that slasher movies are dumb and their fans are even dumber. Like Scream would in seven years’ time, Sleepaway Camp III skewers the slasher genre by making pointed reference to its formula and mocking its inanities, but instead of using this metacommentary to elevate itself above the genre (as Scream attempted to do), it simply wallows in the stupidity, finding neither joy nor humor in its paint-by-numbers plotline and lazy use of stereotypes. It’s a slasher movie made by people who hate slasher movies.

Filmed directly after Sleepaway Camp IIIII retains that entry’s creative team (director Michael A. Simpson and writer Fritz Gordon) and star (Pamela Springsteen). But the wit and gleeful abandon present in II is nearly nonexistent in III, its absence made obvious by Springsteen’s antagonist’s emotionless demeanor and tired, airless one-liners. While II critiqued and lampooned the genre’s celebration of pointless violence by indulging itself in even more pointless violence, III is less interested in being clever and more interested in rubbing its viewers’ faces in every cliché and stereotype it can muster. This general sense of animosity may have been caused by the situation the filmmakers found themselves in: As Simpson writes, “SC3:  Teenage Wasteland was a bit rushed. We had very little preproduction time, essentially one weekend, so it did not turn out as well. Also, I don’t think the script was as polished as Unhappy Campers [Sleepaway Camp II] was.”

Much of the blame for the film’s joylessness lies within the trappings of the genre itself. In the middle of her killing spree, Angela interrogates a fellow camper:

“Are you a cheerleader?”
“Yes…”
“Are you a virgin?”
“No!”
“Do you do drugs?”
“Doesn’t everybody?”

With a sigh, Angela proceeds to hoist the girl up a flagpole before dropping her to her death. This “checklist” is a winking reminder to the audience that the victims in slasher movies are those who have sex and/or abuse drugs. While her motives are somewhat clear in this instance (her fear of sex drives her to murder anyone who appears to enjoy it), they’re unclear for most of the film’s running time, as she simply goes through the motions of discovering the campers’ secret sins (one kid happens to enjoy S&M, another likes firecrackers (?)) and uses them as an excuse for murder. By 1989, the slasher formula was so bloated and used-up that its original intentions were lost. In no other film is this sad fact made more obvious.

Like most of its peers, Sleepaway Camp III engages in postmodernism: Angela snags a hockey goalie’s mask with a fishhook and exclaims, “There’s a lot of trash in this lake!” prompting another character to mention that the date is “Saturday the 14th.” If the Friday the 13th movies are “trash,” then Sleepaway Camp III is the mold growing on the surface. Later in the film, Angela reminisces about the events that took place in Sleepaway Camp II. On top of giving the filmmakers extra footage with which to pad the film’s running time, this oddly bittersweet scene implies that anything original or enjoyable that sprung from the advent of the slasher genre has been dried up, leaving nothing but memories and endless rehashes of the same material, over and over and over again. Angela repeatedly makes offhand references to her habit of murdering campers, as if it’s a trap she can’t escape from. That trap is the slasher genre itself.

While SCIII repeats the hypersexualization found in the first two entries, it finds new, more questionable themes in its repeated instances of casual racism and stereotyping. There are no characters to be found this time around, only archetypes set up to be slaughtered like an especially easy game of Whack-A-Mole. The campers are literally introduced by a news reporter, providing the film’s audience with a name and optional racial stereotype. While this may be pointed criticism of the disposability of teenagers in slasher films, it simply feels lazy and mean-spirited. On top of this, the nonwhite campers are all gang members prone to acts of violence and racially-charged conflict. This may be a purposeful parody of horror movie archetypes, but it neglects to offer anything insightful about the treatment of race in popular horror films, instead allowing its characters to merely parrot tired, overused, race-relegated roles.

The death of the slasher film was released direct-to-video in 1989 under the title Sleepaway Camp III. From first frame to last, it indicts the genre by holding a mirror up to its most problematic and lazy tendencies, all the while refusing to allow itself reprieve from the exposed banality. The first line of the end credits song is “Are you having fun?” The only possible answer to this question is “no.”

Links:

Netflix – Sleepaway Camp III
YouTube – Home Video Trailer
Michael A. Simpson Interview

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