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Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008)

The Feel-bad Movie of the Summer

You're right to question my judgment as a movie critic when I pan Super 8 but give a full-throated endorsement of the direct-to-video slasher film Return to Sleepaway Camp. One is a disposable, cliche-packed spectacle that relies on cheap thrills to titillate a half-awake audience; the other is about a killer stalking teens in the woods.

What makes Return to Sleepaway Camp a must-see is its unrelentingly nasty attitude. Every line of dialogue is a slight or a threat, and is often followed by someone getting at least jabbed in the chest. The film's protagonist, Alan (Michael Gibney), is a sad, overweight boy who's picked on by popular kids and camp counselors alike. Writer/director Robert Hiltzik makes the odd but brilliant decision to strip Alan of any sympathy by making him a bully as well; on top of that, it's suggested that he has a learning disability.

None of this is tasteful, on paper or in practice, and watching the film is like an endurance test. The most terrifying parts don't involve a shadowy figure dipping the asshole assistant-cook in a vat of boiling French-fry oil or tying a counselor's penis to a jeep's bumper with barbed wire; no, all of that is good times and gravy compared to watching exchanges like this one, in which Alan has a run-in with camp owner Frank (Vincent Pastore):

Alan:  You fat fucking liar!

Frank:  Watch that mouth of yours!

Alan:  Let go of me!

Frank:  I'll let go of you when I kick your ass outta this camp so fast you won't know what hit you!

Alan:  You fucking dick!

Frank:  Get back here!

Alan:  Your ass stinks!

Yep, our hero's catch-phrase is "Your ass stinks!"

I recently criticized the movie Defendor for what I believed to be a gross mockery and insensitivity to people with mental issues. But I don't have the same problem with Alan, whose bad wiring was either the result of an accident or a problem from birth--the movie isn't clear. Is this hypocritical? Maybe, but Return to Sleepaway Camp wears its lack of a moral compass firmly on its sleeve; there's no uplifting, moral message about Alan triumphing over adversity and catching the killer. At the end of the film, he's beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead. This makes my enjoyment of his angry tirades and socially awkward pranks merely sadistic, not inconsistent.

Don't worry: I didn't spoil anything by revealing that Alan's not the killer--an idea Hiltzik would love for you to believe at various points in the film. No, the murderer is actually Sheriff Jerry (Felissa Rose).

Once again, no need for a "Spoiler" tag--unless you're the only person on earth who could watch this movie and not notice the awful, exaggerated fake nose and hastily applied fake beard on this cop who happens to pop up right before or right after the murders.

I should probably back up for a moment for anyone not familiar with the Sleepaway Camp series. The 1983 original is a classic bit of nastiness known both for its brutality and shocking ending.  The killer in that film was a girl named Angela who, until the final scene, was thought to be one of the story's heroes. As it turns out, Angela was actually a boy dressed as a girl, and the movie ends with her chopping off the head of her/his boyfriend on the beach and revealing her schlong-erific naked body to a group of shocked camp counselors.  Rose reprises the Angela role in Return, disguised up as a local sheriff until the end's Big Reveal.  It's a clumsy nod to the original film, and an awkward sidestepping of the middle sequels--in which Pamela Springsteen (Bruce's kid sister)--played a wise-cracking version of the transgender terror.

The whole scenario is even more ridiculous than it sounds, and it wasn't long before I began to wonder whether or not Hiltzik was making A) a horror/comedy, B) the world's worst horror movie, or C) a masterpiece in an as-yet-defined genre of his own design.  The film is very modular. You could take the slasher elements out completely and have, essentially, a camp-based reality show about self-obsessed teens and a half-assed After School Special about bullying; you could take the self-obsessed-teen elements out and have a mediocre-to-decent slasher film (complete with CG flying limbs and--no kidding--an homage to George Orwell's 1984); on another level, you might appreciate the whole thing as a meta-exercise in actors trying and failing to break out of their comfort zones.

Pastore plays Frank as a semi-cultured pseudo-Mafioso who's obsessed with his pet bird. At one point, Alan calls him a "big Pussy", which is the name of the character Pastore played on the HBO mob drama The Sopranos. Return to Sleepaway Camp also has the distinction of being Isaac Hayes's last role; Hayes became insanely popular in the late 90s for playing Chef on South Park. In Return, he plays the camp's chef, and wears an identical outfit to that of his cartoon avatar. Watching both of these actors stumble through a nonsensical horror movie is worth the ninety minutes alone.

But nothing can compare to the awesomeness of Paul DeAngelo as Ronnie, the head counselor. Ronnie survived the first movie and returns to the franchise as the ultra-fit, ultra-caring mentor to an entire camp of asshole children. He's one of two half-way decent human beings in the movie--but Hiltzik gets around this problem by making him totally ugly and totally insane. Within five seconds of any of DeAngelo's line readings, I guarantee you'll either be reaching for the fast-forward button or ordering the movie on DVD. DeAngelo comes across as a workout-infomercial hose with a Pacino crush; for lovers of uncomfortable comedy, he might just change your life.

In a world ruled by lame, predictable genre films, Return to Sleepaway Camp is an obnoxious, aggressive, soulless, low-budget nightmare. Everyone who claims to love movies should see it at their earliest possible convenience.