The New Sleepaway Camp and How to Love Problematic Things
Screecap of the ending of Sleepaway Camp
It was recently announced there would be a new entry in my favorite horror movie franchise of all time, Sleepaway Camp. Originally conceiving of it as a remake, New Line’s Jeff Katz now says he is making a direct sequel to the original 1983 film to be set in the present day. Felissa Rose, who first played killer Angela Baker before handing the role off to Pamela Springsteen for the sequels, will star and co-produce. Rose had previously returned to her most-famous role in 2003’s Return to Sleepaway Camp, an uninspired drudge of a film that ignored the Springsteen entries and is best forgotten.
Now, the entire original Sleepaway Camp trilogy is problematic as heck. The first film is famous mostly for its twist ending, in which “Angela” is revealed to secretly be her own twin brother, Peter, who was raised as a girl by her disturbed aunt after her brother, father and his gay lover died in a terrible boating accident. The film’s final shot is of a blood-covered, dong-having Angela hissing into the camera. If you know only one thing about this movie, you know this shot, and it’s a prime example of the old Villainous Crossdresser trope.
Unhappy Campers and Teenage Wasteland give Baker gender reassignment surgery off-screen and it’s never mentioned again. Instead she’s become a chirpy, moralistic Jason Voorhees clone who excels at black humor and brutal murders. Though the transgender aspects are buried, these movies have their own hang-ups. Problems with tokenism of minority characters, horribly racist depictions of said minorities when the tokenism is fixed, celebration of righteous force for minor infractions, female nudity and sexuality as fan service, etc. All pretty typical for the ‘80s.
Yet here’s the thing, and take it from a critic who spends a lot of the time looking at works through a social justice lens: I can both advocate for better representations of marginalized groups in new films and still love Sleepaway Camp. To quote Anita Sarkeesian: “It's both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”
If you want to love something that, if shown to a new audience, they might consider it racist or gross, you have to know exactly why you love it, and I know exactly why I like Sleepaway Camp. Number one, it’s catered perfectly to the white, middle-class horny teenage boy I was when I discovered the films in a local video store. The Springsteen entries are boobs akimbo, and that was a big selling point to me then.
It’s also cartoonishly violent, but in an ironic and playful way. I’m part of the generation that skipped school on Mortal Monday so we could decapitate people in glorious 16-bit graphics from the comfort of our own homes. Angela Baker was basically the perfect embodiment of slasher aesthetics in her generation.
The infamous outhouse scene from Unhappy Campers
There’s always going to be a nostalgia factor in loving problematic things. To watch the Sleepaway Camp movies is to remember a time when I was discovering my own sexuality by pausing the screen when Jill Terashita took her shirt off, or laughing with my best friend as Angela drowned Valerie Hartman in an outhouse. That’s a feeling that you can’t communicate to a fresh audience, and you have to accept that. The general horror movie audience that watched these films did so with a far less socially critical eye than people do now, and you can’t ask them to turn that off to make your acceptance of a work more comfortable.
The good news is that if you embrace what’s problematic in a created work as problematic, then you can stop defending it and talk about what’s otherwise great about it. You can wax eloquent about how Angela’s Aunt Martha is possibly one of the single greatest creepy parental figures ever to appear in any horror film. Her flashbacks are shot in this weird Lynchian way that is extremely disturbing, and Desiree Gould plays her part as an affable but completely demented WASP seeking familial perfection. For my money, she’s a way better “evil mom” than Betsy Palmer ever was as Pamela Voorhees, and I’ll fight you over that.
Or you can talk about how despite everything, these are essentially movies about bullying. Peter is coerced into being Angela, Angela is bullied by the campers, Angela punishes bullies and sexual harassers as much as she pulls out the “kill them ‘cause they smoked weed” trope. At the end of the day, all Angela Baker wants is for people to be nice and behave and sing a happy camping song. That’s a way more interesting character motivation than in 90 percent of slashers. Freddy kills for vengeance; Angela kills you because you secretly took pictures of naked girls or because you wouldn’t say you’re sorry.
In fact, that’s an interesting direction for a modern sequel. Angela is sort of an archetype for the SJW bogeywoman that seems to preoccupy a lot of people these days. She’s a puritanical, moralistic transwoman who kills bullies and celebrates happy feelings. She’s the alt-right’s worst nightmare, someone who might drop a beehive on you if she caught you tweeting death threats at women.
The point is, when someone tells you that your favorite film is full of a ton of transphobic, racist and sexist garbage, you don’t actually make that not true by denying it. All you do is make yourself look like a clueless bigot being dragged forward kicking and screaming against your will. It’s far better to do as Warner Bros. did with its racist old cartoons. You put up a disclaimer admitting these cultural depictions were a product of their time, and that while they were wrong then as they are wrong now, erasing them is the same as saying they never existed. And I very badly want Sleepaway Camp, both the old and the new, to exist, but hopefully in a stronger way that reflects the changing times. That’s how you love a problematic franchise; you fix the problem moving forward.
Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-through churches, The Rook Circle, is available now.
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