One of my favourite subgenres of horror is the 1980’s summer camp slasher. There’s just something about a bunch of kids lost in the wilderness with stoned, horny teenagers as their only defense from a silent, lumbering killer that is both very funny and very scary to me. I think it has something to do with the week I spent at Girl Scout camp in 2003, protected by my own group of teenage potheads and two older tent mates hell bent on sharing the real story of the Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders. Something something the connection between life and art, something something Jean-Paul Sartre.
So, in honour of being in the middle of the summer season, I did a deep dive into this weird little subgenre, watching a total of ten films – some old favourites, some I had never heard of – and reviewing them. The rules were simple: they had to be set at an actual summer camp and, if not made in the 1980s, were at least very 80’s horror in spirit. Below I present a list of the good, the bad, and the mind boggling- you’re welcome, campers.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Oh Sleepaway Camp, you problematic, campy artefact if 80’s schlock and bad queer politics. There are certain infamous aspects of the film I’m not the most qualified to discuss – for a better, more nuanced take from much more qualified critics, may I suggest Nyx Fear’s video or this article. But all other aspects, from the gnarly practical effects kills, the prominence of the male crop top, the overacting, insane edits, and incredible lines I still use in my day to day life to the chagrin of my close friends (“Eat shit and die, Ricky!” “Eat shit and live, Bill”). I highly recommend a viewing.
Friday the 13th (1980)
The classic. I don’t really have anything else to say. Why haven’t you seen this? Kevin Bacon’s in it.
Friday the 13th Pt 2 (1981)
My personal favourite of the Friday the 13th sequels picks up five years after the events of the first film. A new group of counsellors are at a camp on Crystal Lake’s shore (but not the Camp Crystal Lake, which has been closed following all those pesky murders), blissfully drinking, skinny dipping, and humping their way through training. Unbeknownst to them, however, Jason (Warrington Gillette) is all grown up and ready to take his revenge for his mother’s decapitation years earlier. What follows in the killer’s wonderfully bloody debut into the franchise that would spawn eleven more sequels, cementing the once sheltered drowning victim’s legacy as an American horror icon.
Friday the 13th Pt 6: Jason Lives (1986)
So, fun fact: only three of the twelve Friday the 13th movies take place at an actual camp. This is the last one to do so before the series takes a nose dive into teenage psychic battles and franchise crossovers. Jason (C.J. Graham), having been resurrected via lightning to his maggot infested corpse, returns to murder a new crop of counsellors at a new, ill-advised summer camp in Crystal Lake. The film features some of my favourite hallmarks of the slasher, from the annoying little kid who keeps insisting there’s a monster outside to the cop who refuses to believe this crazy hot-shot’s story that there’s a killer out there! My only complaint is the female lead, Megan (Jennifer Cooke), who treats the whole situation as a joke she has to go along with in order to seal the deal with aforementioned hot-shot, Tommy (Thom Matthews). Stop being so aggressively flirty, Megan, your friends are dying.
Twisted Nightmare (1987)
The first of the Friday the 13th knock offs I watched, there’s a few issues keeping it from being really memorable. First, it falls victim to the old Stephen King chestnut of “it’s magic because Native American burial ground/curse” that was really popular in lazy horror writing back in the day. Second, it looks like it was filmed on a camcorder that was put through a washing machine. The acting is weird and stilted, but it gets points for some unintentionally funny shots, a weird borderline swingers scene, and the lead actress intensely unsettling eyes. Seriously, they’re like the one thing in the film that is lit well.
The Burning (1981)
Baby Jason Alexander with a full head of hair! Baby Holly Hunter! The second film on this list to feature a man running around on fire! When a practical joke goes wrong and the camp’s maintenance man returns five years later, covered in burns and thirsting for revenge, the result is a film that ticks all my trope boxes for 80’s slasher cheese: bad-good practical effects, awful sex scenes, great fashion, questionable gender politics that you have to laugh at to keep from doom spiraling, and a surprisingly satisfying ending.
Lumberjack Man (2015)
A horror/stoner comedy set at a bible camp in the heart of Texas, Lumberjack Man has a shockingly large budget for a movie about an immortal pancake chef who comes back every year to drench his wagon of flapjacks in the blood of innocents. Add in some gratuitous nudity, goofy gore, and Michael Madsen proving he will say yes to any role and we’ve got a dumb yet fun self-aware slasher.
Addams Family Values (1993)
Listen. This technically counts. Wednesday (Christina Ricci) absolutely charred that mean pilgrim girl, and I just know someone got an extra swing with that tomahawk in as they were zip lining into the stage. While the camp storyline is technically a B-plot and features elements that are more than a little dated, the movie as a whole remains a classic for a reason (mostly Joan Cusack’s performance).
Cheerleader Camp (1989)
I was excited for this one, but somehow they managed to mess up a film about a bunch of cheerleaders getting murdered at cheer camp. Not even the latent sapphic vibes between the mascot and the main character could save this movie. You should still check it out, though, if only for the sake of completing the few films in this weird little genre and realising how cheap it must have been to make a movie in the 80s.
A twist on the summer camp classic by taking place in a snowy mountain setting, this weird little film is a fun take on my beloved counsellor murdering genre. After killing a vacationing family, the murderous Bernie (Blake Gibbons) comes upon a group of camp counsellors training for…I don’t know, Snow Camp, and sets about murdering them all. While there are some odd character choices (such as the lead counsellor, whose specific military role playing sex scenario with his girlfriend that includes a bullet bikini, blasting Ride of the Valkeries, and a Rambo headband the film goes to lengths to establish ), it’s a pretty fun, silly take on the concept that actually surprised me with some clever kills and tricks.
The best way I can describe Madman is: imagine David Lynch’s very first draft of Twin Peaks written for a production company’s call for slasher screenplays. That is not a ringing endorsement, by the way, but it does explain the weird too-long shots, the line delivery, and proto-Laura Palmer, Betsy (Gaylen Ross). Despite this film only being about an hour and thirty minutes, I felt like I was sucked into a time vortex where scenes either kept repeating or going on too long. Some of the kills are fun and creepy, but for the most part I’ve already forgotten how most of the cast dies. What I haven’t forgotten? A bafflingly long scene where two naked characters spin around in naked circles in a hot tub for at least a minute of eye-contact heavy foreplay. Is this what did it for people in the early 1980s?
by Hannah Granberry