Film Review – Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008)

If there were any justice in the world of this movie, Camp Manabe would have been incinerated along with every inhabitant and employee...

Let The Doctor delve into the past and paint you a picture. Tis a stiflingly hot summer afternoon, perhaps a Thursday, sometime in the halcyon days of the early nineties. TNCC chairman Matthew Cade and myself are wandering the horror aisles of our local video store, both of us with King Cobra malt liquor on our breath and suffused with a wanton sense of youthful invincibility. A brilliant shard of sunlight, dancing with dust motes, suddenly alights upon the VHS boxes for the Sleepaway Camp franchise. We never looked back, and thus began a decades-long love affair with the first three Sleepaway movies. Writer/Director Robert Hiltzik’s 1983 original is a pinnacle horror film filled with suspense, laughs, scares and an all-time shocker of an ending. And the sequels? Nothing short of late 80’s classics loaded with memorable characters and scenes that hearken back to a resplendent time gone by. I could go on and on, but it would take me forever, and I plan to soon read Jeff Hayes recently released book on the Sleepaway films where I am sure he does a far better job than I could.

All of which brings me to the fourth and last entry in the franchise, Return to Sleepaway Camp. Something strange had happened here… namely that I couldn’t remember it. I knew that I had seen the movie when it was finally released on DVD in late 2008 and that Vincent Pastore, “Big Pussy” of The Sopranos, had played the camp’s owner but I’d be damned if I could recall anything else. This did not forebode bad tidings per se; after all, 2008 was a long time ago and there certainly would have been beverages of a spirited nature consumed during my viewing. I couldn’t even recall if I had purchased the DVD or merely rented it from Blockbuster as 2008 was back in the waning days when renting a DVD from a store was still a possibility. I spent an evening rummaging through multiple cardboard boxes of DVDs to no avail. Why did I bother, might you ask? Cade’s research had yielded the knowledge that Return to Sleepaway Camp was not available streaming anywhere, not even on YouTube, and when I looked on Amazon I was shocked to learn that DVDs of Return to Sleepaway Camp were being sold for as much as $80. Holy shit! I guess these things are slightly on the rare side. Oh well, The Doctor has pissed away money on far dumber pursuits, and by then I wanted the fucking thing more than I needed it. I found a reputable seller with a new DVD for $49 and had them ship it to my laboratory. Following this turn of events I had no choice but to pour an elixir into a glass and review the movie in its entirety.


The Return To Sleepaway Camp theme song plays over a collage of newspaper headlines of the Camp Arawak massacre from 1983. Return to Sleepaway Camp is a direct sequel to the original movie. The wonderful sequels of Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland, both directed by Michael Simpson and starring Pamela Springsteen in a delightful pair of performances as the homicidal Angela, have been excised. Such things transpire, although The Doctor was distraught to think that TC and Ally of Camp Rolling Hills do not exist in this particular universe.

To say that I was an “unhappy camper” to see the legacy of these ladies erased would be an understatement…

It is now the present day – well, the early 2000’s* – but the supposedly new Camp Manabe looks as though it has been moldering in the elements for many years. We are introduced to some of the campers including Alan (Michael Gibney) a burly youngster of indeterminate age. Alan never changes his clothes, no matter how soiled with detritus they become, and he frequently traipses off alone into the dense woods surrounding the camp to play with frogs, the said amphibians being his true “friends.” In a bit of uneven storytelling, it is unclear at first glance whether or not Alan is himself a bully. He shoves around some of the smaller kids in the earlier scenes and even pulls on a young girl’s pigtails. In short order, however, it is revealed that Alan is in fact the target of ceaseless, sadistic torment at the hands of everyone at Camp Manabe, including the adults supposedly tasked with his care and supervision.

So… we’re supposed to root for this guy? Really?

The Doctor cannot be more emphatic on this point, as it nearly defines the film: almost every single character in Return To Sleepaway Camp, be they teenaged camper or adult, seems to suffer from either a terrible emotional or behavioral disorder. These include volatile anger management concerns, criminal sociopathy, severe asshole-ism and often all of the above. Jesus Christ, no wonder Alan prefers the company of frogs! Sure, Ricky had his anger issues in the original movie, but these only manifested when someone bullied his timid cousin Angela. Otherwise, Ricky and his buddy Paul were the good guys who had come to Camp Arawak to play baseball and chase girls and generally have wholesome summer fun. The audience has to have good guys and girls to empathize with, characters that they can root for to avoid the slaughter. Return to Sleepaway Camp is utterly devoid of such characters. Robert Hiltzik’s original film and Michael Simpson’s late 80’s sequels balanced the good and the bad elements of the ostensible teenagers. Even the bullies in the older films had some semblance of humanity. Angela was picked on for being quiet and mousy but not everyone took part in her harassment. The only “mean” person actually present in Part 2 is that of the blonde cheerleader Ally, and her antagonism emerged within an understandable context. These dynamics are important, and if I am being unreasonable in picking apart the fourth entry in a slasher film franchise, then so be it. The first two-thirds (almost an hour) of Return to Sleepaway Camp is comprised of one scene after another of various people behaving in a depraved and unredeemable manner while picking on a kid with transparent mental problems. If there were any justice in the world of this movie, Camp Manabe would have been incinerated along with every inhabitant and employee. I love the Sleepaway franchise and I desperately wanted to like this movie. Unfortunately it was difficult, even for The Doctor, to enjoy the first 55 minutes or so of Return to Sleepaway Camp (From here on out I am truncating the film’s title to simply Return. You’ll thank me, if you haven’t quit reading already.)

What of the other elements contained within Return? One of the few scenes that doesn’t involve people behaving like human garbage is an attempt to recreate the “Death By Boiling Corn Cob Water” from the original, but it was far less effective this time around. Honestly the unnecessary focus on the bullying instead of slasher tension creates a narrative that is far too meandering, at least in my opinion. The camp location and scenery looked like it might have had promise but there just isn’t enough in the way of follow through.

The first hour of this film even put Big Pussy to sleep…

As for the casting, I loved Vincent Pastore in The Sopranos, but he does little more in Return than shout his dialogue. The legendary, late Isaac Hayes makes a cameo appearance as Charlie, but his screen time is far too short to effect the proceedings. Return is a low-budget indie film, a fact which I haven’t forgotten, so the filmmakers really can’t be blamed for not having more of Hayes (Although More Hayes obviously would have helped.) I appreciated the return of Paul D’Angelo from the original film as Ronnie, the musclebound head counselor of Camp Arawak and now Camp Manabe, as well as a cameo by Jonathan Tiersten as the now adult Ricky. Unfortunately the sum of these disparate parts adds up to little more than window dressing. Michael Gibney deserves praise for his performance as the troubled Alan, the only noteworthy performance in Return. I’ve done enough harping on the unlikeable factor of the other teen characters – an 18 on a scale of 10 – but that factor makes it hard to appreciate anything that they might have been trying to accomplish. In a move that personally disheartened both Cade and The Doctor, one of the bullying pricks in Return is named TC. As all fans of Sleepaway Camp 2 are aware, TC is the name of a wonderful, joyful camp counselor with a truly inimitable 1987 mullet who is beloved by all. In Return, the name is given to a sadistic bastard teenager. How could the name of TC be so ungraciously besmirched? I just have to move on.

Brian Patrick Clarke as the one and only TC in “Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers”

Thankfully the pacing picks up for the final third of Return. The film’s mood transforms and becomes fraught with tension in the process. There are some inventive, no-holds-barred kills featuring handmade visual effects which were a staple of the first three films. Where was this earlier? There are even some lines of dialogue that elicited laughter and probably did so intentionally. This segment of the film is roughly 23 minutes or so, but in the end it saves Return from having been a complete waste of time. With apologies to Robert Hiltzik, who made a classic horror film in 1983, I now know why I couldn’t remember my initial viewing of Return and also why I didn’t already own a copy. Having admitted that, I will stop short of saying that my money would have been better served by spending $50 at my local liquor store. I am strangely glad that I revisited Return, if for no other reason than historical perspective. If, like me, you are a fan of the Sleepaway franchise – and I’m assuming that at this point, you are – then I strongly urge you to try and track down a copy of Return and make up your own respective minds on the subject. The Doctor can always be wrong… but not with the sullying of the name of the beautiful TC, that was just unforgivable. As always, my friends, The Doctor wishes you all a clean bill of health.

* According to author Jeff Hayes, principal photography of Return to Sleepaway Camp took place during September and October of 2003. Apparently one of the financiers of the movie had a change of heart and backed out during the shoot, leaving Hiltzik and his crew in a nearly untenable position. They gamely completed shooting but then had virtually no money remaining for post production, hence the delay of several years before the 2008 DVD release. The Doctor gives them credit for perseverance and finally making sure the movie saw the light of day.

Beyond The Pod

The Doctor attended The Poughkeepsie Institute of Technical Science or, as it is colloquially referred to, The Pits. His thesis paper "It's Far to Early to Tell" has been used in classrooms as an example of how NOT to formulate a medical science theory. The Doctor was previously employed in Mallorca, Spain as a master of ceremonies and first aid provider at local wine tastings before joining the Tuesday Night Cigar Club.