Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photos courtesy the studios
Summer camp is a time for canoeing on crystal lakes, sharing bunk beds at a sleepaway, even hearing an urban legend or two fireside. These experiences — awkward, intoxicating, vulnerable — can make the time away memorable for any kid. They’re also all hallmarks of the summer-camp horror film. Rogue killers stalk happy campers, promiscuous teens meet untimely ends in showers, and overbearing mothers come out to play for those who don’t play nice. The new film They/Them (pronounced “they-slash-them”) plays with these enshrined genre tropes, even bringing Friday the 13th star Kevin Bacon back into the fold. A group of LGBTQ+ teens sent to a conversion camp each discover heavy psychological torment (from the sinister counselors) and witness gruesome killings (from an unknown assailant) all before the s’mores even hit the fire. After camping out with these queer teens, revisit the standouts of summer-camp horror that are worth putting down the canoe paddle for.
Before Bacon was terrorizing queer teens at a conversion camp, he featured as a camper in the original fireside slasher, Friday the 13th. The story starts in 1957, where a young boy named Jason drowns at Camp Crystal Lake. Decades later, a group of counselors find themselves stalked by a lurking presence as they attempt to reopen the camp — and get into some mischief with each other too. Soon knives are wielded and guts are spilled as an elusive figure takes down each happy camper one by one. Then, a mysterious woman (Betsy Palmer) turns up after the rampage … and it all starts to make sense. There’s a real menacing and unnerving energy to this entry, one compounded by the film’s shots of the killer’s point-of-view and its clever stylistic nods to Psycho (oh, mother dearest). Add in voyeurism around teen sex and a villain gender switch, and Friday serves up a completely original, bracing camp slasher.
Sequels often satisfy fans first and foremost over drawing in new viewers, and the follow-up to Friday the 13th is a case in point. The sequel is a deeper probe into the warped psychology of our rogue murderer, Jason (Warrington Gillette), that redraws the storyline for true franchise potential (with now 11 iterations to boot). Camp counselors-in-training return to a camp not far from the infamous Camp Crystal Lake and find themselves curious about the grounds where teens were brutally slain some years back. This keen interest provokes the seemingly dormant Jason, who starts showing this new crew of foolish fresh-faced teens he means business, beginning a rampage that leaves few unscathed. While Jason is yet to don the iconic hockey mask, his unmasked and grotesque face proves all the more abject and sinister without it. Mrs. Voorhees (Palmer) makes a quiet return, as Part 2 examines how this singular summer camp remains a source of maniacal obsession and territorial protection for our villain.
The Burning is another classic made at the height of the ’80s summer-camp horror wave. After being badly burnt by pranking teen campers, a former caretaker called Cropsy (Lou David) returns to his old stomping grounds to exact vengeance on any young camper having fun in the sun. A set of garden shears become his weapon of choice, as he begins hacking and pruning away at these sex-crazed and isolated campers. Starring a young Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter, there’s a final massacre set on a makeshift raft that yields great scares. Unlike other similar films, The Burning takes revelry in showing us much more aggressive gore, with endless close-ups of the burnt villain Cropsy, bloody wounds, and even punctured abdomens for maximum impact. This play with the abject and maimed body makes Cropsy a truly terrifying creation — one closer to human than many other imaginings in the genre.
Be warned that of all the classic camp slashers, this may have gathered the most cobwebs since its release. But still persist because Madman pays off with its heart and guts — pun intended. It riffs off the urban legend of a killer known as “Madman Marz” (Paul Ehlers), a man who murdered his entire family before being lynched by the local townsfolk. Marz escapes the noose somehow and promises to wield anarchy on anyone who troubles him again. A new group of teen counselors arrives at nearby campgrounds and are warned by their senior guide not to antagonize the urban legend Marz. Of course, they don’t bother heeding the warning, quickly getting into sex and other debauchery while shouting his name. Marz hears the calls, grabs his axe, and emerges from his isolated house to even the score. The sinister shots of the killer rumbling with heavy footsteps swinging his heavy weapon can inspire great terror and underscore some quality filmmaking. With a staccato synth score and a visual penchant for bloody knives, Madman is one satisfying foray where heads roll heavy to those who invite danger and go into the woods alone.
Firstly, know that Sleepaway Camp remains a deeply polarizing entry in the summer-camp canon for its blatant transphobia. While some queer critics have sought to condemn the film, others have found queer and redemptive pleasures in it. As a young girl, Angela (Felissa Rose) witnesses the tragic death of her father and brother in a freak boating accident near a summer camp. Some eight years later, Angela returns to a nearby campsite to spend the firefly season with her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). But bedlam begins when a boiling vat, bee nest, and even canoe claim victims in unexplained ways. With exaggerated masculine and feminine archetypes (which some call offensive, some say campy), Sleepaway takes liberties with its treatment of gender roles to make some unique comments about the pains of coming-of-age. A divisive horror entry that continues to attract a strong cult following decades later, look out for the truly twist(ed) ending — it’s really unlike anything else.
This one puts the camp in camp horror — and just know that the most shocking parts of Stage Fright are its musical numbers. Teenager Camilla (Allie MacDonald) heads to a theater camp for musical teens, years after her mother (a surprisingly cast Minnie Driver) was murdered backstage in a production of The Haunting of the Opera. Camilla vies to land the same role in Haunting that her mother first made famous to seemingly finish what she was never able to. Did I mention it’s a staged kabuki version? Before the rehearsal curtain even goes up, a menacing figure starts lurking in the stage wings, slicing and dicing as they go and using any prop available to maim and murder actors for the show. Meat Loaf also bizarrely features in this outrageous musical bloodbath. If you hate musicals, you’ll be in familiar company with the killer who refuses to let this camp show go on. This Friday the 13th meets High School Musical marriage — that also defies the genre logic of both — is one killer musical-cum-horror-cum-comedy that leaves much carnage on and off the stage in its wake.
Changing tracks completely, this postmodern comedic take blends the nostalgia complex of bygone summer-camp horror with a wry modern sensibility. Max (Taissa Farmiga) is the daughter of former scream queen Nancy (Malin Akerman), an actress who made a name for herself in the cult classic, Camp Bloodbath. After the sudden death of her mom, Max finds herself transported back in the fantasy of this cult film when a fire suddenly destroys the cinema during a screening of it. This shift to a parallel horror universe challenges Max to save her mom “Nancy” — and the character’s onscreen virtue — to ensure Nancy becomes Bloodbath’s “final girl.” As we all know, anyone with sexual proclivities is at risk of death in the slasher genre. The Final Girls uses clever irony and meta-play to riff with its viewers, where knowledge of the summer horror sub-genre becomes really the only way to safely exit this endless camp time loop — for both mother and daughter. Even if you think you know the camp-horror cues, the characters knowingly subvert the tropes and give audiences some unexpected (and fun) gory ends.
In a similar vein to The Final Girls, Fear Street: Part Two — 1978 goes beyond a typical slasher story and instead tries to re-skin the usual summer-camp horror film with anxieties about the supernatural and witchy paranoia. This second installment to the Fear Street franchise heads back to 1978 to follow two sisters, Cindy and Ziggy Berman (Emily Rudd and Sadie Sink), stuck at the cursed Camp Nightwing. Kids from opposing sides of the city — the poor kids from Shadyside and the rich kids of Sunnyvale — all congregate there to whittle away their summer. As class conflicts spark across the site, a relentless axe-wielding maniac arrives, taking down campers one at a time. Let’s also not forget a witch once put a spell on Shadyside and turned all its townsfolk into murderers. Part Two isn’t a straight-edged retake of camp slashers but rather an elevated mix of horror-cinema anxieties, like sinister witchcraft and rogue apathetic killers. For those who have only seen the stilted first Fear Street entry, the second redeems the series with its thoughtful take on ancient curses with bloody camp slayings.