Sleepaway Camp has maintained a reputation as a cult classic of the horror genre, but over time it’s found a greater appreciation, which has also extended to the film’s less impressive collection of sequels.

The slasher sub-genre of horror has literally gone to ridiculous places like space and hell, but the 1980s were a glorious time for horror where a summer camp was enough of a draw. Movies like Sleepaway Camp helped summer camps become popular settings for horror films, and now series like American Horror Story have turned to the topic for inspiration. While there are many horror films set at camps, Sleepaway Camp sets itself apart from the rest due to the extremely unpredictable direction that the movie takes.

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Sleepaway Camp made enough of a mark on audiences that a number of sequels went into production over the years. The subsequent Sleepaway Camp films do their best to capture the insane energy of the original film, but they struggle to get there. That being said, the Sleepaway Camp sequels still add a lot to the series as a whole and are the home for some of the most outrageous deaths of the slasher sub-genre. It may only be a matter of time until some producer decides to reboot Sleepaway Camp, but until that happens here’s a look at the various sequels in the franchise and how they all stack up against each other.

The fourth Sleepaway Camp went into production shortly after the release of the third, but when the film’s production company went bankrupt, they were forced to cancel the movie. Only half an hour of the film was shot, but over a decade later, dedicated fans were able to acquire the footage and combine it with scenes from the previous films to produce a complete version. Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor tells a story about trauma and returning to the notorious campground to confront past demons. The ending is also a cheap ripoff of how the finale of Return to Sleepaway Camp plays out, which isn’t this movie’s fault, but it does make Sleepaway Camp IV seem even less necessary. In the end, it feels like a project that hardly qualifies as a film and was put together more out of obligation than passion, even though an incredible amount of work was done to make this film a reality.

Return to Sleepaway Camp seemed like it could have been a return to form. It brings the original film’s director, Robert Hiltzik, back into the picture with a modern take on the setting. Unfortunately, the film’s release was shelved for years until the special gore effects in the film could be properly finished. There are many deaths that echo back to kills from the original movie, and while there could be some charm to that idea, they mostly just come across as worse versions of old ideas. Admittedly, the film does get much more ambitious with its many murders, but with the film coming out decades after the previous two, it's less easy to be forgiving about shoddy effects and the quality of the gore.

Oddly, Return to Sleepaway Camp feels more dated than its predecessors. It's satisfying to have Hiltzik back as well as Felissa Rose, who played Angela Baker in the first movie. Besides that, this just feels like a cheaper, less charming version of the original movie. It's a nostalgia grab that unfortunately only highlights the discrepancy in quality between titles, but at least it makes an effort (that nail bed death is actually pretty cool) and isn't filled with flashbacks and old footage, like Sleepaway Camp IV. The note that this movie concludes on is also a strong, cyclical place to end the franchise, even if the journey to get there is sloppy.

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Sleepaway Camp II cleverly introduces a sly, meta sense of humor to the franchise, but Sleepaway Camp III gets too broad on the topic and really toes the line between horror and comedy. Pamela Springsteen returns as Angela, and her over the top performance is the best thing about this sequel. The murders and motivations are much thinner this time around, the highs never reach the same heights, and its lows are seriously awkward. One death is so unimaginative, as Angela simply takes a stick she finds and beats some campers to death with it.

Sleepaway Camp III may be a serious drop in quality from Sleepaway Camp II, but it’s still monumentally better than the next two movies that follow. There are a few deaths, like the lawnmower sequence, that make a strong impression, as well as some truly bizarre character beats that give the film a quirky personality. It doesn’t completely run out of ideas for how to turn a summer camp into a deathtrap.

Sleepaway Camp’s first sequel, Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, is a surprisingly fun follow-up that knows exactly what it is and embraces it in the best way possible. Angela returns under an alias and poses as a camp counselor, but her previous baggage quickly creeps up, and old habits die hard. Angela’s intensely repressed and disassociated sexual urges come out in dangerous ways as she judges the freer campers who aren't trapped by trauma and inhibitions.

The best part of this sequel are gratuitous kills, which include things like severed tongues, campers that get torched on barbecues, and murders where Angela not only wears Freddy Krueger's gloves to kill someone, but another where she wears someone's face and wields a chainsaw while taking out a camper who dons a hockey mask like Jason. It's this level of self-aware reflexivity, as well as Pamela Springsteen's committed performance in the role, that keeps Sleepaway Camp II from being a failure.

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The original film that started it all, Sleepaway Camp, looks at young Angela and Ricky’s time at a summer camp where a killer runs amok. There’s an incredibly simple structure in place, but Sleepaway Camp coasts on a bizarre tone that’s hard to ignore. All of the deaths are weird and noteworthy, plus there’s actually a fun mystery over who the killer is.

In Sleepaway Camp, even side characters like Aunt Martha, who are only in the film for a few minutes, manage to deliver absolutely unforgettable performances. Everything in this film perfectly comes together into such a strange, unexpected package. The whole campy, B-movie nature makes the massive twist at the end hit as an even bigger surprise. Sleepaway Camp is lightning in a bottle that speaks to why the sequels aren’t able to recapture the strange energy that fuels the film. It’s also the only horror film out there that’s dedicated to “a doer.”

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