As summer draws to a close, so does the tradition known as summer camp- a place of fun, games, first romances and sometimes… murder. Yep, even as innocuous a place as camp isn’t safe from the fears and terrors of horror movies. After all, summer camp is the first time many of us are away from the relative safety of our homes, and placed into the care of counselors that may not always have their eye on the ball- in a manner of speaking, at least.
Sometimes though, it’s having their eyes on the ball a little TOO much (if you know what I mean and I think that you do, as Joe Bob Briggs would say) that gets them, and others, in trouble. Just ask Jason Voorhees. Or better yet, maybe don’t. Of course, Friday the 13th is the great granddaddy of all summer camp slashers, deserving of a list unto itself, more than a few of which you can find on this very site. For the purposes of this list, I’ve decided to leave Jason be and focus instead on lesser known summer camp slashers.
Be sure to click on the titles for the trailers for each film!
I’m starting out with a tie, but only this once- the main reason being that there are better variations of the same general plot-lines to be found elsewhere on this list. Spirit Camp is basically a combination of Cheerleader Camp and Bring It On, only trashier and more low-rent. However, it is worth at least a mention, despite its shortcomings, because of its somewhat novel approach to the material.
Here, the designated “final girl,” as it were, is, in fact, the “bad girl” of the bunch, rather than the more goody-two-shoes types. (Though one might argue that none of these people are exactly squeaky clean, either.) She’s even the only one in the cast to get naked, so the film isn’t above breaking a few typical slasher movie “rules.”
Sent to cheerleader camp as part of her probation- kind of an odd “punishment,” but okay- she almost immediately senses something off about the place, which is proved to be right as everyone starts getting bumped off in short order. Unfortunately, the film’s low-budget means a lot of the kills happen off-screen, leaving us to only witness the aftermath, and the acting isn’t exactly top-notch, either. Ditto the look of the film, which is maybe one step above shot-on-video at best.
That said, it’s a fun enough time-waster, and you can tell everyone is having a good time making it. There’s also a scene-stealing kid early on who not only has some of the film’s best lines, but acts circles around most of the cast in the process. Alas, she disappears from the film early on. Somewhat oddly, given the setting, the film is also loaded with, of all things, Halloween references, rather than the expected Friday the 13th ones. Go figure.
Meanwhile, Camp Slaughter revolves around a group of young people who inexplicably find themselves transported back to the 80’s, just before a mass killing is about to occur at a nearby summer camp. Sound familiar? Then you must have seen The Final Girls. If not, picture Groundhog Day, only as a slasher movie.
To be fair, this film came out some ten years prior, so maybe the filmmakers should be suing the writers of The Final Girls for totally stealing their idea! (Maybe they can finance a sequel, which this film obviously leaves the door open for.) Still, there’s no denying that the latter film did it better, hence this one coming in lower on the list.
Although I admittedly saw the “Director’s Cut,” the main problem with this one is that, at nearly two hours, it’s way too long to be as effective as it could have been. It also has one too many fake-outs and twists, most of which don’t make a lot of sense. Still, when’s the last time you faulted a slasher film for being TOO ambitious?
One thing I did love about it, though it could have been exploited more, was the fact that the modern-day cast are totally obnoxious and foul-mouthed, while the 80’s kids, aside from the obvious villains, are actually mostly really likable and fun to spend time with. One of my pet peeves with a lot of the more recent slasher movies is that the cast of characters tend to be annoying and unlikable caricatures. Say what you will about slasher movies having an obvious pattern to them that makes them all pretty predictable, what makes the old-school ones endure is that they’re a lot of fun, and you find yourself sad when certain people die. These days, you’re lucky if there’s even one person to root for.
I don’t know why that change occurred or what brought it on- I feel like a lot of modern filmmakers maybe missed the point of the early entries in the subgenre somehow, and instead replicated the worst tendencies of the slasher and left out what makes the classic ones so enjoyable.
Camp Slaughter isn’t perfect, but it is a lot of fun for the most part, and a lot of the problems I had probably could have been helped by some judicious editing and maybe losing at least one of the twists and focusing on explaining the main one a little better. As it stands, we never do find out why the 80’s characters are stuck in a loop, or why the “new” ones manage to infiltrate the loop in the first place, among other plot holes.
I could forgive all that just for being original, at least, but the production values are really low, the FX are pretty bad, and the acting isn’t great, so at the bottom of the list it goes. Maybe the sequel will get it right.
9. The “Bloody Murder” Series (2000-2006)
Another one that looks as if it were shot on a camcorder for $20, Bloody Murder was a huge hit on home video, spawning a sequel, 2003’s Bloody Murder 2: Closing Camp and even a spin-off The Graveyard (2006). How’s this for a plotline? A group of counselors arrive early at camp to set up for the kids when a mysterious, hockey mask-clad killer starts bumping them off, one by one. This one doesn’t even TRY to hide it being a blatant Friday the 13th rip-off.
However, a few things do set it apart from the rest of the pack. For one thing, this was released after the second wave of slashers that began with 1996’s Scream, so it has a lot of in-joke style humor and even a Randy-style character that keeps referencing horror movies. At one point they even watch a slasher movie at camp called “Sleepover Camp Massacre 14”! (It’s actually footage from 1996’s Fever Lake, FYI.)
My fave recurring joke, though, has to be the one involving a character named- you guessed it- Jason who, naturally, is accused of the murders early on, leading to such dialogue like “Jason would never hurt anyone!” and, after one character asks where Jason is: “He’ll probably pop up when you least expect it!”
Now, don’t get me wrong. The film definitely has its flaws. While the script is entertaining enough, the proceedings could have been a lot more enjoyable with a better cast. As a direct result of that, a considerable amount of the jokes fall flat, due to the tone-deaf delivery from the subpar actors on board.
Also, the designated final girl, Jessica Morris, is particularly dull, which is interesting, considering that she was one of the few members of the cast to go onto to bigger things, notably on the soap One Life to Live. Tellingly, she openly bashed the film in an interview- perhaps because she was embarrassed by her own performance, which is no great shakes.
Thankfully, the filmmakers learned from the experience and hired a much better cast and crew the next time around for the sequel, including Troma vet and horror mainstay Tiffany Shepis, while keeping the screenwriter from the original (John R. Stevenson) and adding better, gorier effects and plenty of skin. It’s definitely the best of the bunch, with the spin-off The Graveyard- which is also set, for the most part, at the fictional Camp Placid Pines- resting somewhere in between the first two, with less humor and better production values. All are worth at least a one-time watch, though.
8. Bloody Bloody Bible Camp (2012)
Ultra-trashy and campy as hell, this one was produced by none other than horror favorite Reggie Bannister, of the Phantasm films, who also co-stars as, ahem, “Father Cummings,” which should give you an idea of the level of humor on display here. Well, that, and the fact that the film features an eyebrow-raising cameo by ex-porn star Ron Jeremy as a certain holy figure that has to be seen to be believed.
While the acting is intentionally broad and silly, and the script is a bit sketchy at times- I could have done without some of the homophobic remarks (though I’m not gonna lie, I did laugh at the one at the expense of the Jewish faith)- the film is obviously meant to be tongue-in-cheek, so it’s hard to take it all too seriously. Also, the killer is played by openly gay writer/director Tim Sullivan (the 2001 Maniacs films), so the participants were clearly in on the joke(s).
Astonishingly, the cinematography is extremely good at times, belying the low budget, though at times it’s also extremely over-lit, which may have to do with the fact that the film actually has two cinematographers. Maybe they ran out of money for the good one halfway through and had to make do with a cheaper one for the rest of the shoot! Whatever the case, when it’s good, it’s exceptionally good, so there’s that.
Also, the FX are pretty solid, and there’s a lot of killing- the film opens with a prologue set in 1977, at a decidedly liberal bible camp, with all of the people killed in one fell swoop in various gory ways, before moving into the early 80’s for more slaughter as the camp is re-opened, with predictably horrific results.
It’s all a bit on the gratuitous side, but it’s definitely intentionally so, given the overall tone of the proceedings. The characters are little more than stereotypes, but the film isn’t above tweaking them here and there, at least, and, as with Spirit Camp, the heroine is the resident bad girl- here, a Goth girl type- so you win some, you lose some.
Does that make it a great movie? Not really. But it moves along at a decent clip and has its moments, and unlike Camp Slaughter, it actually does look and feel like a late 70’s-early 80’s slasher movie, even if, like that film, the (original, non-80’s) music gives it away at bit, as does the post-modern/in-joke type humor. But hey, Reggie sings, so there’s that!
7. Twisted Nightmare (1987)
An oddball potpourri of Native American lore, Wicca shenanigans, and typical slasher movie antics, this one isn’t as good as it could have been, but it’s at least trying to be original in its approach, even as it gets drowned in slasher movie clichés at times. Thankfully, it’s so ridiculous you won’t care that much.
After a group of “young” people- all of whom look to be at least in their 30’s, if not older- receive mysterious invitations to spend an all-expenses paid vacation at the camp they attended a few years prior (thus implying they are in their late teens/early twenties!), they all opt to go to the ad-hoc reunion, despite the fact that their last visit ended in the tragic death of one of their own.
Is the person in question, who allegedly died in a fire, really dead? Or is the boy’s sister, who is also in attendance, the real culprit? Or is there something more mystical going on? As you might have guessed from the above description, it’s a little bit of all of the above. Don’t worry- that’s not really a spoiler- the film tips its hand pretty early on in the proceedings, in that regard.
Honestly, it doesn’t all add up or make a lot of sense, but there’s a huge group of people on hand to get slaughtered (the body count must be just south of 20!) and more nudity and sex than a Skinemax flick, so you won’t really care. The gore is effective in places, and sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the film was shot at the same location as Friday the 13th Part 3, which lends an extra bit of fun to the proceedings.
Although the film falls prey to the whole shabby cinematography thing that plagues a lot of 70’s/80’s-era slashers, it’s still fairly watchable and some of the characters are (unintentionally) a hoot, notably the weapons-obsessed Tak and the requisite a-hole character, who hates everyone so much, you have to wonder why he even showed up in the first place.
It’s a flawed film that could have been great if the story weren’t so muddled- there’s a germ of a great plotline in there somewhere- and if it had slightly better production values. And a better cast. And script. And… well, you get the idea. Check your brain at the door and enjoy and you’ll be fine.
6. Madman (1982)
This one’s reputation somewhat precedes it, as it was celebrated as a “long-lost slasher classic” after it went out of print on VHS- conveniently enough, just before it’s DVD release. Funny how that works. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a classic, but it’s a decent enough slasher movie that has its moments. I think the main reason it isn’t as well-regarded as it could be is because of another movie on our list- see #3- which basically has the same premise, only executed way better.
As it turns out, that was no coincidence. Both films were inspired by the urban legend of the Cropsey Killer, out of New York, where the film was also made. Unfortunately for Madman, their competitors got there first, resulting in some last-minute rewrites to tweak the more obvious similarities. Cropsey became Madman Marz, a crazed farmer who murdered his entire family and was thought to still lurk in the woods near the camp where the film is mostly set.
As with Friday the 13th Part 2, we begin with a campfire retelling of the legend, before one of the kids taunts the killer, thus bringing him out of hiding and them onto his radar. Naturally, he then proceeds to kill them off, one by one. Ironically- spoiler alert! – the kid that calls him out is among those who survive. Go figure. (According to the DVD commentary, it was because he was going to be blamed for the murders, thus setting up a sequel.)
The cast includes a rare non-George A. Romero film appearance by Gaylen Ross, of Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow fame, though, oddly, she went by a different name here, “Alexis Dubin.” In fact, I originally mistook her for the “Lady in Lavender” of Phantasm fame, due to the name change thing, before the DVD commentary set me straight.
All in all, the film is enjoyable enough, even if it isn’t the lost gem some would have you believe it is. As you might have guessed from my references to it, the DVD commentary from the cast and crew is well-worth listening to, and arguably even more engaging than the movie itself. It also features a feature-length documentary. The Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome has even more goodies, including an additional commentary from the amusing podcasters “The Hysteria Continues!“, as well as everything featured on the DVD version.
5. Cheerleader Camp (1988)
This fun combination of a raunchy teen movie and a slasher has a more noteworthy cast than many of the films on this list, including former teen heartthrob Leif Garrett (The Outsiders), just as his career- and hairline- was on the decline; Mrs. “Jigsaw” herself, the delectable Betsy Russell (see also her awe-inspiring Lady Godiva-esque turn in the goofy Private School); John Carpenter favorite George “Buck” Flower (The Fog, They Live); break-dancer extraordinaire Lucinda Dickey (Breakin‘ 1 & 2); B-movie princess Rebecca Ferratti (the Gor movies); and not one but two adult movie stars in Krista Pflanzer and Teri Weigel, who actually have a “nude-off” at one point!
Even though, as per usual, the cast is way too old to be playing a bunch of teenage cheerleaders- if you can get past that, it’s a great ride, thanks to a Porky’s-style sensibility, crossed with an admittedly bonkers plotline. The scene in which the mascots eat lunch is a highlight, as is the dance-off, thanks to Dickey’s skills (she also choreographed everything here and even wrote the goofy rap song the cheerleaders do at one point), and the dream sequences are genuinely surreal, if a bit out of place with the tone of the rest of the film.
The FX are decent, and the ending is suitably nuts, especially the bit with a certain character cheering after all the carnage that went down, making for, all in all, an endearing and amusingly fun slasher. Of all the films here, save #3, it may have the biggest re-watch-ability factor, so it’s got that going for it.
Be sure and avoid the cheapo, much-belated pseudo-sequel Cheerleader Camp: To the Death at all costs. No one from the original film-making team or the cast was involved with it, and it ranks below even the worst of this list, in terms of quality.
4. Stage Fright (2014)
Not to be confused with the 1987 Michele Soavi slasher classic of the same name (or the Hitchcock movie, for that matter), this entertaining flick may well be the first slasher movie musical, though it’s not too far removed from Brian DePalma’s classic horror/musical Phantom of the Paradise, which, like this film, “borrows” a lot of its plot from the classic Phantom of the Opera.
Here, the daughter (likable, sexy, solid singer Allie MacDonald, The Barrens) of a murdered Broadway diva (Minnie Driver, herself a Phantom vet) decides to follow in her mother’s footsteps at a musical theatre camp, only to have her dreams challenged by a masked musical-hating maniac who starts killing off members of the production one by one, as the premiere approaches- and even during it.
Now, first and foremost, I’m not a big musical fan, so if you’re right there with me, you’ll be glad to know the film doesn’t overdo it with the musical sequences, and the ones that are present are actually pretty funny if you pay attention to the lyrics, functioning more as satire than anything. (I recommend watching them with the captions for full effect.)
At the very least, don’t miss the one sung by none other than Meat Loaf, which may well be the first Broadway musical/metal mash-up, with apologies to Cradle of Filth, who did something in the neighborhood with “Her Ghost in the Fog,” but that’s more of an opera/metal mash-up, really.
Basically, if you thought Ryan Murphy‘s American Horror Story could stand a little more of his Glee this might be the movie for you. Even if that sounds horrific, rest assured, this is one of the gorier films on this list, and unlike a lot of slasher flicks, the acting is pretty solid and the script is pretty amusing, with as many horror movie references as there are Broadway musical ones. The end result is a lot like Anna Kendrick’s underrated Camp, but with a lot of murdering, and I mean that as a compliment.
3. The Burning (1981)
Though a lot of film studios have made quick, easy bucks from cheap horror films, few have built an entire company on the backs of one- this entry being a notable example. Based on a story partially concocted by Harvey Weinstein, and a screenplay co-written by his brother Bob, the film marks the first production by the Weinsteins, period, essentially making this the very first Miramax film release.
Obviously, the company would go on to bigger and better things, playing a big part in launching the mainstream careers of such film-making luminaries as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, and Peter Jackson, among many others. Even this early on into their careers, they had an eye for talent- check out some of the cast, which includes early appearances by Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), Holly Hunter (Raising Arizona), Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit), Larry Joshua (Dances with Wolves) and Brian Backer (Fast Times at Ridgemont High).
As aforementioned with Madman, the film was inspired by the NY-based urban legend of Cropsey, which Harvey Weinstein thought would be a great idea for a film. Noting the success of Halloween, he brought the idea to producing partner Michael Cohl, who agreed and signed off on a treatment Weinstein wrote in 1979, which actually predates the release of Friday the 13th, and shows that, contrary to popular opinion, the movie actually wasn’t a rip-off of that film.
In addition, the film also beat Madman to the punch, causing that film to be extensively rewritten, and likely impeding its own moderate success, as, by the time it was released, the market had been flooded with a deluge of like-minded slasher films. Fortunately for The Burning, such was not the case, as it made back its budget and then some in theatres, faring even better on home video.
One of the things the film is most notable for is its impressive effects, by none other than FX legend Tom Savini, the man who created (and would later “kill”- albeit briefly) Jason Voorhees, and who actually turned down FT13th Part 2 to work on the film. Though heavily censored, as the MPAA was cracking down on violence in movies at the time, the film has since been released uncut, which is readily available on DVD and Blu-ray, both of which feature great bonuses, including the requisite commentaries, making-of and behind-the-scenes footage.
In addition, the excellent score is by the also-legendary Rick Wakeman, of the rock group Yes, which has since been released on CD, featuring lots of previously-unreleased material- and even some re-recordings of the score in a more rock-based version by Wakeman, making it a must-own for fans. (Never fear, the soundtrack also features the original score in all its glory as well, for you purists.)
While the film suffered critically a bit at the time because of the glut of similar types of movies, it has since been reappraised, especially in its uncut form, and justly celebrated as one of the true great slasher classics of the era. Besides, that infamous raft scene is hard to top, what with the killer laying waste to a host of unlucky camp counselors all at once- a rare multiple killing in one fell swoop, which doesn’t actually happen very often in slasher movies, surprisingly enough. All in all, an absolute must-own for slasher fans.
2. The Final Girls (2015)
The newest entry on the list is also one of the best, thanks to a better-than-average cast of pros, a great sense of humor and a first-rate script, even if it doesn’t quite explain the “why” of it all and leaves things relatively open-ended. But it wouldn’t be a true slasher if the door wasn’t left open for a sequel, right?
The plot, which, as aforementioned, may or may not have been lifted from the nonetheless inferior Camp Daze, revolves around the daughter (American Horror Story-vet Taissa Farmiga) of a former Scream Queen (Watchmen‘s Malin Akerman), who is still reeling from her mother’s death when she begrudgingly attends an anniversary screening of one her mom’s most-beloved slashers, Camp Bloodbath, at the behest of a fanboy pal (Thomas Middleditch, Silicon Valley).
While watching the screening, a fire breaks out and she and a group of her friends are mysteriously transported into the film they’re watching, where they watch in disbelief as the events of the film play out before their eyes- and Farmiga’s character is reunited with her late mother, sort of. Is it a shared hallucination brought about by smoke fumes, or is this for real?
Hard to say, as the film never explains it, any more than Camp Daze does. Either way, as in that film, the newcomers’ appearance throws a wrench into the killer’s plans, as he is now facing a bunch of interlopers looking to keep everyone, including themselves, alive until the end. Only this time armed with a knowledge of how everything plays out- or used to, at least, before they came along- as well as general know-how about slasher movies, a la the younger cast of Scream.
The end result is a lot of fun and arguably the most entertaining slasher movie since the Scream movies, in fact. It helps that the cast is so winning and likable, including the delectable Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries), cooler-than-thou Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), a tongue-in-cheek turn by Adam DeVine (Pitch Perfect), requisite hunk Alexander Ludwig (The Hunger Games), designated film-within-a-film Final Girl Chloe Bridges (Pretty Little Liars) and a slyly-winking sexpot role for Angela Trimbur (Rob Zombie’s Halloween II).
It also helps that, while not necessarily in keeping with most actual slasher films from the Golden Era, it features period-appropriate music, helping to sustain the 80’s vibe the film seeks to emulate. While, Alice Cooper notwithstanding, most slasher flicks couldn’t afford big names, much less big hits, this one boasts some readily identifiable ones, including the likes of Toni Basil, Kim Carnes, Bananarama, Wang Chung, and Warrant.
You’ll certainly never hear “Bette Davis Eyes” the same way again, and I definitely mean that as a compliment. Indeed, I almost got a bit weepy towards the end, which may be a first for me with a slasher movie. That’s all thanks to the excellent chemistry between Akerman and Farmiga, who brought their A-game to the proceedings, as did everyone else. It’s no surprise the film was nominated for and/or won a bunch of festival awards along the way, including multiple wins for Best Horror Feature.
Fun fact: one of the film’s screenwriters is the son of actor Jason Miller, of The Exorcist fame, and admitted that part of the source of inspiration for the film was the inherent weirdness of seeing a movie in which one’s parent died in a horrific fashion. His childhood trauma is our gain!
Reportedly, the writers already have an idea for where the sequel will go, including an exploration of who the Farmiga character’s father was, which was never mentioned in this film. Here’s hoping it happens, because the horror movie landscape could use more films like this.
1. The Sleepaway Camp Series (1983-2008)
Fans of this site will probably not be surprised by my choice for number one- I wrote a lengthy article about it around a year ago. As it expresses my feeling for the film in detail, I’ll direct you to it here for more info on the film, rather than regurgitating info about it again.
Suffice it to say, though, I love everything about that first film, from the wonderfully bizarre cast of characters (who can forget Judy- seeing as her name is posted for all to see on her shirt throughout the film- or wacky Aunt Martha, who’s like Zooey Deschanel auditioning for a John Waters film?), to the truly twisted ending, which absolutely wrecked the brain of anyone of a certain age who saw it back in the day.
Angela, as first memorably played by Felissa Rose (who I’m proud to call a Facebook friend these days), then Pamela “Yes, THAT” Springsteen, before making its way back to Rose more recently, is truly a one-of-a-kind character, and the great thing is, there’s an Angela for all types of horror fans out there. Prefer your slasher flicks down and dirty and somewhat on the sleazy side? Check out the original film and perhaps 2008’s Return to Sleepaway Camp, though it lacks the wonderful 80’s vibe of the original.
Or do you prefer your horror with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor? Look no further than Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland, which were shot back-to-back and feature a hilariously winking turn by Springsteen, not to mention an appropriately metal soundtrack- and even rapping by Angela, who gives a new meaning to killing it.
Hell, even if you lean more towards the incomprehensible, there’s the scattershot, pieced-together crazy-quilt of Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor, which was uncompleted for years until someone had the bright idea to finish it by cutting in footage of the previous three films, Silent Night, Deadly Night 2-style and passing it off as a “new” entry in the franchise. On second thought, maybe skip that one, unless you’re too impatient to sit through three movies, I guess.
But really, as much fun as the sequels can be- and they admittedly range from enjoyable (Unhappy Campers) to okay (Teenage Wasteland and Return) to pretty terrible (The Survivor)- it’s the original that’s a can’t miss for slasher fans, and that’s the real reason it lands at the top of my list. It’s one of my all-time fave slashers, period, much less my favorite non-FT13th summer camp-themed one. As the saying goes, if you must see only one… this is it.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed my list! Don’t agree? Did I miss one of your own faves? Be sure and leave your own lists down below in the comments section, alongside any comments you might have about the article!