Ever since Mrs. Vorhees slaughtered a group of horny teenage counselors at Camp Crystal Lake in the original Friday the 13th, summer camps have become synonymous with terror. Places that were idealized getaways for American youth in the first half of the 20th century got reframed as violent arenas where teens were hunted down for their carnal sins. Well, at least at the movies.
And of course, the 1980s and early ’90s was the peak of the summer camp slaughter genre, a horror trend soon to be payed homage to in the upcoming AHS: 1984. As we enter the Dog Days of Summer, here are our picks for the greatest summer camp horror movies of the era (that aren’t part of the Friday the 13th franchise, because we all already know that’s the GOAT). Needless to say, SPOILERS for each of these decades-old movies.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
If Friday the 13th is the Coca-Cola of summer camp horror movies, the Sleepaway Camp is definitely the Pepsi. There have been five entries in the franchise since 1983, with a sixth one coming out this year. On the surface, the Sleepaway Camp series might seem like a total rip on Friday the 13th, with its camp counselor killings and whodunit mystery. But this slasher killer is unlike any other horror movie at the time, or any time. Focusing on a young bullied girl named Angela who starts killing her tormentors at Camp Arawak, it’s got enough of a dash of Carrie to differentiate itself from the rest.
But the notion that the slasher isn’t a dude isn’t the reason this movie has a place in the hall of infamy. As if the movie’s big climactic reveal that the killer is a young girl weren’t enough, it ends with the twist that Angela isn’t a girl at all, but a boy who was forced to live as a girl. By modern standards the twist is pretty darn problematic, but the final shot of Angela naked making animalistic growls after decapitating another fellow camper is genuinely disturbing. Especially given how outright campy the rest of the movie is.
The Burning (1981)
This little known gem is remembered mostly for unleashing Miramax Films on the world, as well as being the first film of future stars Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. One of two ’80s slasher flicks centered around the urban legend of Cropsy, The Burning is set in Camp Stonewater. Here, a motley crew of and teens are killed one by one by a slasher who uses a giant pair of garden shears as his weapon of choice.
Much like Mrs. Voorhees and later Jason in the Friday the 13th films, he sought revenge on horny kids for a prank played on him by the camp counselors that resulted in his being burnt to and deformed. This of course also makes him a bit of a precursor to Freddy Krueger. Although the movie is largely a giant rip off of Friday the 13th, it has one very gnarly “raft massacre” scene that is better than it has any right to be.
This 1982 slasher flick tried to capitalize on Michel Myers and Jason Voorhees with by creating another killer with a “hook” (so to speak). In this case Madman Marz. Our titular Madman is summoned to a summer camp environment upon hearing his story told round the campfire (he has really good hearing, I guess.)
He and his ax then proceed to take out all those who dared mock his good name. This movie was also meant to reflect the Cropsy urban myth from New York just like The Burning did, but since that film was released first they altered the killer at the last minute. Still, it’s close enough to Cropsy. The movie is really slow and not very imaginative, but it hits all the camp slasher tropes pretty well, so it’s worth a watch on YouTube. At least watch it for the closing musics theme “Madman Marz” theme song.
Cheerleader Camp (1988)
The makers of this one, which was originally titled Bloody Pom Poms, knew exactly what kind of movie they were making. By the time this flick was released to the public in 1988, the camp slasher movie was already a tired cliche. And it was ripe to get mocked in a half horror movie/half send up like this one. This movie is exactly what the title suggests: a bunch of cheerleaders get offed at a cheerleader camp, named “Camp Hurrah.”
Most of them are played by former Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets of the Month, and their acting skills are about what one would expect. But star Betty Russel went on to feature in several installments the Saw franchise, so she is the ultimate survivor of Cheerleader Camp. The only known name playing a teen at the camp was former ’70s teen idol Leif Garrett, who was 26 at the time and already had thinning hair. Say what you want about the movie, but the poster is fantastic.
Twisted Nightmare (1988)
This little all-but-forgotten slasher flick came late in the ’80s. So it was riffing on not only Friday the the 13th, but also popular movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street (hence the title). It had a stereotypical “ancient Indian curse” thread too, cashing in on the popularity of movies like Poltergeist and Pet Sematary, with their “cursed Native American burial ground” tropes. If Twisted Nightmare has any real claim to fame these days, it’s that the barn used as murder central in this one from Friday the 13th Part III, and the cinematographer once shot Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind. But Orson only wished he ever made a movie as good as Twisted Nightmare.
Summer Camp Nightmare (1987)
Most of these movies feature a standard “mysterious killer murders campers” scenario. But the little known Summer Camp Nightmare is in a class by itself, and tells the tale of a revolt of the teenage campers against their adult caretakers at Camp North Pines. Taking over the camp themselves, it all becomes a B-movie version of Lord of the Flies. Despite actually being based on a novel, this movie was barely released in theaters. It only had a VHS release back in 1987. To this day, it’s never had a DVD or Blu-ray reissue, making it a bit of a “lost” movie. But you can watch the trailer online.
Addams Family Values (1993)
Ok, so this is an outright comedy and not a horror movie. But it makes the cut due to the fact that few movies have every properly conveyed the horror of being an introverted, non athletic kid who was forced to go to a summer camp against their will. When Wednesday and Pugsley Addams are tricked into going to Camp Chippewa, they must contend with the eternally chipper and entitled campers and the camp counselors from Hell. We’ve seen torture in many a horror flick, but few can evoke chills quite like the Harmony Hut. Luckily, Wednesday and Pugsley incite a revolution at Camp Chippewa, and the good guys win in the end.
Featured Image: Miramax Films