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One of the most popular horror genres of the 1980s was the “campground slasher” film. The genre can be distinguished from more broad categories such as “cabin in the woods” films or “people sleeping in tents” movies by the following elements:
- They take place exclusively in the summer.
- They almost always involve young and vibrant teenagers who have sex in the woods and then are brutally punished for their licentious ways.
- The killer almost always wears some sort of mask, especially a white hockey mask.
- The killer’s legend is usually told around a campfire, only for the storytellers to realize to their eventual horror that the “legend” is based on reality.
- It’s probably wise never to go swimming or boating in the lake, because something will inevitably rise from the depths and pull you down.
It’s a very specific genre and is limited by its very specificity. As you will see, most of the films that followed in the wake of the granddaddy, Friday the 13th, tend to borrow or outright steal many of the elements from the film that spawned the short-lived genre.
The Best Campground Slasher Movies
The undisputed king of campground slasher movies is also the one that established all the tropes that would be repeated in copycat films throughout the decade. There’s a problem at Camp Crystal Lake. In 1957, a young boy named Jason Voorhees drowned in the lake. The next summer, two people were murdered. When the camp reopens in the present, locals warn people that they are “all doomed” if they dare traverse its accursed grounds. One by one, a mysterious killer keeps dispatching visitors to the camp, especially if they’re young, attractive, and dare to have sex in the woods. They also shouldn’t dare to venture out into the lake, because there’s something malevolent lurking just beneath the surface. Despite the ubiquity of Jason as the killer in all subsequent movies in the franchise, he is not the killer in this film. But who could it be?
As of late 2022, there were a total of 12 movies in the Friday the 13th franchise. Reel Views writes, “If Halloween was the father of slasher movies, Friday the 13th was both the mother and older brother. When studio heads saw how much money those two films accrued, it became a fait accompli that theaters would soon be flooded by copycats and sequels. And so it was. The Curse of Camp Crystal Lake wasn’t the deaths of innocent campers; it was the dregs of the slasher genre that would overwhelm drive-ins and multiplexes as the ’80s matured.”
Rambunctious teens at Camp Blackfoot in upstate New York decide to pull a prank on a creepy alcoholic janitor known only as “Cropsy.” When the prank goes horribly wrong, Cropsy’s face is burned to the point where it is savagely disfigured. After five long years in the hospital, Cropsy is released back into the world, but he must hide his face to avoid terrifying people. Shortly after his release, he murders a prostitute with a pair of scissors. Then he finally finds his way to Camp Stonewater and launches into a murder spree, seeking to kill not only teenagers having sex, but one of the five teens who initially pulled the prank that deformed Cropsy for life. The film, alternately released as Campfire Stories, Cropsy, and The Cropsy Maniac, marked the screen debut of Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, and Fisher Stevens. It is based on a campfire legend prominent in New York and New Jersey about a ruthless killer who terrorizes the young on Staten Island. The legend was made into a 2009 documentary called Cropsey.
While senior camp counselors are telling scary stories around a fire, a counselor named Max (Frederick Neumann) relates the legend of “Madman Marz,” who murdered his entire family with an axe. Marz was convicted of the crime, hit in the face with an axe, and then hung by his neck for his crimes, only to break free and escape into the woods. As the legend has it, Marz will kill anyone who utters his name above a whisper. Upon hearing this, an arrogant teen named Richie (Tom Candela) stands up and yells “Madman Marz!” at the top of his lungs. Unsurprisingly, counselors start disappearing (and dying). At the end, rattled beyond belief, the formerly skeptical Richie is forced to admit that Madman Marz is real.
During the summer of 1975 near Camp Arawak in upstate New York, a single father named John Baker (Dan Tursi) is vacationing with his two children, Angela and Peter, when the family is involved in a fatal boating accident. Eight years later, Angela (Felissa Rose) is living with her aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Angela and Ricky are sent to Camp Arawak for the summer where Angela is subjected to bullying by campers and counselors, as well as sexual advances by the camp’s cook. The people who get on Angela’s bad side tend to end up seriously injured or dead, but who could the killer be?
In the sixth installment of the franchise that launched (and possibly also killed) the campground slasher genre, Jason Voorhees has been dead and buried for over six years. But the 12-year-old boy who killed him, Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews), is now a man, and he’s been released from a mental institution where he was held due to the trauma he suffered as a child. He can’t rest knowing the Jason’s body hasn’t been cremated, so he returns to Jason’s grave and exhumes the corpse. In a rage, he begins to stab Jason’s cadaver with a steel post, which accidentally resurrects Jason from the dead when the post is struck by lightning. Tommy desperately returns to Crystal Lake, which has been renamed Forest Green to evade negative publicity, to warn people that Jason is back. Tommy also seeks to convince them, with great difficulty, that he hasn’t lost his mind again.
A bit of an anomaly in the campground slasher genre because it mixes Broadway show tunes with the regular tropes, Stage Fright starts with the murder of a theatrical star named Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver), who is killed backstage at a performance of The Haunting of the Opera by someone wearing the mask of the play’s villain, “Opera Ghost.” A decade later, Kylie’s daughter Camilla (Allie MacDonald) auditions for a kabuki theater version of The Haunting of the Opera at a musical theater summer camp that is teetering on bankruptcy. One by one, another masked maniac starts dispatching the young and horny teens at the camp. Culture Crypt writes, “As out of place as song and dance might seem for horror, the songs slide in so seamlessly that they never become a distraction….You’ll know if ‘Stage Fright’ is for you depending on how you react to the leitmotif of a kabuki-masked killer wailing in death metal vibrato before putting a saw blade into someone’s torso.”
Sam (Maurice Lutjen) is a misfit 12-year-old with a hyperactive imagination who is attending summer camp in the mountains of Belgium near the French border along with other Cub Scouts who enjoy bullying him. Before embarking on the trip, the boys trade stories about a mythical creature known as Kai, who is some sort of cryptozoological werewolf that terrorizes people in the woods. Out of the entire group, Sam is the only one who believes that Kai is real. Then one day while venturing alone in the forest, Sam encounters a feral boy named Kai. But Kai is clearly a boy and not some sort of other creature. What’s weirder is that Kai’s father is a perfectly normal human. So how did Kai get this way, and is he responsible for a string of murders at the camp? Bloody Disgusting writes, “Cub is a ton of fun. The practical effects look fantastic and some of the kills are very creative. There’s one kill that involves an arrow and a beehive that is pretty incredible.”
Max (Taissa Farmiga) and a group of friends attend a double-feature screening of Camp Bloodbath 1 and 2, a film that starred her late mother Amanda (Malin Akerman), who was one of the most famous scream queens of the 1980s. While viewing the cult classic, they are sucked into the screen and have to fend off the same maniacal killer from Camp Bloodbath. The film is packed with burn victims and licentious women and a masked killer. It us up to Max and the gang to figure out how to escape the living nightmare of the horror film they’ve been unwillingly dragged into. Horror Cult Films writes, “Hysterical while at times pulling on your heart strings, The Final Girls is 2015’s most welcome surprise, a comedy horror that will rightly become a much loved cult film in a few years.”
This awkwardly titled film was originally called Fear Street: 1978. It is part of a trilogy of films that operate in reverse chronological order and was based on a book series of the same name by R.L. Stine. In this, the second film in the trilogy, a pair of rival groups at Camp Nightwing must form a truce to help solve a series of murders. Many of the familiar genre tropes are here in abundance: the rebellious teen girl, the drug-consuming macho male slut, and a straight-arrow male who falls for the rebellious teen girl. All Horror writes, “The whole concept of Fear Street feels like something that shouldn’t work – a storyline that progresses backward through three consecutive films, each sequel also serving as a prequel. However, it does, providing a satisfying viewing experience that brings something new to the table without taking itself too seriously.”
More Campground Horror Movies
- Cheerleader Camp (1988) – Originally titled Bloody Pom Poms, the film centers on a girl who attends a summer camp for cheerleaders where murders suddenly start happening.
- Bloody Murder (2000) – Trevor Moorhouse—basically a retread of Jason Voorhees, complete with white hockey mask—returns to terrorize the camp when a crop of new teen counselors arrive.
- Camp Dread (2014) – When the popularity of the campground horror genre starts to wane, a successful director from the genre brings a group of ten new “contestants” to a summer camp for a reality show that gets far too real far too quickly.
- Summer Camp (2015) – A quartet of camp counselors return to summer camp early, only to get infected by a virus that turns them into killers.
- You Might be the Killer (2018) – A camp counselor who suffers from blackouts slowly starts to suspect that he’s the one who’s been killing people at camp. Oh—and he wears a white hockey mask while killing.
- Camp Wedding (2019) – A summer camp with a very dark history is rented by a woman who wants to hold her wedding there. Then the bodies start disappearing again.
- Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight (2020) – Teens attend a rehab camp to wean them from their tech addiction, but a caped figure with a giant axe disrupts their plans and takes them permanently offline.
- Bloody Summer Camp (2021) – As counselors gather at Camp Trustfall to prepare for the summer of 1986, an axe-wielding maniac spoils their fun. But at least he’s wearing a Devil mask rather than another white hockey mask.
- They/Them (2022) – A group of teens at a gay-conversion therapy camp start to question their sanity when a killer begins stalking them. In case you were wondering, the killer wears a mask.