One gap in my knowledge of the American slasher film has always been the 1983 entry Sleepaway Camp. I don't know why I always skipped watching this when the opportunity came up (I vividly remember the cover box from days as a youngster perusing the horror aisles at the local video store, and wanting to watch it), maybe it was because it's reputation solely rested on one element and one element only: its shock ending. I didn't really feel like slogging through a below mediocre slasher just to get to one scene, but hey, I did a few years ago with The Burning (whose gore effects were more than worth wadding through the mediocrity of that film) and this year with The Prowler (ditto), so I figured what the hell…I'd finally give Sleepaway Camp a shot for my horror project this summer. What I found was a film that was exactly the opposite of the aforementioned gore-effect classics: here's a film that is far more cerebral, a film that for 1 hour and 18 minutes seems like a nice little entry into the slasher subgenre with its unwillingness to rely on stupid teenagers running into the woods to get slaughtered and other tired genre tropes; however, all of those "nice" qualities are heightened by the film's final two minutes that more than lives up to its reputation. Usually twist endings don't do anything for me, but every once in awhile a twist ending gives new context to a film, it lingers in your mind for days and makes it nearly impossible to forget not just the image, but the film as a whole. Sleepaway Camp has this type of ending.
Is Sleepaway Camp's twist grounds enough to call it one of the best slasher films, deserving a place among the pantheon of great slashers like Black Christmas, Halloween, Bay of Blood, and ANightmare on Elm Street? That's a question I'm not sure I can answer quite yet. In fact, the film doesn't even really feel like a slasher other than it takes place at a summer camp, there's a killer on the loose, and we know someone at the camp is responsible. There aren't any "dead teenager" moments where stupid people do stupid things, and that's a HUGE relief. What we do have is a horror film that deals with issues that usually aren't broached in slasher films, and even if the film isn't one of the most original of the genre you can't deny the effect that the twist has on the rest of the film.
There's no way I can really talk about the film without really talking about it…so consider this your SPOILER WARNING. The film opens with an interesting, and somewhat surprisingly restrained pan of Camp Arawak as we hear the muffled voices behind the boarded up windows of the abandoned camp. Flashback to a lake where Angela and her brother Peter are boating with their father until a reckless driver decapitates the father and kills Peter. Flash-forward 8 years and we see Angela (Felissa Rose) living with her cousin Ricky (Jonathon Tierston) and his mom (Desiree Gould who does some of the film's best overacting). From the onset we can tell that something isn't quite right because of how bizarrely the mother acts (she's a little too enthusiastic about camp acting as the catalyst for Angela's coming of age). And from this point on Ricky and Angela are off to summer camp where we meet an array of classic, half-shirt wearing male counselors and side-pony-tailed female counselors, as well as pedophile cook and a cantankerous old camp director
What's so interesting about Sleepaway Camp is how the summer camp setting is a very tangible thing. In most slashers the camp setting (or the school or hospital or whatever it may be) is solely designed to displace you, to make you the feel the nightmarish qualities of the location as a madman with an axe or a knife or a chainsaw chases hapless victims around. In Sleepaway Camp, however, is different in that Camp Arawak really does feel like the hell so many people describe summer camp as being (I was lucky enough to never have to go to one) if you were even the slightest bit different or underdeveloped or unusual as a tween or early teen. It can be a humiliating experience where fragile psyches are sent to a place run by horny and immature teenagers who probably do more damage than good. Sleepaway Camp understands this notion and makes the Hell-on-Earth feeling of summer camp palpable in a way few other (if any) slashers have. It's one of the film's qualities that makes it stand apart from its contemporaries.
Another element that makes the film stand apart is how it deals with themes seriously whereas most slashers have their tongue firmly planted within their cheek. We are treated to flashbacks of Angela and her brother spying on her father sleeping with another man, as well as her and her brother perhaps getting ready to play "doctor" in their bed. And then, well, then there's the ending. (Just for good measure I'll throw in another SPOILER WARNING here) It's one of the best and most effective endings I've seen in a slasher film, and perhaps in any horror film. Counselors and a pedophile cook have been offed throughout the film, and as the film brilliantly builds towards its shocking climax (the pacing of the film is great, lingering when it should – giving the feeling of endless summer days – and picking up the pace near the end) we begin to see why Angela has been so reserved over the summer. A quick note before we discuss the ending: I loved how the film was nuanced and seamless in its observations on teenage sexuality. Often the characters in the film fumble their way through their sexual advances, and even the more "experienced" counselors have an air of ignorance to their limited sexual expertise. So it was quite refreshing for a slasher film that takes place at a camp to not having any nudity or ignorant moments of false sexual bravado.
Back to the ending: Once we figure out that it is indeed Angela doing the killing – this revelation occurs about 45 minutes into the film for any astute horror fan – we're ready to pack it up and call it an okay slasher with elements not found in most horror movies of the time. However, the ending changes everything, and I think the filmmakers (writer/director Robert Hiltzik) understood this fact because they don't simply rely on the fact that it's a teenager doing the killing being shocking enough; no, instead we get one last flashback that turns the entire film – and the events that took place at the camp – on its head. In the final flashback we see Ricky's mother talking to someone we presume to be Angela, as she talks about the tragedy that befell her father she begins to explain that once her husband left her she could never fulfill her dream of having a daughter, so when Angela's father left her with Ricky and his mother she thought, of course, that two boys was too many, so why not have a girl…she then begins to explain that Angela is a perfect name…much better than Peter. Then we cut back to two counselors who happen upon Angela and her love interest (Paul), and as she hums to herself and cradles Paul in her arms the counselors make a horrifying discovery: Angela is really a boy. Jesus. I knew from the reputation of the film that the ending packed a punch, but I wasn't expecting that, and even though I knew pieces of what the surprise ending was I wasn't expecting it to be executed so well. It's just so damn unsettling.
So, with the revelation that it was Angela in the lake who was killed with her father, and not Peter, we understand now why Angela was so reserved all summer, why she refused to take showers with the rest of the girls, and why Ricky's mother was acting so freaking bizarre at the beginning of the film. It's not only a crazy ass ending, but it's somewhat poignant too, because here is human who has been completely effed up thanks to a crazy aunt. That final image of "Angela" standing there naked with blood over "her" body is one that will stay with me for some time.
The gore is pretty tame, though, despite the shock of that ending, and really the tameness of the gore points towards the film's biggest (almost so big it sinks the entire film) flaw: the amateurish direction. Hiltzik wrote a great screenplay, but he can't direct a scene worth a damn. Compounding upon the awful lighting throughout some of the film's pivotal scenes is the fact that the deaths are so clumsily blocked and executed that it's hard to decipher just what the hell it is we're even looking at. One such example is when the killer unleashes a horde of bees on a character. All we're privy to is off-camera noises, which would be fine as non-implicit violence is often the best way to do horror (although it comes of as tacky in a slasher film, a subgenre whose sole purpose is to titillate and give the audience a visceral charge with its beheadings and stabbings and impalings), and awfully shot close-ups of a bathroom door. When the scene finally climaxes we get a REAL shaky pan across the floor on a mangled arm and a face full of bees. It's pretty lame. However, there is one shot that is genuinely jarring. The killer has trapped a prankster under his capsized canoe, and the dead teenager doesn't show up until the next day. When the canoe is turned over to reveal the dead body I have to say that the image (and the only instance of good make-up) startled me and kind of creeped me out. It was a pleasant change from the hokeyness of the deaths (a the pedophile cook dies by getting hot water poured on him...seriously) that litter the movie and almost bog it down to a point where the audience forgets the film's strongest asset: its script.
Sleepaway Camp has your basic late-era (relatively speaking since a shitload of slashers were released from the time Friday the 13th was released in 1980 to the time of Sleepaway Camp's 1983 release) , cheaply made slasher aesthetic as the camera is basically stationary throughout, again making it feel very personal and introspective, a film that focuses more on the inner horrors and turmoil rather than slashings and stabbings and false scares (thankfully there are none here, the killer kills in a methodical, Michael Myers type way). So, yeah, it's not as interesting to look at as other early slashers (Hiltzik only directed this one film, but continued to pen the inferior sequels, which shows that he was never able to parlay those "skills" as a director into other directing gigs), and in some cases the film just looks incredibly cheap and amateurish (as mentioned above), but what the film lacks in style it makes up for in how much it affects the viewer, and it has an ending that not just makes the film memorable, but makes it an essential entry into the horror genre. I can't believe it took me this long to see Sleepaway Camp, but it's definitely one of the best examples of how effective the slasher film can be. It's one of the best, and most important, horror films of the 80's.
On a lighter note...just look at the fashion in this film! Ah, the 80's!