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Sleepaway Camp

D: Robert Hiltzik / 88m

Cast: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields, Christopher Collet, Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo, Desiree Gould, Owen Hughes, Robert Earl Jones

Eight years after the death of her father and brother in a boating accident, Angela Baker (Rose) is heading off to Camp Arawak for the summer with her cousin Ricky (Tiersten).  Angela is withdrawn, says hardly anything to anyone, rarely joins in the camp’s activities, and soon becomes the target of bully Judy (Fields), as well as some of the boys.  She finds an ally in Ricky’s friend, Paul (Collet).  He shows an interest in her, and they begin a tentative relationship.  Meanwhile, a killer has struck twice, attempting the death of kitchen worker Artie (Hughes), and drowning one of the boys who tormented Angela earlier.  Camp owner Mel (Kellin) refuses to close the camp, though, and as Angela continues to be bullied by Judy and camp counsellor Meg (Kamhi), the body count rises.

The Eighties were a tough time for some horror movies.  The templates established by Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) dictated a serial killer with supernatural abilities, not the least of which was the ability to suffer all manner of physical punishment and still keep on killing.  To be noticed in this particular sub-genre there had to be something different about either the setting (The Funhouse, 1981), or the killer (Curse of the Cannibal Confederates, 1982 – actually zombies).  By the time Sleepaway Camp appeared in 1983, there were already too many weird and wonderful slicers and dicers out there, and too many appearing against the backdrop of a very low budget (and even less imagination).

On face value, Sleepaway Camp had two things working against it from the start: the summer camp setting appropriated by the Friday the 13th series, and an eponymous mystery killer with a grudge against, well, pretty much everyone.  But somehow, and despite some very obvious disadvantages – the acting, the $350,000 budget, the relative inexperience of both cast and crew – the movie struck a nerve with audiences (and went on to make a very tidy profit).  The “shocking” twist ending had a lot to do with the movie’s success – it’s still one of the most unnerving final shots/close ups in horror movie history – but even without this, Sleepaway Camp has an unexpected, and goofy, charm that more than makes up for its faults.

Sleepaway Camp - scene

The familiar location, the typical teenage bickering and peer pressure, the now-awful fashions (did men really wear shorts that short back then?), all these aspects add to the tremendous sense of goodwill the movie engenders, and it’s a measure of writer/director Hiltzik’s confidence in his own material that Sleepaway Camp works so well.  With its slightly askew framing style, and scenes that often run just a beat or two longer than they need to, the movie has a disquieting feel about it from the start; it also throws in a few close ups when the audience least expects it, and this all adds to the disconcerting atmosphere the movie creates from its opening credits sequence showing the camp abandoned and in disrepair. It’s rare that a slasher movie is also creepy, but Sleepaway Camp is creepy without even having to try too hard.

The murders are carried out with gusto, although with an emphasis on not showing too much actual gore, that’s saved for the discovery of the body later on when the special make up effects come into their own (though it’s perhaps a good thing that the aftermath of one character’s death by hair straightener isn’t shown).  There’s the usual moments when you wonder just how one killer could have apparently been in more than one place at a time, and the average viewer could be forgiven for thinking the killer must be on steroids, but this is one time where the logistics of a killing spree can be safely ignored; the escalation has a kooky inventiveness that just works (even though it shouldn’t).  And the killer’s identity, when revealed, is still a moment of genius that has never been imitated since.

As mentioned before, the acting does hamper things, and some of the performances are practically raw (Fields doesn’t appear to be able to deliver a line without pouting at the same time), and some of the dialogue comes out sounding as if English isn’t the actor’s first language.  There’s also the sense that the actors aren’t listening to each other so much as just waiting for each other to finish talking so they can get their own lines out.  Again though, it all adds to the movie’s charm (though you have to see Gould’s performance to get a real idea of just how many “different” acting styles are on display here).

Rating: 7/10 – a superior slasher (and cult favourite) that still impresses over thirty years on; unintentionally funny to be sure (from the perspective of so many years having gone by, at least) but still an effective shocker with a killer twist ending that lodges itself in the memory and stays there.