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The Nostalgic Attic: Sleepaway Camp (1983)

13 August 2014

Sleepaway Camp (1983)


"She's a real carpenter's dream: flat as a board and needs a screw!"


By the time Sleepaway Camp was released, the slasher genre was entering a funk, with major backlash from critics and viewers alike. A lot of it was understandable; the mechanics of Halloween and Friday the 13th had been bastardised and pillaged so much that little seemed fresh in the sub-genre, and the budgets had shrunk so low that every small-time company was getting in on the action. Still, there was life in the bloodied beast even by 1983, and sure A Nightmare on Elm Street was only just around the corner. So just how well does Sleepaway Camp hold up in comparison to its bigger budgeted brothers?




Opening with a freak boating accident that leaves young Angela (Felissa Rose) without a father and brother, she is sent to live with her overbearing aunt and cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Jump to eight years later, and the two are being sent to Summer Camp for the holidays. Angela has developed into an extremely shy teen; a girl who feels out of place with everyone. It doesn't take long for the bitchy, older girls to start picking on her, and the only one who'll defend her is Ricky. As if the bullies weren't bad enough, there is also the sleazy, paedophile cook on the camp who has his eye on Angela. He soon has a terrible accident... or did he? Bodies soon begin to pile up in the camp; many of them are those that have picked on Angela. Though most of them look like accidents, it doesn't take long before sharp, pointed objects are piercing flesh. But just who is the killer? Is it Ricky, trying to defend his cousin? Or perhaps the boy who fancies her? it couldn't be Angela, could it? Surely not, she's just a girl?


On paper, Sleepaway Camp sounds typical of a slasher film from the era. Summer camp? Check. Unknown killer? Check. Gory deaths? Check. Shock ending? Check. But it's how the film uses these genre staples and twists them slightly is what makes Sleepaway Camp so memorable. The summer camp is actually populated by what do look like children and early teens, for a change. There's no empty camp being prepped by 20-year-olds here. Which makes the idea of a killer stalking children or teens that little bit more disturbing, and makes all the odd, sexual comments and sleaziness seem more real, too. Kids swear at each other, and say horrible things about each other. They talk about sex in a way early teens talk about it. But you also get other elements such as the cook. He is probably one of the sleaziest characters in a slasher film (when viewing the kids running from the bus, he exclaims; "Look at all that young fresh chicken! Where I come from, we call em 'baldies'!") and his death is truly justified. This oddness and impurity of the older characters spreads like a disease throughout the film; the truly bizarre aunt with her strange ideas on raising children, through to the camp owner who is only interested in saving his ass and potentially getting laid from one of the teenage girls. Do these kids really stand a chance against a killer with these kind of adults to protect them?

The deaths are quite unusual, too. Most of them don't involve knives or axes, instead we get 'accidents'; the cook is nearly boiled alive when a vat of hot water is tipped over him, a boy seemingly drowns during a late night swim (the shot of the snake moving out his dead mouth is a particularly gruesome moment), and another boy is stung to death by bees when a nest is dropped into the toilet cubicle with him. Sure, by the time the third act is rolling around, girls are being stabbed in showers and another unfortunate lady meets her end via curling tongs, but the film does a fine job with subverting expectations throughout. This of course, leads us to the climax, and the shock ending. It's one of the main reasons the film is so well remembered. I won't spoil it here just in case you haven't seen it, but the first time I saw the film, it completely caught me off guard. It was a disturbing, gruesome ending to a strange film, and it stuck in my head for days.


The film was written and directed by Robert Hiltzik, whose only other directing credit is the belated 4th entry in the series, The Return to Sleepaway Camp in 2008. I think it's a pity, as he does a great job here with creating tension, suspense and horror. He keeps the largely inexperienced cast in check, and manages to get reasonable-to-good performances from them all. The film also looks great in terms of presentation, and the effects are fantastic.

Sadly, many horror fans (or even just casual horror viewers) tend to look at the film as campy trash. any group screenings I've been to for it usually have people cackling along to the oddly-delivered lines, or giving it the general 'MST3K' treatment. In ways, it makes sense - the film is odd and filled with strange performances with dialogue that will likely get laughs from people (other moments, like the beefy camp counsellor with the shorts that are just too tight will leave you scratching your head). But re-watching it recently on my own brought back that first time I happened upon it, when the horror and tension really shone through the rough spots, and the ending still worked a treat. If this is one you've been on the fence about watching, or haven't seen it in decades, give it a chance. Hopefully you'll find that there's a great little horror film buried under the 'campy' reputation.



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8 Comments:

At 13 August 2014 at 12:06 , Blogger Wes M said...

John, these reviews are so good I'm gonna hang up my boots and retire. I'm gonna keep this comment short for now and double-back later - I've never seen this film to my eternal mortification, but after reading this great post I'm gonna order the Shout Factory blu right away. I'm looking forward to this !

 
At 13 August 2014 at 12:42 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wes, you are being ridiculously kind - I kept this one short as I didn't wanna ruin the fun of the first-time-viewing if you hadn't seen it before. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do, and please do tell me what you think!

 
At 13 August 2014 at 19:32 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I completely agree with you - it's a film that deserves not only more serious consideration - but also its reputation! A seriously bonkers movie which mixes such stylization with that realism you talked about. Consequently it's one of those rare movies that can make me queasy - and that one effect involving Mike Kellin - in high def it might be obvious - but on classic soft VHS that made me yelp in surprise - and I nearly wore out the player rewinding it back to watch it several more times to see if I could figure it out. I couldn't. I haven't seen the fourth movie - I will one day soon - and the second and third movies are kind of off in their own space - certainly watchable, but not nearly up to this original. I agree with Wes too - you're damned good at this writing stuff. (So is he!)

 
At 14 August 2014 at 12:50 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Great Craig - delighted you feel the same about this one as I do. It definitely deserves better. Fully agreed on that effect, it really is great. I didn't want to spoil all of the goodies in the review, but in the comments it's fine! I haven't seen the sequels recently enough to remember anything about them, to be honest. No doubt I'll get to them at some stage, though.

Thanks both for the compliments, you guys are awesome people!

 
At 17 August 2014 at 22:02 , Blogger Drew Grimm Van Ess said...

Dude, you can't make a post about Sleepaway Camp and expect me NOT to post (laugh). I love this slasher flick, dude. And I agree that it is marked as "campy trash" when it shouldn't be at all. I don't know why this one went over everyone's head. The 80's put out a lot of horror films that were terrible but are popular for some reason beyond me, but this isn't one of them.

Also, I first saw this one after I saw the sequel. I heard that it didn't really tie-in with the first, and that I didn't have to watch it in order to understand it. So, I watched part 2 and (in the beginning) when they tell you the synopsis of the first film, I was dropped to hear that Angela was a boy and thought about how seeing part 2 ruined possibly the best twist I'd heard of in a slasher flick. I then watched the first film and loved it, but I never got the shock that everyone else got, so I'll always feel cheated.

 
At 24 August 2014 at 17:23 , Anonymous Backpacking Engineer said...

This is one of my favorite horror films of all time! I was super stoked to see this review, and even more stoked to find somebody else that digs the movie. I really enjoyed your review and will be sure to check back often.

 
At 22 September 2014 at 07:08 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Drew! Sorry for the late reply. Fully agreed there - this one needs a bit more respect. That really sucks on having the twist ruined for you! I was careful not to spoil anything, as many still haven't seen this one. Glad you still dug the hell out of it despite that.

 
At 22 September 2014 at 07:08 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thank you! Thanks for both the kind words and for stopping by. Anyone who is a massive fan of this film is welcome!

 

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