The 1980s were chock-a-block with slasher movies, the subgenre of horror that had progenitors as far back as Psycho and Peeping Tom but became a staple of low-budget gore since John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween, which actually has very little gore. The movie that really got the trend working overtime was 1980’s Friday the 13th which created the kids-getting-slaughtered-at-a-summer-camp model and showed that showing lots and lots of blood was perfectly all right. (1981’s The Burning is another example of this.) By time 1983’s Sleepaway Camp rolled around, there had already been quite a few of these kinds of slasher films and so writer/director Robert Hiltzik had to do something a bit drastic to get people talking about his film – make it UTTERLY BATSHIT INSANE.
There is a constant thread of “uhhh, what?” in just about every scene of Sleepaway Camp, from the opening tragedy right to the face-crinkling ending. It’s nutter butters. It’s made all the more disturbing by the fact that the campers are almost entirely played by real 13-ish year old kids instead of the usual 19-year-olds playing younger. But when the thrust of the film is overly-sexual bullies and rapey camp staffers getting hacked up by a gender-confused child, then we’re into some seriously weird Freud territory.
The film begins at an idyllic lake where a single father swimming with his two twin children, Angela and Peter. Some errant speed boat activity leads to an accident that kills the father and one of the kids. Eight years later, the still-traumatized Angela (Felissa Rose) now lives with her insane and over-protective aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and her hip cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and the kids are being sent to summer camp. Angela doesn’t get on with really anyone, mostly because she’s stone-faced and stares at people unblinkingly all the time. Still, she develops a crush of sorts on Ricky’s friend Paul (Christopher Collet) and he might like her too.
This would be fine if people didn’t start getting dead. The intensely skeevy cafeteria chef, who almost forces himself on Angela before Ricky intervenes, is the first to go, getting his head shoved in a huge pot of boiling water. The bitchy girl who’s a little bit slutty gets killed also, as do a handful of other people. The strangest part of all this is that the camp directors and the POLICE DEPARTMENT don’t want to alert anyone or close the camp. They don’t even tell people there’s anything to be wary of. “Oh no, it’s fine; no reason to change what’s happening, it’s just a person violently murdering folks. Go about your business.”
Each and every character in the film is in some way bent, and that I think comes from the filmmaker who seems to have gotten exactly what he wanted from everybody. There’s a seven minute softball sequence which does little except set up that some older kids hate Ricky and have a reason to want to beat him up. Great. We’re left guessing who the murderer is, and even when we do figure out who, it’s not clear as to why…until it’s all too clear. The film ends with one of the most disturbing final reveals of any horror movie ever made. I won’t spoil it here if you haven’t seen the film, but holy cripes, it’s a doozy.
Overall, Sleepaway Camp is an oddity of a slasher movie and maybe good for a group of friends to laugh at some evening. Not a classic in anything but weirdness. Of course, I’m in the minority because, for whatever reason, this movie has one of the most loyal and diehard fan communities of any horror franchise in history. Yes, I say “franchise,” because the unprecedented success of this movie led to four sequels, including a direct-to-DVD one in 2008 by Hiltzik himself, and a remake in the works. The film’s stars have made a career out of the convention circuit and more people discover the movie all the time. Huh.
And even more people will find the movie with the special edition Blu-ray from Shout! Factory. Aside from a nice new 2k transfer from the original camera negative, which Shout is now famous for, as well as gorgeous new box art, the Blu-ray/DVD set features a 45 minute making-of and retrospective featuring a lot of the main cast and crew. It’s entertaining and informative, as these things ought to be, and it seems like the atmosphere on set was just as weird as the movie is. There’s also a newly-recorded commentary track with stars Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten as well as the older commentary featuring director Robert Hiltzik, Rose, and the president of the Sleepaway Camp appreciation society (i.e. the guy who runs the website). Rounding out the extras are production photos, short films by some of the people involved, and trailers.
If you’re a slasher aficionado, or just want to watch a super weird movie, this Blu-ray set will give you plenty of bang for your buck.