Director: Robert Hiltzik
Writer: Robert Hiltzik
Starring: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields, Christopher Collet, Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo, Thomas E. van Dell
15 | 1h 24min | Horror/Slasher |
Budget: $350,000 (estimated)
There have been many unexpected twists in the slasher canon; in fact, a shock finale is pretty much a prerequisite for a sub-genre that relies so heavily on jump scares and gross-out shock factor.
Also known as Nightmare Vacation, Sleepaway Camp is a very different animal—different in the sense that it not only relies on its twist, it lives and dies by it. It is because of that twist—one of the most shocking and unexpected in all of cinema—that the movie would go on to spawn several increasingly shitty sequels, achieving the kind of cult status most low-budget schlock can only dream of. So monumental is the movie’s shock reveal it has made an icon out of Felissa Rose, a then teenage actress whose other notable silver screen appearances include super low-budget gore flicks Psycho Sleepover and Aliens vs. A-holes (and no, I hadn’t heard of them either).
Other than that, Sleepaway Camp is a fairly high-end entry in the slasher canon, but the revelation in question is so essential in understanding the movie’s status that I have no other choice but to reveal it. If you haven’t seen this movie I suggest you close this page, go and grab yourself a copy and experience it for yourself. Then you can come back and read this review out of respect for the respect I’ve shown you. Bear in mind, this was a mostly bog-standard outing filmed on a minuscule budget of roughly $350,000, which somehow managed to gross $11,000,000 in the US alone. The reason? Word of trembling mouth.
The movie, as you can probably tell from the title, has a rather familiar setting. It also has a rather familiar cast of promiscuous teens, with a bunch of horny jocks and a token bitch who’s just asking for it in the worst way imaginable. The movie opens with a boating accident which sees two kids bear witness to the death of a man, one that will lead to the kind of sexually-motivated slaughterhouse you’ve seen a thousand times before—at least up to a certain point.
Before the reveal that sparks the kind of questionable Über-reveal that would go down like an elephant in cement boots in today’s multisexual climate, we have our standard stalk-and-slash picnic to feast upon. Eight years have passed since the tragedy in question, and one of the witnessing kids is so traumatised that she has become something of an introvert, which makes her the prime candidate for your usual adolescent bullying, as well as the kind of flagrant paedophile who simply would not exist in today’s enlightened society (the fact that he can talk openly about his warped intentions among colleagues is almost as shocking and tasteless as the movie’s infamous pay-off). At least he gets his grisly comeuppance.
That particular character is made all the more tasteless by the fact that Sleepaway Camp, unlike the majority of its contemporaries, uses a genuine cast of adolescent actors instead of the usual adults-playing-teenagers. But the movie is full of odd characters. First of all there’s Mel (Mike Kellin), a cigar-chomping camp owner who goes to quite astonishing lengths to keep a growing series of ‘accidents’ under wraps instead of simply closing the camp and saving a multitude of lives in the process. Not only that, he practically beats Angela’s cousin to death with his bare hands after suspecting him of that same spate of murders. I mean, really?
Then there’s Angela’s wildly eccentric aunt, Martha Thomas (Desiree Gould), the kind of woman you imagine Mrs. Bates would have been in her younger days, and that’s not the only comparison one might draw from Psycho as the sordid plot mysteries begin to unravel. Martha is a high-pitched, quasi-androgynous control freak with wild eyes and the kind shrill diction that leaves you feeling light-headed, as does her decision to inflict one of the longest, most dubiously convincing acts of child abuse one could ever dare to imagine. They say there are no small parts, only small actors, and in a strange and unsettling way this is a description that can certainly be applied to her sparse screen time.
Making almost as big of an impression with considerably more screen time is Paul DeAngelo’s good-hearted camp councillor, Paul, although he is mainly memorable for his scandalously skimpy attire.
As a straight-up slasher, it’s all pretty by-the-numbers stuff until the final act, with a series of uninspired kills that are clearly hindered by a serious lack of budget and the kind of cheapo setting that looks like it was pulled out of Paramount’s backlot (and I mean way back). That’s not to say the kills aren’t creative, they simply lack the visual prowess of a Tom Savini flick, a fact that the movie will ultimately make up for and then some.
Filmed during the autumnal peak of the sub-genre, the movie also features some nice aesthetics, with a decent grasp of POV suspense and the kind of admiral restraint that would all but vanish in the ensuing years. Of course, with a pay-off of this magnitude, restraint not only has to be considered, it is absolutely essential.
A timescale analogy of the movie might compare the first 85 minutes to a sexually repressed inmate strapped to a bed while a big-breasted lap dancer bounces her baps but an inch from his face. As for that last minute, there simply is no comparison to be drawn.
Having been sexually harangued by unconscionable kiddie fiddler and camp gruel purveyor, Artie (Owen Hughes), Angela escapes to the safety of the great outdoors. But what’s that? An unseen presence stalks our much deserving future victim in POV mode? Well, I never! Unluckily for our resident cook, it doesn’t stop there, and soon his scalded skin is bubbling under a steaming pot of his own culinary bilge. Double yuck!
Most Absurd Moment
Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!
And when I say spoiler I mean look away now, because you will never in your life forgive me for stealing this shock of all shocks away from you. So, as it transpires, the real Angela did not survive the movie’s opening tragedy at all. Instead, her brother Peter was forced to dress up as the girl crazy aunt Martha so desperately wanted, FOR HIS ENTIRE ADOLESCENCE!!!
Now put yourself in his position. If you were forced to cross-dress your way through elementary school, what would become of you? Would you become somewhat introverted? Would you take the rather tragic option of suicide? Or would you grow so much hair on your body that you resembled the long-fabled missing link between simian and man? If it’s the latter, you would likely also run around camp with your chopper out, holding your peewee sweetheart’s decapitated head in your bloodied hands and growling like a rabid bear.
Yes, ladies and gentleman, Angela had a set of testicles all along. Now, would it be accurate to assume that you didn’t see that coming?
I certainly hope so. For your sake.
Time for a cooler. Interesting fact: the role of camp owner Mel would be Tony Award nominee Mike Kellin’s final performance prior to his passing. Sleepaway Camp would also provide a late, small role for The Sting‘s Robert Earl Jones. And yes, he is related to Mufasa. And Darth Vader for that matter. In fact, he’s his father.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Okay, prepare yourself for shock number…what number is it now?
After spying the camp’s latest batch of nubiles, resident nonce Artie has some rather disconcerting words for his fellow summer camp employees:
Artie: Look at all that young fresh chicken. Where I come from, we call ’em baldies. Makes your mouth water, don’t it?
Ben: Artie, they’re too young to even understand what’s on your mind.
Artie: There ain’t no such thing as being too young. You’re just too old.
Once again, words fail me.
A decent, by-the-numbers slasher elevated to cult status by one of the most perverse and unexpected reveals in genre filmmaking, Sleepaway Camp is a must see for not only slasher fans, but for anyone with a morbid fabric in their being. Rumour is, Jason Voorhees would develop a severe case of penis envy after watching Sleepaway Camp. No wonder he harboured such anger.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut