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).
With its Friday the 13th aesthetic and summer camp retreat, Sleepaway Camp is very much in the Sean Cunningham mode, and one look at the titles of its first two sequels tells you that the indomitable Jason Voorhees was very much the blueprint for the series going forward. 1988‘s Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and 1989‘s Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland were as ludicrous and self-aware as Friday’s post-Jason Lives entries, ramping up the slaughter and transforming the original film’s protagonist into a relentless pop culture killer. Neither of those sequels starred Felicia Rose, the infamous Angela Baker instead played by another cult favourite in Pamela Springsteen, and if that surname strikes you as familiar, it’s because Pam is in fact the sister of iconic Born in the USA rocker Bruce. But even with that unlikely distinction, Springsteen doesn’t come close to Rose in terms of horror fandom. You know why? Because of THAT twist.
Fans will tell you that Sleepaway Camp is a particularly memorable 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. You may have seen some wacky shit in your life, especially in the unscrupulous realms of slasherdom, but nothing will prepare you for such a left-field absurdity. 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 at the US box office alone. The reason? Word of trembling mouth.
“The way I developed the idea was, I started with a beginning and an ending,” director Robert Hiltzik, who like many aspiring filmmakers at the turn of the 80s saw the hugely popular slasher genre as a cost-effective way to break into the industry, would explain. “So, I developed the ending almost first. The idea was, have a good beginning that grabs the audience, and then have a shocking ending so that when they leave the theater they are talking about your movie. So, I came up with a beginning and an ending, and then I filled in the middle. The ending was influenced by anything in particular, other than needing to come up with something with a big twist; that is going to shock the audience. And, hopefully they don’t see it coming”
Everything else Sleepaway Camp has to offer is seeped in convention. In fact, you may feel a rather heavy and prolonged sense of déjà vu until it finally slaps the taste out of your mouth, but if you don’t make it to the end you’re doing yourself a severe injustice. The film features a familiar cast of promiscuous teens, a bunch of horny jocks and a token bitch who’s just asking for it in the worst way imaginable, only this time we’re not dealing with an escaped mental patient or the kind of ludicrously resourceful psycho who managed to survive undetected in the woods for decades on end.
We open with your typical childhood trauma, the kind that dozens of fictional kids seemed to suffer during the 1980s as globalization brought an abrupt end to the free love and marijuana decadence of previous decades. This time it’s a tragic boating accident that’s to blame, one that sees two kids bear witness to the death of a man, leading 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 your standard stalk-and-slash picnic to feast upon, though don’t expect too much in the severed meat and bones department. 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, fictional paedophile who simply would not exist in today’s enlightened society. The fact that he can talk so openly about his warped intentions among colleagues is almost as shocking and tasteless as the movie’s infamous pay-off, but at least he gets his grisly comeuppance in the form of arguably the movie’s best kill.
That particular character is made all the more tasteless by the fact that, unlike the majority of its contemporaries, Sleepaway Camp uses a genuine cast of adolescent actors instead of the usual adults-playing-teenagers, so if you’re looking for titillation you’ll have to look elsewhere for the most part. What the movie does have is a cast of quirky characters who will leave you shaking your head in disbelief.
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. Plot chasms are part and parcel of a sub-genre that feeds on contrivance, but Mel turns the kind of neglectful corner that would leave parents reaching for the flaming torch. Not only is he semi-responsible for the entire ordeal, he canoodles with a camp councillor more than half his age and practically beats Angela’s barely teenage cousin to death with his bare hands after somehow suspecting him of the camp’s grisly 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 with Psycho as the sordid mysteries begin to unravel. Martha is a high-pitched, quasi-androgynous control freak with wild eyes and the kind of 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 dare to imagine. She’s like the female equivalent of Alex’s Post-Corrective Advisor P. R. Deltoid in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, harbouring a peculiar passive-aggressiveness that inhabits an ethical grey area. 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 Gould’s sparse screen time.
Making almost as big of an impression with considerably more screen time is Paul DeAngelo’s good-hearted camp councillor, Paul, a happy-go-lucky douchebag who at least tries to enforce some degree of responsibility at a camp that mostly employs Caligula-style reprobates, the kind who’d be locked away in an underground prison for the rest of their miserable lives if exposed to 21st century sensibilities, though he’s mainly memorable for his scandalously skimpy attire. This this a slasher movie, and with a cast a young as this I suppose you’ve got to find your titillation somewhere. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
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. That’s not to say the kills aren’t creative, they simply lack the visual prowess of the best practical effects wizards, a fact that the movie will ultimately make up for and then some.
Filmed during the autumnal peak of the sub-genre, Sleepaway Camp also has a decent grasp of POV suspense, utilising the kind of admiral restraint that would all but vanish in the ensuing years, but 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 lap dancer bounces her naked breasts but an inch from his face. As for that last minute, there is simply no comparison to be drawn.
In an era of increased enlightenment, Sleepaway Camp has come under fire for its handling of transgender groups, something that came as a surprise to Hiltzik, “My understanding is that [the trans community] embraces the film,” he would claim. “I’ve never been introduced to that criticism. I’m surprised by the lack of criticism.”
He’s not the only one, I’m sure.