Sleepaway Camp (1983) United Film Distribution/Horror RT: 84 minutes Rated R (violence, language, brief graphic nudity, drug use) Director: Robert Hiltzik Screenplay: Robert Hiltzik Music: Edward Bilous Cinematography: Benjamin Davis and David M. Walsh Release date: January 20, 1984 (Philadelphia, PA) Cast: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields, Christopher Collet, Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo, Thomas E. van Dell, Loris Sallahian, John Dunn, Willy Kuskin, Desiree Gould, Owen Hughes, Robert Earl Jones, Susan Glaze, Frank Trent Saladino, Rick Edrich, Fred Greene, Allen Breton. Box Office: $11 million (US) Body Count: 12
WARNING: This review may contain plot spoilers.
The preceding disclaimer is merely a formality. By now, every horror fan and gorehound worth his/her weight in stage blood has seen Sleepaway Camp, a teen slasher flick that many (myself included) regard as a classic of the subgenre. Therefore, everybody knows about the shock ending that contains a twist comparable to The Crying Game. In my book (and many others, no doubt), it’s still one of the biggest shock endings EVER. I could hardly believe it myself when I saw it for the first time (Saturday January 21, 1984, 1pm show, Barclay Square Theater in Upper Darby, PA). I sat there in stunned silence though the entire end credits roll. My 16-year-old mind was officially blown.
Sleepaway Camp centers on a series of killings at a summer camp, a fact that can be deduced from the title. They all seem to be connected to Angela (Rose), a shy 14-year-old girl who’s there with her cousin Ricky (Tiersten). She’s lived with him and nutty Aunt Martha (Gould) since her father and brother were killed in a boating accident eight years earlier. It traumatized Angela badly; she walks around in a near-catatonic state and barely utters a word. A rational person would realize summer camp is a bad idea for Angela but Aunt Martha isn’t what you call a rational person. She doesn’t even come close.
It isn’t long before the other kids at Camp Arawak start bullying Angela. Her biggest tormentors are bunkmate Judy (Fields) and counselor Meg (Kamhi). Judy also happens to be Ricky’s ex-girlfriend. She’s the epitome of toxic bitch and Meg isn’t far behind. The killing spree starts with pedophile cook Artie (Hughes) who tries to molest Angela in the pantry until Ricky comes to her rescue (which he does an awful lot). Moments later, an unseen person enters the kitchen and causes Artie to be scalded by a huge pot of boiling water. The camp owner Mel (Kellin in his final role) deems it an accident and pays off the kitchen staff to keep it quiet.
The next to go is Kenny (Dunn), a camper who made fun of Angela at a camp social. Somebody drowns him in the lake during an unauthorized late-night canoe trip. Worried about bad publicity, Mel urges the local cop on the scene (Breton) to write it up as an accident but head counselor Ronnie (DeAngelo) isn’t so sure. Meanwhile, Angela starts to come out of her shell a little thanks to Ricky’s best friend Paul (Collet, The Manhattan Project) who takes a romantic interest in the quiet girl. Naturally, Judy has to come along and ruin it by trying to seduce Paul in a place where Angela is bound to see them.
As the bodies pile up, an increasingly paranoid Mel starts to suspect Ricky is the killer. It’s possible. He’s hot-headed, he’s always sticking up for her and he’s made several threats against her tormentors. Of course, there’s another possible scenario to consider. It could be Angela is more screwed-up than we thought. Is there a homicidal maniac beneath that quiet façade? I wasn’t quite sure the first time I saw Sleepaway Camp. The killer remains unseen until the final scene when his or her identity is revealed. Or should I say his AND her? If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.
Sleepaway Camp has a few cool kill scenes but the best, by far, is where (here comes a spoiler!) Judy has a hot curling iron rammed into her vagina. Now that’s original! In addition, a boy is stung to death by bees after being locked in a bathroom stall. A girl is slashed to death in the shower (possible homage to Psycho?). Somebody gets shot in the throat with an arrow. Another person is decapitated. Three junior campers get hacked up (off-camera) with a hatchet. There’s not a lot of gore but the victims deserve their bloody fates so it’s all good.
You may think I’ve lost my damn mind giving Sleepaway Camp four stars. Well, I lost that a long time ago and there’s no getting it back. And before you ask, it’s not a misprint either. The four-star rating is both intentional and accurate. It’s not because the movie is particularly well-made. It’s not. It’s amateurish, cheap-looking and the fade-outs between shots makes for uneasy transitions. I’m just going to say it; Sleepaway Camp is trash. But it’s great trash! It has a certain purity in form lacking in today’s tepid horror movies. It’s the 80s, so killing kids and teens in gruesome ways isn’t off limits. It starts out like any slasher flick yet you sense something a little different about it. You subconsciously know that it will go somewhere unexpected. When it’s over, you know you’ll never forget it.
The acting is one of the main strong points of Sleepaway Camp. Felissa Rose delivers an excellent performance as Angela, an innocent but troubled girl with a vacant, thousand-yard stare that gives you the willies. Even so, you feel sympathy for her, especially in light of losing her family at a very young age. I was always sorry that Rose didn’t make other movies as a teen; her next major credit was a small role in the forgettable 1993 rom-com The Night We Never Met. Tiersten is also great as the hot-tempered, protective cousin. Fields is terrific as bitch-on-wheels Judy, one of the meanest mean girls I’ve ever seen in any movie. Collet is good as Paul, a basically good kid who legitimately likes Angela. One of the cool things about Sleepaway Camp as it relates to today’s teen-oriented movies is that it allows its young characters to have foul mouths. These kids curse a lot, especially when they get pissed off. Like I said, there’s a purity to the movie.
The make-up effects are quite good especially the severe burns Artie sustains from his “accident” in the kitchen. But what’s up with the cop’s fake moustache in the movie’s final scenes? It’s obviously shoe polish or something. He had a real one when he showed up earlier in the movie. What happened here, huh? I wish the makers had shown a bit more blood. Okay, a lot more blood. But at least writer-director Robert Hiltzik puts a lot of heart into Sleepaway Camp. It may be low budget but it’s not lazy or half-assed in any way, shape or form. He made the most of his $350,000 budget and it shows. It’s not a terrible swan song for Kellin who died in August ’83. The closing theme song “You’re Just What I’ve Been Looking For” by Frank Vinci is one of my all-time favorite horror tracks. I really LOVE Sleepaway Camp. They just don’t make horror movies like it anymore and I really hope they don’t try as a remake is a fate worse than death. I don’t know about you but I NEVER want to see a PG-13 version with a bigger budget and bigger stars. NEVER, I said!