Spoilers ahead if you’ve never seen this!
Along with psychological, the slasher is my favorite sub-genre of horror. Whether it’s the 1960s (not many there yet), 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, or 2010s, the slasher genre has a lot of fun to be had. A cult classic of the sub-genre I hadn’t seen before was 1983’s Sleepaway Camp. Let me just say it at the top here: what a weird film. Part of me isn’t sure what to make of it. In a way, especially for 1983, it’s a film that has know … equal? I can’t think of another slasher film like this, and to be fair, I certainly have not seen every slasher film. But there’s nothing quite like this, both in the reveal at the end, but I’m mostly talking about how … surreal it is? I don’t know. It’s hard to even describe. There’s a surreal, what-is-going-on vibe to the film, particularly expressed in the weird performance of Desiree Gould, who plays Aunt Martha.
Written and directed by Robert Hiltzik, this and a 2003 sequel, Return to Sleepaway Camp, which wasn’t actually released until 2008, are the only two films under this guy’s belt, so there’s not much to go on in terms of what influenced this film. The Rottentomatoes critical consensus gives a bit more insight, “Sleepaway Camp is a standard teen slasher elevated by occasional moments of John Waters-esque weirdness and a twisted ending.”
Now, I haven’t actually seen any of John Waters’ films, believe it or not, but I’m familiar enough with him to understand what saying this film is “John Waters-esque weirdness,” means, and that certainly gets at that hard-to-put-my-finger-on-it quality of this film. It’s just … weird. It’s played weird. Everyone is acting weird. It’s all weird.
On a budget of $350,000, I have to commend how fantastic the special effects look. From the cook, Artie (played by Owen Hughes) being burned with scalding water to Kenny’s (played by John E. Dunne) corpse with the apropos water snake coming out of his mouth to Billy’s (played by Loris Sallahain) head covered in a swarm of bees after being stung to death, the special effects look great and hold up well.
On top of that, you have the owner of the camp, Mel Costic (played by Mike Kellin, who actually died three months before the film released), doing the mayor of Jaws routine, trying to cast all of these deaths off as accidents until he think it’s Angela’s (played by Felissa Rose) cousin Ricky (played by Jonathan Tiersten). He tries to then kill Ricky, but doesn’t, and is killed by the actual killer.
So, the film is unique in two ways, especially for 1983: There’s a gay couple featured, who have two children, Angela and Peter. Peter, and their father John Baker are killed ostensibly in a boating accident at the start of the film. But, as it turns out, Peter actually lived and Angela died, but that crazy Aunt Martha didn’t want a boy, so she made Peter be Angela. And that’s the other unique way: The killer is Angela who is actually Peter, so Angela, who up to that point had been quiet and wouldn’t take showers with the girls, was killing everyone who wronged him.
That’s why it’s sneaky. For example, when Artie is killed, they’re clearly boys hands that push him over on the ladder. But, since Angela is actually Peter, it makes sense. The reveal at the end is Angela bloodied and naked revealing male genitalia. My main issue with that, though, is the film ends! Does he get arrested? Does he try to run away? Do they fight him? What happens next?! I guess that’s not a bad place to be where I’m wondering what happens next.
Overall, the film is memorable for its special effects and, of course, that twist ending, but the overall story and how awful nearly everyone is doesn’t make it an enjoyable 85-minute watch, to be honest. It didn’t keep my attention that great, and the fact that most of the actors are actual adolescents showed because the acting wasn’t great. That said, for the two aforementioned reasons, it was worth watching. I will also commend it in that unlike, say, even the Friday the 13th films, this legitimately felt like a summer camp. They even had an extended legitimate, no shenanigans or kills, games of softball and a little bit of volleyball.
On that $350,000 budget, it made $11 million, so it has to be considered a success in that regard, too.
If you’ve seen the film, what did you make of it?