Sleepaway Camp (1983)

“If she were any quieter she’d be dead!”

Justin’s Rating: A gallon of bug juice — with actual bugs

Justin’s Review: Summer camp: Three months of unbridled excitement in a relaxing environment where plenty of friendships are formed and cemented.

Or, summer camp: a serial killer’s smorgasbord of death and little gooey bits, where plenty of friendships are decapitated and drowned.

Depending on which genre your camp falls in, you might not want to risk it. Stay home this summer. Take a pottery course. Flirt with the cutie next door. Live to see your fifteenth birthday.

Like Friday the 13th and it’s army of mindless sequels, Sleepaway Camp does not promote a safe, nurturing campground. Nay, it be instead the seventh ring of hell, where the damned are condemned to an eternity of bad acting and various types of creative murder. Lo, they howl and beg for release. But lo, they shall not receive it, at least until the camp attendance is down to a manageable 13 quivering survivors. Forsooth.

A cult slasher flick, Sleepaway Camp takes place at a camp called… well, Camp Arawak. Where did they get the “Sleepaway” title from? No one knows. While it might be a camp right out of the ’80s — 1983 to be exact — the dynamics of this summer camp are not so different than many camps today. There are the nice kids, and the evil, soulless ones. There are the nerds and geeks, and the studs and babes. And, of course, there are the serial killers, and the victims.

After surviving a boating accident that killed her father, Angela (Felissa Rose) goes to live with an eccentric aunt and her cousin. Ricky, her cousin, is a nice enough fellow, the sort of guy who is friends across most social cliques and responsible enough to stick up for family. Angela, however, is silent and eerie to the point of being very unnerving. At summer camp, she’s quickly singled out as the resident weirdo, and subject to torments, teasings and shy wooings from Ricky’s best friend. It’s only when the nastiest people at camp start becoming targets for an imaginative killer that this dreary place becomes a slaughterhouse.

I expected a more typical slasher, but Sleepaway Camp actually uses restraint in both storytelling and gore. The tension builds up slowly — an event here, a day in the camp there, a death in the room next over. When we get to the kills, which do ramp up in number before the film ends, the director chose deliberately to skirt around the meat of the kill instead of going full-on graphic gore. The deaths take place in our peripheries, as the camera flits around to a locked stall door rattling, or an anguished shadow on the wall, or a point-of-view shot from the killer’s perspective. I think it really works better this way, at least in terms of making the deaths more, you know, horrific. There’s a few death scenes here that I won’t forget for a while to come, and that’s saying something in this genre.

More than suspense and death scenes is Sleepaway Camp’s underhanded oddness. It took me a while to even put it into the front of my mind, but when it happened, I really took note of how incredibly disturbed this movie is. It’s nothing incredibly obvious, at least not at start, but little signs here and there add up until we realize we’re looking at a façade of a traditional camp slasher flick with a strong undercurrent of madness. Like the pedophile cook. Huh? Or the camp director who couldn’t make more wrong decisions than he does here. Hm. Or a brief fantasy scene where Angela flashes back to her dad in bed with his lover. I think. Nothing’s spelled out for you, but man, this is weird city.

While me and my beloved had a grand time making fun of various plot turns, death implements (“Oh no! The curling iron of DOOM!”), and some sub-par acting, we also got quite involved, especially toward the end. I have an outstanding policy to give any movie five bucks if it can honestly hoodwink me into making faulty predictions while outsmarting me by the end, and Sleepaway Camp did it to us both. It’s got a shocker for an ending, something I would not dream to spoil, but although I should’ve seen it coming, I did not.

2 comments

  1. There’s also something else very odd here – all the teenagers and kids? Are actually played by teenagers and kids, and talk like teenagers and kids.
    But yeah, you gotta give SC credit for one of the most out-there plot twists ever. But if you re-watch the movie, it’s actually been properly foreshadowed and everything. SC is a much better movie than most would give it credit for.

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