If the 1970’s is horror’s ‘prestige era’, then the 1980’s is best classified as the genre’s ‘guilty pleasure’. By and large, the 1980’s was the slasher movie era. Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play, Hellraiser – each of these franchises began in the 80’s. Just below these A-listers were a series of B-level slashers, like My Bloody Valentine, competing for audiences. Horror fans frequently cite Sleepaway Camp as one of those B-level slasher classics. Without a doubt, Sleepaway Camp has one of the most shocking, if not controversial, endings in horror film history. But is Sleepaway Camp a genuine hidden slasher gem? Or is it a cheap, derivative knock-off that benefits from a memorable conclusion?
Two Parts Derivative Slasher, One Part Exploitation Flick
Following Friday the 13th’s box office success, slasher movies went camping over and over again. Derivative ‘camping’ slasher knock-off’s ranged from the ‘good’ (The Burning), to the odd (Madman), and to the outright awful (Don’t Go In the Woods). Somewhere in between all these movies was Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp. On the surface, Sleepaway Camp was even more derivative than the movies listed above. Bullies and ‘mean girls’ pick on on social outcast Angela. Each bully meets a horrific end at the hands of an unseen killer. Is it Angela? Or is it her overprotective cousin, Ricky?
But where Sleepaway Camp separates itself is its tendency to embrace an uglier approach to the material.
Red herrings, one-by-one ‘stalk and slash’, and ‘creative kills’ abound. All of this unfolds in what’s essentially a craftless movie lacking much in the way of scares and suspense. Slasher fans also shouldn’t expect any ‘Tom Savini-level’ special effects in any of the kills. But where Sleepaway Camp separates itself is its tendency to embrace an uglier approach to the material. It’s a slasher narrative merged with a 70’s exploitation violence. Don’t expect much in the way of the explicit gore a Rob Zombie or Eli Roth would reves in. Sleepaway Camp was released amidst the MPAA’s crackdown on horror movies. But some of Hiltzik’s implied violence is no less grimy and nasty.
Sleepaway Camp A Tonally Odd Slasher Movie
Another way in which Sleepaway Camp distinguishes itself is with its occasional idiosyncratic beats. Hiltzik, who also wrote the screenplay, includes some downright weird elements. Desiree Gould’s ‘Aunt Martha’ seems to be acting in a completely different movie. It’s either a case of an actor’s performance veering way off course or an uneven screenplay. There’s an obscene child sex offender as the camp cook. And then there’s the wildly inappropriate relationship between a teen camp counsellor and the camp owner. In the background, horror fans can marvel at the ‘time capsule’ of awful 80’s fashion.
Unforgettable Ending Haunts and Offends in Equal Measures
For an hour and 15 minutes or so, Sleepaway Camp is pretty unremarkable stuff. All of that changes in the movie’s closing moments. What Sleepaway Camp delivers in its climax is one of horror’s biggest twists. It’s not just the narrative reveal that Angela is in fact a boy. As much as Sleepaway Camp lacks any real craftsmanship, its climax is a genuinely disturbing and haunting moment. The inexplicably guttural growl, dramatic score, and Felissa Rose’s crazed expression make for unnerving horror.
As much as Sleepaway Camp lacks any real craftsmanship, its climax is a genuinely disturbing and haunting moment.
Of course, horror fans not frightened by the ending may find themselves offended by the movie’s dated sexual politics. Sleepaway Camp wasn’t the first horror movie to deviantize homosexuality and/or transgendered persons. Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and, to a lesser extent, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are all guilty. But Sleepaway Camp’s clumsy story draws some rather blunt connections between gender identity, sexual orientation, and later violent behaviour. Intentional or otherwise, flashback scenes along with ‘Aunt Martha’s’ decision to raise ‘Angela’ as a girl are framed as ‘causes’. This may in part explain Hollywood’s reluctance to remake this slasher movie.
Sleepaway Camp A Forge
Take away that ending, and Sleepaway Camp is a derivative, forgettable slasher movie. It’s always cheap-looking and poorly acted and, often times, a mean-spirited movie. In fact, even if you keep the ending, Sleepaway Camp is still an ugly movie. It’s stuck somewhere between 70’s exploitation trash and 80’s slasher movie sensibilities. But it’s ending is haunting. Offensive or otherwise. And regardless of its flaws, this ‘camper’ slasher taps into that inherent watchability of exploitation movies.