Sleepaway Camp (1983)
The early 1980s produced a number of horror films of varying quality, largely influenced by the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th. They were made for much the same reason their inspirations were: horror films are cheap and can turn an easy profit, and even easier when there is a formula that is simple to copy and gets butts in the seats. There are a few, however, where it seems the director was thinking a bit beyond just making a few dollars and decided to either get creative or be as nasty as they could. Sometimes this meant doing both.
Sleepaway Camp has a reputation and, going into it, because of that reputation and it frequently popping up in documentaries and such, I already knew the ending. It is one that was shocking for 1983, and there is quite a bit of other material in the movie that was pushing the envelope for the time. Gene Siskel was already clutching his pearls at teenagers being offed at a summer camp with only light nudity when compared to some of the Italian horror films that came out in the 1970s and Robert Hiltzik, who wrote, directed and was the executive producer of the movie, seemed determined to push buttons. There is a reason this movie gets some comparison to John Waters films.
After her brother and father are killed in a boating accident, Angela (Felissa Rose) is sent to live with her divorced Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and Martha's son Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Eight years later, in order to try to get Angela to come out of her shell, she is sent to Camp Arawak with Ricky. Unfortunately, her shy and silent demeanor and strange stare immediately makes her the target of her bunkmate Judy (Karen Fields) and a nasty camp counselor named Meg (Katherine Kamhi), not to mention a group of guys just looking for people to bully.
Ricky tries to defend her whenever he can, but when people who offended Angela start turning up dead, camp director Mel (Mike Kellin) becomes suspicious that Ricky may be behind it. Meanwhile, Ricky's best friend Paul (Christopher Collet) starts to become enamored with Angela, only to make a number of adolescent mistakes that drive her away. The truth is it is not all him, since Angela's quietness hides a number of dark secrets.
There are a number of scenes of shirtless young men, as well as a flashback of Angela finding out her father was a homosexual, that got me wondering about Hiltzik. Not in a weird way - the out-and-out pedophile in the movie gets one of the most effective deaths - but in the usual '80s "keep the gay under wraps" way, similar to A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddy's Revenge. But, in reality, Hiltzik married one of the actresses in the film that he had been dating at the time (one of the ones his age, I need to point out, since Sleepaway Camp is one of the few movies that has actual teenagers in teenager roles) and as far as I know still is. He has only made two movies, this and Return to Sleepaway Camp, and the second only after finding out that people liked the first.
The reality is, and it is part of what gives the movie its reputation as well as makes it a hard sell these days, is that he wasn't trying to be innovative or promote understanding of homosexual men or anyone else in what is now the LGBTQ community. Gay men were shocking and taboo at the time, so we get as much of a scene between two guys as he could without getting an X-rating for the film. There is the ending scene as well that was there for shock value, although it unintentionally can lead to some serious conversations about the subject it brings up beyond the reveal, but it was also a subject that was usually treated as a joke at the time. Personally, after all these years, it isn't as much as a shock as one of the kills that comes before it that involves a curling iron. That is truly where the movie gets into seriously uncharted territory, even if the kill is shown in shadow. That particular scene is more problematic than anything else in the entire movie.
That the film can inadvertently cause serious conversations about things that were thrown in for no other reason than exploitation at the time is part of Sleepaway Camp's strange appeal. There is some atrocious acting, most of it from the adults, but Felissa Rose is effectively scary in her role as Angela. Most of the time she just has to stand around doing her unblinking stare, but when Angela does feel comfortable and suddenly comes to life she's like a normal girl. Rose is able to pull this off naturally. Jonathan Tiersten reminds me of many people I knew at summer camps as well as in grade school, and would probably have been one of the outcasts I hung out with. I don't think he put much effort into acting, but just went with what was natural for him.
Karen Fields and Katherine Kamhi are a different story, but their overacting as the mean girls is one of the things that starts pushing the film into surreal territory. What gets it all the way there is Desiree Gould as Aunt Martha. The entire time she was preparing the kids for camp I kept expecting some men in white coats to grab her and tell her she's had enough fun for one day and for the kids to run along and catch the bus. It was hard to believe that she was actually directed to act that way, at least until one of the flashbacks toward the end, but the little bit she is in the movie makes a memorable impact. It also comes early enough so that the audience knows that this is not going to be a typical masked slasher affair.
The enduring thing about Sleepaway Camp is not that it pioneered anything different with slashers, or that Robert Hiltzik is a particularly skilled director. He does a better job than a lot of amateurs I have seen, and at least either he or his director of photography knows how to frame a shot, and the boom mic doesn't a co-starring credit. It's that the film has this clash of campy characters with realistic ones, creative kills and an underlying nastiness that ties everything together and at times transcends its exploitative goals.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Time: 84 minutes
Starring: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Christopher Collet, Karen Fields, Katherine Kamhi, Mike Kellin
Director: Robert Hiltzik