Surprise! A First-time Viewing of Sleepaway Camp (1983)
As a fairly seasoned horror lover and a massive fan of the ’80s, you may wonder how I have lived for 40 years of living on this planet without seeing Sleepaway Campuntil April 2nd, 2019. I still had not seen it, neither had I learned what the big twist at the end was before I watched, so this was a “nice” surprise! I doubt there’s much that hasn’t been written already about Sleepaway Camp, but I’ll walk you through my viewing anyway.
It’s a strange phenomenon that the second you see a summer camp by a lake where you know many people are going to die in various unpleasant ways…that you get this warm, comfortable, nostalgic feeling. Still, that is precisely how I felt when the film started. The scene is set; a hunky and hairy Dad and his two young children — a girl and a boy — playing on their boat on a lake in the glorious sunshine. Elsewhere on the lake, a flirtatious teen girl manipulates a speedboat-driving teen boy into letting her steer. Of course, she drives too fast, too recklessly, and before we know it, they drive straight into the family who were having fun in the water. We don’t see too much of the carnage, just the boy’s body floating and an empty, ripped to shreds life jacket that his sister once wore.
Cut to eight years later and here we discover that the girl survived the boating accident, but she lost her father and brother. Now, I have to admit I thought that the boy had survived — not the girl — but what the hell. I shrugged that off and never thought about it again. Maybe I should have trusted my instincts more? Perhaps if I had, it would have taken away some of the fun of the finale.
The girl, Angela (Felissa Rose), now lives with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and her Aunt, Doctor Martha Thomas (Desiree Gould).
Ok, shit just got weird.
This film has suddenly gone full John Waters. Aunt Martha is a Technicolor oddball who seems to be plucked directly from a 1930’s talkie; she narrates her own thoughts and ponders them dramatically. Ricky is clearly used to her weirdness and Angela just silently stares at her. Angela silently stares at a lot of people it turns out. Clearly, she is still traumatised from the boating accident and has some deep-seated issues. Maybe not as many as Aunt Martha though, who sends them off to summer camp with a doctor’s note that she had written herself, which was apparently a bit naughty of her — which made no sense at all at this point or at any point really.
So yep, there’s something definitely off in this family; I’d imagine it was sweet relief for the kids to get out of that house and to Camp Arawak. The beautifully dramatic orchestral score for their arrival at the camp tells us that this isn’t going to be a lovely little holiday though.
Even at this early stage of the film, I thought to myself, what a bizarre mishmash. The acting was atrocious, intentionally so (at least I hope). All the usual slasher tropes were here; horny teens, mean gangs of bullies, queen bitches, terrible dialogue — but somehow, this was different. The music, the cinematography, the special effects, the strangeness — this is actually really good!
Revenge Is Sweet?
Felissa Rose does an excellent job playing the sweet but pretty creepy Angela; that death stare would weird anyone out. From the beginning it was pretty clear she was going to be looking for revenge for anyone that wronged her, but I was thinking maybe telekinesis. Those eyes had to hold some sort of superpower she learned after the accident, right? Nope.
Kill #1 – The Boiling Alive of Artie the Cook
It’s not really correct to call any of the people who die in this movie ” victims” as they all deserved what was coming to them (perhaps not quite so gruesomely in some cases), and no one got his just desserts better than Artie (Owen Hughes), the camp cook — a slimy, beefy, paedophile who ogles the little girls running by and affectionately explains to his fellow staff members that where he comes from they call these little objects of his carnal lust “baldies”. His colleagues laugh his comments off because, of course, that’s a totally appropriate joke to make at a summer camp for kids, right? Soon enough, he’s set his sights on the quiet, timid Angela…and has her trapped in a pantry. Just as he’s undoing his trousers, cousin Ricky — Angela’s protector — comes to save the day.
Whether Artie actually dies or not is beside the point, really; for him to live after what happens to him would probably be worse, but what the hell — he deserves it, the scumbag. For the first hour of the film, the deaths are convincing accidents. In Artie’s case, the biggest pot of boiling water in history is tipped over him. Every inch of his skin bubbles, he cries out in agony; even his eyeballs are burnt. I am already confident that Angela is behind this and (yay!) I like this girl! She doesn’t mess around.
Kill #2 – Oh my god, they killed Kenny!
After Artie gets taken to the hospital, camp owner Mel Costic (a prototype Jim Lahey played by Mike Kellin) deems it to have been an accident, though he’s suspicious that foul play was involved. He doesn’t want to lose money, so he keeps it hush-hush by paying off the other kitchen staff; so far, so good for Mel.
That is until rock jock Kenny (John E. Dunn) decides he’s going to try to woo Angela, and when she doesn’t reciprocate his interest — she literally just stares at him blankly — the bullying begins. Later that night, he takes a boat out on the lake with another girl, who he pisses off almost immediately by intentionally capsizing it. Kenny never resurfaces from the water, not that anyone noticed. He’s discovered the following day by a camp counsellor and his death is ruled an accidental drowning…but we all know ‘someone’ was underneath that boat with him.
Kill #3 – Bee is for Bully Billy
Next up is the leader of the jocks, Billy (Loris Sallahian); he’s already the enemy of Ricky, which doesn’t put him in Angela’s good books. She is easy pickings for them — or so they think — so he and his pals homo-erotically prance about on a rooftop throwing water bombs at her. Ricky goes nuts and Mel is seriously suspicious that Ricky is the boy behind the two deaths. When Billy is locked inside a bathroom stall and a beehive just happens to be dropped in through the window and he is stung to death by a hundred angry bees, Mel suspicions are not dampened. Nevertheless, Billy’s death is still palmed off as a prank gone wrong.
So far, so gruesome, but this is where things take quite a turn. Throughout the story, Angela has been engaged in a blossoming romance with Ricky’s friend Paul (Christopher Collet), much to the disgust and jealousy of uber-bitch Judy (Karen Fields) — who definitely has the best side ponytail of the ’80s. Judy is clearly at least 24, but we don’t care. Her awfulness is so over the top that we literally can’t wait for her demise. Angela and Paul share a kiss, but later, when he tries to get his hand down her blouse, she slaps him away. Cue a flashback to her and her brother giggling while watching their father in bed with another man; ok, so their Dad was gay. In the ’80s that was probably more of a big deal, I suppose, but just what exactly is happening here? Why is she thinking about this now as a boy touches her? Another flashback sheds more light on the identity crisis of the film’s killer; Angela and her brother reach out to touch each other using an E.T.-phone-home-style gesture that seems to imply that because they’ve seen their dad at it, that they are going to experiment with each other. Um, okay?
Angela is depicted as a little prudish and Judy seizes the opportunity to offer Paul something Angela won’t give. Paul is easily led and Angela catches them kissing. Uh oh.
Kills #4 & #5 – Camp Bitches Meg and Judy
Sleepaway Camp may be the only horror film from the ‘80s where the boys show more flesh than the girls. Not a single breast is seen in the film — even when Meg (Katherine Kamhi), who’s entirely too happy to be going on a date with Mel — is murdered in the shower and the killer gruesomely runs a knife down her back. She is seen only from the upper part of her chest to her head, but there isn’t a minute that goes by where a prepubescent boy isn’t showing off his barely-there chest, or some guy isn’t wrapping his sculpted legs around someone while wearing a cropped shirt or grabbing onto his package in a show of intimidation. What really steals the show though, is the shameless abundance of dick outlines. Was director Robert Hiltzik having a laugh at the Hollywood Machine? Was he turning the tables on the usual “girls that want and enjoy sex are going to die horribly” horror trope by putting males in the position of objectification? If so, he was pretty ahead of his time in 1983.
Anyway, the killer has stopped playing games now. Meg’s death is obviously not an accident, just like when she and Judy threw Angela — who they assumed couldn’t swim — into the lake.
In the dorm, Judy has another guy on the go and really wants to get laid. It’s not going to happen, however. After Mel comes looking for his missing date, the boy toy gets put off and leaves Judy alone in bed, curling her hair. The door flies open and silhouetted in the door frame is most definitely Ricky with massive hair. Was this the big twist? Was Mel right all along about Ricky?… No, it was a red herring — a trick of the light, if you will.
What happens next is left almost completely to the audience’s imagination, for which we should be grateful. Judy receives a perverse death — the killer knocks her out with a well placed right cross, lays her out, spreads her legs and then, in shadow, lowers a piping hot curling iron down towards her genitals. Oof. No one wants to go out like that. Yeah, I was wrong; this film is no different — girls who want sex do die horribly. She was a bitch though.
Things have suddenly taken a very dark turn and I realise I am not laughing anymore. I am glued to my screen; shit just got serious. More children are found hacked to death and the whole camp is put on lock-down — about bloody time.
The sole police officer for the area arrives and finds Judy’s body; he is evidently shocked by what he’s seen. But never mind that now, let’s just take a moment to admire his incredible “out of a Christmas Cracker” moustache.
The end is nigh, and Mel has caught up with who he thinks is the killer, Ricky, gives him a good hiding and leaves him for dead in the trees. Thinking he’s done the world a service, he jollily trots off only to come across the real killer who fires an arrow straight through his neck.
Angela had agreed to meet Paul, who was all apologies for kissing Judy behind her back and calling her a prude. Two camp counsellors come across them, sitting by the shore, naked. Angela is crossed-legged with Paul’s head in her lap. Literally. It rolls onto the floor and Angela stands up to reveal her naked body, complete with male genitalia and covered in blood, growling an inhuman growl, face frozen in a terrible wide-eyed, open-mouthed look of total insanity. Yes, I can safely say I wasn’t expecting that. Christ Almighty, this is the stuff of nightmares.
To clarify, it’s not the twist itself that’s scary. Despite that one unnecessarily yoked camp counsellor’s cry of “My God, she’s a boy”, the sudden revelation that Angela had a penis the whole time isn’t going to cause any nightmares. The terror of the Sleepaway Camp ending comes completely down to the image itself — which horrendously combines uncanniness with the human brain’s ability to just know when something isn’t right, even if it can’t specifically put together why. It’s not even clear if the effect is intentional or just a result of 1980’s film-making technology. All I do know is that I’m not sure exactly what Angela is now. Is s/he even human?
What is incredible about this film is that this one scene turns the rest of the film on its head. I wanted to go back to the beginning and watch it all again immediately, trying to figure out if there was something I missed that alluded to this at all? Did Ricky know about this? Did Angela/Peter turn out like this purely because Aunt Martha had brought him up as a girl? Or is it implicated that this was because their father was gay? Or had Peter done things he shouldn’t have with his sister? Is this a celebration or damnation of homosexuality and transgenderism? What exactly is Hiltzik trying to say here?
The truth is, we will never know for sure and leaving all those questions open to interpretation, my friends, is how a Cult classic is born.