The slasher boom of the 80s is one of the most fascinating moments in cinema. Starting a little before the decade began with Halloween and exploding with Friday the 13th, slasher films were this strange little thing that could be filmed on budgets that most studio pictures would spend on catering and were almost always critically maligned. Great shockers like Happy Birthday to Me, The Prowler, My Bloody Valentine, Terror Train and so many other fun little gore fests would be regularly destroyed by critics, but go on to be box office hits or have a cult following that continues to this day. They’ve always been the ugly stepchild of the horror genre, but I genuinely adore them in all their cheesiness and since it’s October, it only seems right that all the throwbacks be horror related. With that in mind, I had another look at an old film I enjoyed but never quite understood… I still don’t, but I get that’s part of the charm.
Sleepaway Camp is set in the gorgeous seaside Camp Arawak where all the happy campers aged between 12-25 have turned up for their summer holiday. One of those campers is a young Angela Baker (Felissa Rose), a quiet introverted girl who is there with her cousin Ricky Thomas (Jonathan Tiersten) who is so far from being a quiet introvert that he would cuss out a nun if she looked sideways at him. The two of them have to have each other’s backs during their trip because not only do they have to deal with the other campers, who vary from irritating to borderline psychotic, but they have to deal with the cantankerous camp owner Mel (Mike Kellin), the most obvious pedophile on the planet, Artie (Owen Hughes) and a bunch of repressed trauma given to them courtesy of crazy Aunt Martha Thomas (Desiree Gould). Oh, there’s also a killer on the loose at the camp who is just murdering random people with no real rhyme or reason other than “Murder sounds fun, let’s do some”.
This film lives in that weird place where nothing works and everything works. It’s kind of amazing just watching it now and realising how many things are flat out nonsense that in any other film would be unwatchable, and yet there isn’t a thing I would change about it. It’s like a perfect sculpture made entirely out of loose pieces of broken glass, it’s poorly constructed and liable to break at any second but it’s beautiful to behold. We’re not even talking about little things like editing, things that could potentially be fixed with a little time and care. We’re talking major structural problems that I just don’t care about. Sure, I can sit here and point out how the ending of the film, shocking and famous as it is, actually makes no goddamn sense and is just there because the filmmakers assumed that a slasher movie only worked with a sudden reveal right at the end because everyone at the time had seen the ending of Carrie and decided to steal from it… but it’s such a glorious piece of insanity that actually criticising how the ending is assembled feels like I’m kicking a very stupid puppy, it’s just mean.
Then there’s the acting which is just all over the place. The kids in this movie all do a genuinely great job, especially Felissa Rose who has to make Angela sympathetic without saying a word for over half the movie. She’s closely followed in terms of quality by Jonathan Tiersten as Ricky who basically gets every good line in the movie and is always just fascinating to watch… seriously though, he has the best comeback in the history of film and I will die upon this hill. His character is told to “Eat shit and die, Ricky” so his perfect retort of “Eat shit and live, Bill” is the stuff actors dream of getting to say. While we have some great performances, we then get characters like Judy (Karen Fields) who are playing the more clichéd roles to the hilt, they’re delightfully over the top but they’re certainly pushing against reality… and then off on the far side of the field where no one else has even looked comes Aunt Martha Thomas with a performance that can best be described as “Tommy Wiseau trying his hardest”. There is not a single thing about her performance that fits with the rest of the movie, it’s the weirdest thing that makes no sense and I adore it.
Like a lot of slashers around this time, the plot is pretty much irrelevant. Bunch of kids go camping, killer picks them off one by one, eventually killer gets found and… and that’s it. Unlike a lot of slashers where the final scene is some climactic fight, this film just says “Hey, here’s the killer… see ya” and ends. It ends on one of the most well-known images in the slasher genre, the great reveal of (SPOILER… for a movie that’s older than I am) Angela having a penis. They of course slightly foreshadow this with an earlier scene where they call out Angela for never showering with anyone else but other than that… there’s no reason to do it other than the fact that in 1983 people were still shocked by the idea of transgender people. There really is no other reason, and they don’t know what to do after that big reveal. Most horror films would reveal who the killer was and then have a long scene between the hero and the villain but this one just ends on the image of a screaming girl with a penis (which is a perfectly normal thing, some of the most beautiful women in the world have gigantic penises) and that’s the end folks. Again, it makes no sense and I adore it
To give this film some serious credit, it has got a large amount of LGBT content which was a big deal in the early ’80s when, by this point in time, the AIDS crisis was well underway. It means a lot to have a film have moments like the father of Angela being a gay man who ran off with the husband of Aunt Martha or that shocking ending. Hell, even having several male camp counsellors running around in crop tops and short shorts that are usually worn to clubs with sex positions for names is a big deal here. There’s not only gay characters, but there’s also a lot of queer coding going on in everything from the character’s behaviour to just how they look. It’s delightfully campy and unashamed to be so, even when it probably should be concerned with being scary since… ya know, it is a horror film after all.
Speaking of it being a horror film, I will admit that some of the murders in this film are pretty effective. Things like the shower scene or the bees in the bathroom scene really work and happen to people who definitely were worthy of such a cinematic demise… and then there’s what happens to the obvious paedophile who is, in case I didn’t mention, obviously a paedophile. Like, he literally tries to molest our main character and refers to the young campers as fresh meat in front of other people. He lives, BTW. He gets horrifically burned by water, but the paedophile gets to live while everyone else gets a very obvious and painful death. That’s something that kind of feels wrong, the one person who technically makes it out of this alive (albeit scarred for life) is the actual worst of them all. The burn effect is insanely good though, especially considering the budget they had.
All the effects for this film are pretty great, especially considering that they were working with no real budget to speak of. The fun thing is the effects would be great or they’d find a way to make them memorable and then something else would mess up. There’s a death via hair straightener that’s done entirely in shadow and it’s a genuinely effective moment but it’s preceded by a scene where a character is backlit and you can clearly see that it’s just a different actor with a wig on. The best example of effects good, film not helping them is that end shot where the effects team made a genuinely great Felissa Rose mask to put on the guy they would use for the final shot, but maybe 2 minutes before that a character with a moustache is on screen and he clearly shaved at some point so the moustache is replaced with two pieces of electrical tape… for a close-up shot where there is nothing on-screen other than this actor for 5 seconds. It’s amazing how this film is simultaneously great and awful.
Sleepaway Camp almost defies description. It has just as many problems as it has moments of greatness. Nothing makes sense but everything works, you can’t take it seriously and yet you almost have to since it’s a film where they address topics of sexuality, gender identity, paedophilia and the concept of how awful it would be to eat shit and live. It’s certainly not quite as good as some of the classics like Friday the 13th or Halloween, but it’s also so delightfully entertaining that even when it ignores every rule of good film making, I can’t be mad about it. It’s a film that’s almost designed specifically to be watched with a bunch of friends while drinking a beer and making jokes at the screen about how stupid everything is. It earned its spot in horror history by just being so damn odd that it’s almost impossible to ignore.