A series of grisly murders plagues a summer camp shortly
after a shy teenage girl arrives with her protective cousin.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Written and Directed by Robert Hiltzik
Starring Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields,
Christopher Collet, Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi,
Paul DeAngelo, Desiree Gould, Thomas E. van Dell
Summer camp has always been fertile ground for slashers with the Friday the 13th series playing almost exclusively in that playground for the majority of the franchise. Even so, that concept was getting old and formulaic by the end of the 80s. There would be one movie that would set itself apart from the exploits of Freddy, Jason, and Michael though: Sleepaway Camp. While parts of this flick have not aged well and it has been looked back upon with equal parts disdain and reverence in the present, I will say that this movie has earned its place in horror and the slasher sub-genre as a bona fide classic that still manages to have an impact on anyone who hasn't seen or heard about this unique film.
There's something about this movie that has made it more endearing to me than most other slashers of this period. Sure, Freddy gave me nightmares, Jason was my go-to for nudity and reckless mayhem, and Michael was something else altogether given how those films were handled during the 80's and into the 90's, but it was Angela's (played by the lovely Felissa Rose) revenge on the bullies of Camp Arawak that has always had me coming back for more. Out of all the aforementioned murderers, she feels the most real and even her genesis is much more relatable than the other heavy hitters. A boating accident kills her father and brother (or does it?) and she's sent to live with her REALLY weird Aunt Martha (Gould) and cousin Ricky (Tiersten). After watching this countless times (I actually saw part 3 first before the other sequels as part of a sleepover night when I was about 8 or 9, I think) there are very obvious hints that all is not right in this home and old Aunt Martha has some issues she is projecting onto Angela. She sends them off to Camp Arawak and, for me, this is where the casting really comes through as the majority of the cast is actual kids and not adults in their 20s playing 13-14 year-olds. For me, it makes these kids more believable and relatable as anyone can attest to seeing kids unleash and go wild when they're not around their parents: swearing, fighting, making out at any opportunity, relentless pranking bordering on hazing, these kids do it all! Another place this movie sets itself apart from the other flicks of the time is that Sleepaway Camp also takes the form of a rape-revenge film and uses it to show that the killer is not mindless but rather taking the bullies and creeps out one-by-one. A personal favorite of mine is when the pedophile "chef", Artie, has a giant pot of boiling water dumped on him and the camera lingers on his pained face as he screams and his skin literally bubbles and pulsates; the only thing that could have made that scene any better would've been a hot corn cob shoved up his ass. I always cheer at that kill because fuck Artie and fuck any would-be rapist douchebag who tries to touch a kid.
Angela does her best to try and fly under the radar but that is not going to happen at a place like this when you have shitty kids like Judy (Fields) making it their mission to harass and humiliate at every turn. Judy is the meanest of mean girls in this movie and she has some really great moments of pure, vile hatred towards Angela: "She's a carpenter's dream: flat as a board and in need of a screw!" These lines, while outlandish and incredibly cruel, are pretty par for the course when it comes to kids being left unchecked and left to their own devices. Judy doesn't get away in the end though and her vanity is literally shoved right back at her when she's disposed of. And that's the thing about these murders: you are rooting for the killer in this! No? It's just me? I always find myself clapping and throwing my fist in the air when these assholes get taken out because I was picked on quite a bit when I was younger and never fought back until I was big enough to do so and, even then, I was terrified of retaliation. Angela's vengeance is cathartic for anyone who's been the outcast, the weirdo, the loser, the quiet kid and that is this movie's lasting legacy. She's not a mindless, hulking murder machine; she's you and me. I can see why there are queer people who gravitate to this film and claim it for themselves because it would be really easy for an ignorant person to hold this up as a warning about the 'dangers' of letting transgender women/men lead lives and be themselves because they're going to kill us all. Get the fuck out of here with that.
The fact that this film has been restored and re-released by Scream Factory, along with its sequels, tells you something about the legacy of Angela and how she resonates with so many of us. Over 30 years have passed since we first went to Camp Arawak and many of us horror lovers can't get enough of the mullets, short shorts, pranks, and revenge that's on offer every time we put Sleepaway Camp on to watch with our friends. The shock may have worn off over the years but there is still joy in watching Angela's adventures at camp and I will keep going back.
I had never really thought twice about Sleepaway Camp. I had heard of the film, but I just figured it was a cheap rip-off of Friday the 13th and never pursued it further. Thanks to the podcast, I actually had to watch it, and it is leagues better than Friday the 13th. For one, the characters are memorable and actually have personality. While the big twist was spoiled for me years ago, it still packs a punch because of how it's done. Angela Baker (Rose) is actually a boy, having been forced to live as a girl by her crazy Aunt Martha (Gould), who wanted a daughter. While not the most "woke" plot twist for today's climate, one could argue that it's less about transgenderism and more about the trauma of watching your family killed in a boat accident and being raised by a crazy woman.
Welcome to Camp Arawak, home of every douche bag jock and preppy preteen bitch of the 1980's. Among them is Ricky (Fiersten) and his shy, traumatized cousin Angela. They just want to fit in, and everyone at this camp does whatever they can to keep that from happening because kids are assholes. Soon, someone starts getting even and the dicks start disappearing like rabbits, as Willy Wonka would say. The murders are pretty original, from dropping a vat of boiling water on a would-be pedophile to slicing open the head girl counselor like a side of beef. It's pretty obvious from the start who the killer is, but you don't expect the gender reveal twist, which was a big shocker in the 80's. Nowadays, not so much.
While I understand the transgender community's desire to either cancel this film for its insensitivity or reclaim it for themselves, all I can say is that I enjoyed it. And I didn't expect to enjoy it. The 80's has a string of mindless slasher films that are barely held together with fake blood and gay slurs, but Sleepaway Camp stands out. The characters are interesting and the story, while bare bones, is still intriguing. I'd watch it again, and I look forward to exploring the sequels.