“Yes, I’ve always dreamed of a little girl just like you…”
WARNING! This review contains some spoilers. If you haven’t seen Sleepaway Camp yet, do yourself a favour and DON’T Google it before watching – the twist will be given away!
Directed by: Robert Hiltzik
Starring: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tierston, Karen Fields, Desiree Gould
In a Nutshell:
At first glance, Sleepaway Camp looks like a rip off of Friday the 13th in the sub-sub-genre of summer camp horror, but it’s one of the strangest slasher flicks of the 80s. It has a genuine whiff of madness as if director Hiltzik has chosen the cheapest and most popular medium of the time to explore some of his darkest obsessions. With cheesy dialogue, bizarre performances and an odd cadence, there’s plenty of peculiar moments and bits of business to keep you entertained between the kills…
We open with the obligatory shock prologue. It’s 1975 and two young kids, Angela and Peter, are enjoying a sailing trip with their dad. All three end up in the water in the path of a speed boat, and the guy driving it isn’t watching where he’s going. Carnage ensues.
Eight years later, Angela (Felissa Rose) is understandably traumatized after seeing her dad and brother turned to chum by a speedboat propeller. She lives with her nutty Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould), who decides that the painfully introverted orphan is ready for summer camp, accompanied by her fiercely protective cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten).
Camp Arawak is full of bullies, cruel counsellors and child molesting staff, all of whom instantly home in on the meek, silent Angela. Camp slut Judy (Karen Fields) is especially hateful, seemingly jealous about the pretty quiet girl drawing some of the attention away from herself. After Ricky saves Angela from the kiddy-touching cook Artie (Owen Hughes), bodies start piling up in a series of unlikely murders…
If you buy into Sleepaway Camp, your attention will no doubt be captured at first by some of the more off-the-wall performances, of which there are many. Probably the best normal performance is from Felissa Rose as Angela – her blank stare seems like someone who is genuinely traumatised.
Desiree Gould as the outlandish Aunt Martha is a hoot – she’s a bit like an alien doing an impersonation of a human with only 70s TV commercials to base her performance on.
Owen Hughes clearly loves smacking his fat lips as the repulsive cook Artie, one of the most cheerfully unguarded paedophiles in movie history. Seriously, the Camp Arawak HR department must have had the day off when he was hired. (“Look at all that fresh young chicken. Where I come from we call ’em baldies…”)
Karen Fields is enjoyably spiteful as the Camp bully and head slut Judy, rocking a side ponytail, a t-shirt with her own name on it and a pathological delight in abusing Angela (“You’re a carpenter’s dream: flat as a board and needs a screw.”)
Jonathan Tiersten has proper fire in his belly as Ricky, essentially a good kid who’s whipped into a sweary frenzy when anyone picks on his cousin. (“Eat shit and live, Bill!”)
The Bernard Hermann-esque score by Edward Bilious creates a suitably ominous atmosphere, particularly over the eerie opening credits as the camera wanders through the deserted camp.
You’d think a movie that casts a trans person as a homicidal maniac would be more problematic in our more enlightened times. However, while the film has clearly dated and its attitude to its mixed up protagonist/antagonist is a bit iffy, the movie has a sizeable league of defenders in the transgender community – take this superb piece here.
Beyond that, the most dated aspect is the fashions. This is also one of its biggest selling points for 80s aficionados – there’s an astonishing array of cut-off T-shirts and nut-hugging short shorts to enjoy. Unusually for a slasher flick, this also means that most of the flesh on display is male.
Hiltzik’s cult masterpiece opens with a creepy dedication: “In fond memory of mom, a doer.” It ends with a twist so twisted that you have to wonder what mom did to have such a crazy movie dedicated to her.
Most people arrive at Sleepaway Camp thanks to its notorious twist, which comes so far out of leftfield that attempting to figure it out is like trying to spot a banana skin in your path in the dark … then someone sneaking up behind you and breaking a chair across your back. It’s genuinely shocking and casts everything that comes before in a new light. If you haven’t seen the movie already you should do your best to see it without spoiling the surprise.
However, the film is far more than its twist, and it’s the little details that make it worth revisiting. Like, why are about twelve kids having a water fight on a shed roof? How long will it take Arty to boil water for the corn on a cob in a pot that huge? Why is Ronnie, one of the dimwitted camp counsellors, pumping iron in the background of a scene he has no business in? How did Hiltzik think he was going to get away with that cop’s obviously fake moustache? What’s the fucking deal with Aunt Martha anyway?
Largely overlooked in the era of Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees, Sleepaway Camp has since built a small but dedicated cult following. If it gets its hooks into you, it’ll be one of those movies that will have you stopping people in the street and demanding they see it immediately.
If you loved this, also check out: My Bloody Valentine (1981), Prom Night, Sorority House Massacre, any Friday the 13th movie, or one of Sleepaway Camp‘s inferior but still entertainingly shlocky sequels.
Buy your copy of Sleepaway Camp from Amazon HERE