Warning: If you’ve never seen Sleepaway Camp before, don’t Google it and don’t read anything else about it! (Apart from this review, of course.) You’ll risk spoiling the completely mental ending.
Robert Hiltzik’s cult horror Sleepaway Camp opens with a creepy dedication: “In fond memory of Mom, a doer.” It ends with a twist so twisted that you can only wonder what his mother did to deserve having such a bizarre movie dedicated to her.
The Eighties was the decade of the slasher, influenced by the box office phenomenon of John Carpenter’s Halloween a few years previously. The era was saturated with sequels featuring three iconic bogeymen – Michael Myers (Halloween), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street), and Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th).
Somewhere in the mix came Sleepaway Camp, seemingly a cheap Friday the 13th rip off in the sub sub-genre of summer camp horror. Yet the makers of Friday the 13th were always quite open about it being a purely commercial exercise, serving up routine scares to satisfy the target audience’s appetite for tits n’ gore. Sleepaway Camp is different – it feels like the passion project of a genuinely crazy person. Hiltzik has only made one other movie to date, Return to Sleepaway Camp (2004), ignoring the events of the previous sequels.
We open with the obligatory shock prologue. It’s 1975 and two young kids, Angela and Peter, are enjoying a boat 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 of the pretty quiet girl drawing some of the attention away from herself. After Ricky saves Angela from the kiddy-fiddling cook Artie (Owen Hughes), bodies start piling up in a series of unlikely murders.
Hiltzik adopts the familiar killer POV in an attempt to create some mystery, but you don’t need to be Columbo to narrow the suspects down to a list of one. The lack of suspense hardly matters once you reach the legendary ending, which will have your jaw on the floor and casts everything that happened previously in a new light.
I’m usually a bit wary of alerting people to a twist, because I think if you’ve seen enough movies you can usually figure it out well before the final reveal. Sleepaway Camp‘s twist comes so far out of left field that trying to figure it out is like looking out for a banana skin in your path… then someone sneaking up behind you and breaking a chair across your back.
Sleepaway Camp gets some things right compared to its more famous contemporaries. Hiltzik casts real teens as the teenagers, rather than the usual Hollywood trick of getting a bunch of twenty-somethings to pretend they’re ten years younger. He also writes teens just like they are in real life – if you’ve worked with teenagers, you know sometimes it’s like trying to control a horde of gremlins. These kids are rowdy, foul-mouthed, spiteful, hormonal, sometimes violent. The acting often stinks, but the kids’ behaviour is authentically obnoxious.
The whole project has a whiff of madness, as if Hiltzik has chosen the cheapest and most popular medium of the time to exorcise some of his personal demons. This gives Sleepaway Camp an unusual cadence, and there’s many peculiar incidental details and bits of business to keep you entertained between the kills.
Feel your skin crawl at Artie’s open appreciation of the campers – obviously Camp Arawak’s HR department did a pretty slack job when recruiting for the summer. Marvel at Gould’s outlandish Aunt Martha, which is a bit like an alien doing an impression of a human with only ’70s TV commercials to base their performance on. Admire some astonishing fashions including cut-off T-shirts and nut-hugging short-shorts, and spot one of the most obviously fake moustaches ever seen on film.
Sleepaway Camp is one of the strangest horrors to come out of the Eighties, and is uniquely, perversely its own thing. One gets the sense that no matter which genre Hiltzik had chosen, we would have ended up with pretty much the same movie.
It was relative unknown in the era of Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees, and has gradually built a small yet dedicated cult following. It is an absolute must for horror fans and aficiandos of odd movies, and if it gets its hooks into you, you’ll be stopping people in the street and demanding they see it immediately.
Join Lee’s screening of the movie at The Immigrant (Veveří 57) on Sunday, July 17 at 9 pm!