The slasher boom is noted above all else for its abiding unoriginality; the vast number of films that copy the details of Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th, Part 2 is really quite incredible. A pre-title sequence that introduces a murderous threat; a thirty-minute first act that introduces a battalion of horny teenagers, ripe for the slaughter; another thirty minutes or so as they start to get picked off one at a time; then ten or fifteen minutes of a Final Girl sequence. Cut, print, that's a wrap.
Because slasher fans are as hungry for new ideas and creativity as anyone, it tends to be the case that most of the most-beloved examples of the style are the ones that push against this very limiting framework the hardest, and this brings us to Sleepaway Camp from 1983, the third year of the boom, and the one where the air started to leak out of the genre in earnest. On the most superficial level, Sleepaway Camplooks like it could be all but indistinguishable from Friday the 13th: someone goes crazy at a summer camp. At least most of the mock Jasons had the good taste to set their mayhem in some other place; a school, for example. But then, you start to really dig into Sleepaway Camp a bit more, and it turns out to be nothing at all like the slasher film template. Oh, a slasher film without a doubt; but in some ways one of the most creative and original to come out before A Nightmare on Elm Street. In particular, the film has a Big Damn Twist that colors everything else, and when the time comes we'll see what I have to say about it. Now, whether or not this makes it necessarily one of the best, that's a different matter, one I'll get to shortly. First, though, what makes it so unique?
The film opens with an unexpectedly subtle touch: as the credits play out, the camera pans across the boarded-up remains of Camp Arawak. What happened to shutter the camp will turn out to be our topic for the next 88 minutes, but first we flash back in time (though it's not immediately clear that we've done so). On a lake somewhere in what is presumably New Jersey, a man (Dan Tursi) is boating about with his two kids Angela (Colette Lee Corcoran) and Peter (Frank Sorrentino). At the same time, a few teens from the nearby camp are out water-skiing, and not to stretch things out too long, the driver of the speedboat dragging the skiers looks away for just long enough to not be able to turn away from the family's motionless sailboat, and lickety-split, the father is apparently decapitated, and Peter ends up face down in the water.
Eight years later! Angela (Felissa Rose) now lives with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tierston) and his mother (Desiree Gould). Right from the get-go, we know that something is weird, because aunt Martha is one strange lady. Or rather, Gould's performance is pretty freaking strange, and I genuinely can't tell how much of it is just bad talent. Either way, she's deeply uncomfortable to watch, and while the first run through the film this just angered me, in light of The Big Damn Twist, it kind of fits. But... ah, this is not the right place for this tangent.
Aunt Martha is extra-excited because this is Angela's first trip to Camp Arawak (which may, or may not, be the camp with the idiot water-skiers; my guess is "not"), and she hopes that Ricky and a whole bunch of new friends will help to pull her out of her shell. Fat chance, as anybody who's ever seen a summer camp movie - or, I suppose, ever gone to summer camp - can already tell. When Angela and Ricky get to Arawak, it quickly becomes clear that this is Hell on Earth, and here we arrive at the film's first point of distinction.
In virtually every other slasher film I've ever seen, the setting is a mostly ethereal, irrelevant thing. What matters is that a madman with an edged weapon is somewhere just out of sight, and it can be a school, a house, a summer camp, a shopping mall, a military base - doesn't matter. The plot would function essentially the same no matter what. Not so in Sleepaway Camp, which for a hefty portion of its running time is barely a horror film at all, except that it details the horror of everyday childhood; no, it is absolutely a boots-on-the-ground observation piece about summer camp. Now, I never went to camp - day camp, for three weeks, once, but never the kind where you live there for a whole month or however long it is. I don't actually even know if we had that kind of summer camp in the Midwest, since in movies it always seems to be an East Coast thing; that is how much I never went to camp. But after seeing Sleepaway Camp, more than any of the scads of other summer camp films, I think I understand exactly how awful camp must have been, for Sleepaway Camp depicts this miserable existence with a level of detail and coherence absolutely jaw-dropping for a slasher film.
The characters involved range from the bitch counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi) and her bitchy protégé Judy (Karen Fields), to Paul (Christopher Collet), who strikes up a tentative flirtation with Angela; from Mel (Mike Kellin), the neurotic camp owner who is petrified that he'll be sued, to Artie (Owen Hughes), the unapologetically pedophilic camp cook, who refers to the incoming girls as "baldies". And a whole mess of guys who are kind of hard to keep track of, except that some are jerks and some are not very much jerks. All of them are in some degree or another a tired cliché, but generally speaking, Robert Hiltzik - the film's writer and director - makes them seem like clichés that are honestly found in nature. And I've only just now realised how much of the cast is actually made up of campers, around 12 or 13 years old - in nearly every other film on this model I can name, the campers are marginal or completely absent, and it's the counselors in peril.
This is generally true of the film's story and screenplay, which are rational and observational in ways absolutely unknown in the great majority of horror films. Sometimes it's just a keen grace note that proves somebody was paying attention: I particularly loved the small details around the film's depiction of teenage sexuality, which is much more awkward and fumbling than suave and licentious, like it typically is in a slasher film (accordingly there's not a single bare breast anywhere in Sleepaway Camp). A particularly fine, subtle moment is when a skinny dipping party involves several boys and not a single female; a long cry from the water-borne orgy of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.
Most impressive of all is what happens in the story once the killings start. I'll give away absolutely nothing by saying that what happens is that Angela, mute for the early chunk of the film, and mostly wordless for the back part, and clearly a bit messed-up throughout, starts to take her revenge on the many people at the camp who have done terrible things to her, starting when she knocks Pedo Artie into a large pot of boiling water. Okay, so the film makes a limp gesture at leaving us in the dark whether it's Ricky or Angela doing the killing, but I really can't imagine who'd be taken in by that ruse for very long. It's absolutely Angela, because there's never really a moment when we don't believe the shy girl with the intense eyes is capable of murder. Anyway, this isn't the kind of slasher film where bodies are found and nobody cares; nor the kind where people wander off into the woods after announcing, "I'm headed off alone into the woods". Once the deaths start, everyone goes pretty much bugshit, even before it's clear that any foul play is involved at all. Only The Burning of all the '80s slashers I can call to mind is so scrupulously honest about when the characters know what's going on, and how they react to the events around them. This is, no joke, one of the least insulting slasher movies I have ever seen, storywise: it asks us to believe nothing unbelievable, and tells no obvious lies.
Now, I was very careful to couch all of that honest praise for Sleepaway Camp in terms of its writing, because once the screenplay got to the set, everything went straight to Hell on a bullet train. Hiltzik may have been a good screenwriter, but he's an outrageously incompetent director, and everything about the film has the look of a local car salesman looking to break into movie producing by hiring that guy who went to film school that one time. Inexpensive movies generally must look inexpensive; but Sleepaway Camp looks goddamn cheap. An important distinction. Though the design of Camp Arawak itself is satisfying and believable (I assume they shot at a for-real summer camp), everything else about the film's visual appearance is chintzy and run-down; starting with the lighting, which has all the dramatic depth of a sheet of cardboard. Good lighting is easy to notice; bad lighting even more so. But plain-old boring lighting? It's not something you notice so much as something you notice from its absence. Sleepaway Camp is not ugly as such, but it might be among the flattest movies I can remember seeing in a long time.
Lighting aside, the direction is slipshod at best, with the scare moments generally falling under the weight of bad blocking (the bee scene is terrible; the scene where a corpse that has apparently been leaning against an unsecured shower curtain just happens to fall out at the exact second that a character walks by is much worse), although one moment in particular stands out as virtually perfect: the discovery of the first body, with a water snake slithering out of the victim's mouth. It's not that the filmmakers are incompetent, in the Ed Wood sense; but they are ridiculously untalented. I am certain that several Friday the 13th movies were put together much worse than this, but in not one of those did I have the sense of such slack work behind the camera; as though the creators had seen movies but didn't know how they were made, exactly.
Of course, the slasher genre being what it is, a strong screenplay would be enough to keep the film's reputation high throughout the years; the fumbled execution of something smart is preferable, anyway, to the fumbled execution of something idiotic. But that isn't what's kept Sleepaway Camp in the horror fandom's consciousness all these years. No, it's The Big Damn Twist. Even after more than two-and-a-half decades, this has remained largely unspoiled by osmosis, so I won't say what it is - if you really want to know, it's not very hard to find it in some review or another. More importantly, even after that time it's still incredibly shocking. It makes decent enough sense in the context of the story, and explains some of the bigger plot holes that have cropped up that point. But more importantly, it sets the tone of the movie on its ear. Up til the the last five minutes, Sleepaway Camp has been a breezy, unusually snarky and humorous slasher film; the final moments are the exact opposite, particularly thanks to a genuinely unsettling effect on the soundtrack. It must be said that like everything else about the smart bits in the film's screenplay, the execution is a complete hatchet job; but something about that makes the final image even more eerie, like something out of a giallo (hooray! Summer of Blood '09 has circled back around!).
I do not ordinarily, or ever, give films a great deal of credit for having a successful twist - twists typically infuriate me - but there are exceptions to prove every rule, and even though I do not believe that Sleepaway Camp is a particularly effective movie due to its sloppy production, there's no denying that because of The Big Damn Twist, it is an exceptionally memorable one - one that lingers in the brain, disturbing and discomfiting. And that, I suppose, is ultimately the most important goal for a horror film.
Body Count: 11 or 12. Not really sure what to do about the pederast cook, who is, when we last see him, alive; but then again he gets one of the film's most outré make-up jobs, and isn't that the true measure of a body count kill?
Reviews in this series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)