4 out of 5
Directed by: Robert Hiltzik
When I watched Sleepaway Camp as part of my horror education, I watched it for myself, aware of its notoriety – hence adding it to the watchlist – but not knowing the reason for that notoriety. Mainlining horror as I was in those days, I don’t recall the majority of the film making much of an impact, but I do remember being unsettled by that final shot, not so much due to its content – which, at that point, came across as just “gotcha!” kind of twist bait, no more, no less – but its composition of two oddly stitched together elements, masked by shadow. It’s an image (again, the actual idea of its content aside) that just doesn’t look right, and there’s a little camera swivel that has the character’s eyes following the viewer which just makes it creepier.
I do remember at least one time after that, watching the movie with a group, and everyone erupting with laughter at that same shot. The notoriety of it is thus clear, and, unfortunately, though many elements leading up to that beat are rather interestingly handled, I don’t suspect writer / director Robert Hiltzik was trying to do anything super transgressive beyond building up to a twist (I say this without having heard any of his commentary on the bluray release of this, though), and the original song that rolls over the credits sort of confirms the “joke” of that twist.
There are some more nuanced reads to the film that are beyond my abilities, but there’s an excellent take (spoilers included) at Bloody Disgusting, reviewing the whole Sleepaway Camp series.
Watching the movie for the first time in a long time, with a lot more horror / slashers in my rearview, I was surprised to find that the first Sleepaway is actually a quality slasher, with a script that’s well-balanced between its plotting and characters, and an appreciably moody shooting style that leans in to its low budget for some good slasher kills. One thing with which I very much agree with that Bloody Disgusting review is that some of the potentially problematic themes can be downplayed to an extent by seeing the movie as simply a revenge slasher: kids and counselors at Camp Arawak are treating Angela (Felissa Rose) like shit, and someone is killing those kids and counselors as a result. The movie isn’t exactly tricksy on pointing the finger at Angela herself, but in slasher fashion, it employs POV shots and keeps the killer in the shadows so that maybe it’s actually her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), or maybe some heretofore unfocused background character or etc.
Prior to all of this, though, the movie opens with a drifting shot over Camp Arawak’s closed, ruined grounds, as sound clips of happier times play. This is a patient, dreamy opening that is suggestive of the film’s strengths throughout: finding ways to visually “explain” something – one day this camp will have some troubles – without having a character exposit it, or clearly laying it out for the viewer – and encouraging a slightly carefree pacing that allows the movie to segue between downbeats and kills without it seeming like it’s just ticking off the clock. Sometime prior to that, a young Angela and her brother Peter are out swimming with their father when some pesky teens lose control of their speedboat and… then there’s blood in the water, and only one child remains. 8 years later, Angela is living with her cousin and her aunt, Martha (Desiree Gould), being shifted off to Camp Arawak. Gould’s performance as the eccentric Martha is another highpoint for the flick’s style – she’s super weird, essentially having this overly campy conversation with herself, but the film doesn’t especially dress it up with music or flowery camera angles; it just lets her be off, and her young charges seem to accept it as Martha being Martha.
At camp, Angela is literally speechless. Ricky is defensive of this around the other kids, being a good cousin – offering to tussle with anyone who picks on her; remaining aware of / sensitive to her past – and Angela seems to develop a fixation on apparent camp hottie Judy (Karen Fields), staring at her while they’re in the bunk together. Being the popular hottie that she is, Judy don’t deal with this too well, and starts inciting others to make things tough for Angela; those who go down that road are some of the first to go as the killings in the camp tick by.
This is all standard slasher fare, of course, but the “eye” of the camera is not: it’s not a traditional ‘leery’ view, eschewing the usual male gaze (including a shower scene, bastion of female nudity for, like, 101% of 80s horror) for something a bit more spartan, or purposeful, and not lingering upon some of its fringier elements – child abuse, rape. There’s certainly still a dark humor found in a lot of this, but it remains at a distance, allowing the viewer to titter on their own time, and with their own thresholds for such stuff. The casting, comprised of all age appropriate actors, is also quite interesting, and is a big part of lending the film a sense of authenticity, even if / when dialogue is delivered somewhat stiffly. Finally, the aforementioned dreamlike nature of the style allows Hiltzik to go wandering a bit into a dream sequence towards the end, which is honestly pretty experimental for the time, and allows for some interesting reads, even if I still don’t think it’s really intended to be much more than justification for the final shot.
Does this make it a masterpiece of horror, or – twist aside – surprising? No, but it is a wholly enjoyable one, and actually entertaining from start to finish. Whereas, I think, watching it just as buildup to a punctuation point draws attention away from the whole 90 minutes leading to that, watching it without any expectations – and perhaps with appreciation for the slasher genre – reveals Sleepaway Camp as an incredibly solid entry in the genre, with a lot of uniqueness and competence in its style and execution.