The 1980s, with its explosion of scary flicks and the rise of the slasher genre, saw an inordinate amount of films that borrowed from one another, taking a successful idea and turning it over into something else. I loved ninety-eight percent of them (and still do), but there was one particular stand-out to me that still rings true as one of the most subliminally-disturbing little flicks to come out of the golden age of the slasher: Robert Hiltzik’s 1983 film, Sleepaway Camp.
The movie begins with a family tragedy; a terrible boating accident takes a father and one of his two children; the surviving child is taken in by Aunt Martha to live with her and her son, Ricky. We flash forward eight years; the child, Angela (now fourteen) and her cousin are heading off to Camp Arawak for some summer fun. This looks to be Angela’s first real outing without Aunt Martha along, and she’s very quiet and shy; of course, this makes her the target of derision from the other girls at camp; even one of the counselors becomes a tormentor. However, all isn’t gloom and doom for Angela; Ricky staunchly defends her at every turn, and she’s drawn the amorous attention of one of his friends, Paul. As the days at camp march on, we watch both the continual bullying that Angela endures and Paul’s slow but determined efforts to get her out of her shell. It would all be kinda like a John Hughes film…except most of the people in this film are some seriously fucked-up folks, and I’m not just talkin’ about the long list of possible suspects for all the damned murders that start happening.
I would guess that 9.488 out of ten of you that are reading this have already seen the flick (playing the odds conservatively), but I’m still stickin’ to my spoiler-free guns for those rare individuals that haven’t had the experience yet. Suffice to say, Sleepaway Camp is a slasher in the tradition of its progenitor, Friday the 13th; it takes place at a summer camp and folks get bumped off in gruesome fashion; however, that is really where any similarities end. Instead of camp counselors, the story focuses instead on the kids themselves, and we’re not talking the modern trend of twentysomethings playing teens, no indeed; these kids are kids…I would guess ranging between 13 and 17 in most cases. The cast is populated with characters that are the epitome of all the irrational fears a lot of kids have about summer camp; we have the creepy guy that really seems to have an…err…inappropriate attraction to the kids (“Fresh chicken”? “Baldies”? Christ!), the sixty-ish camp owner (that closely resembles the Rockbiter from The Neverending Story) making time with one of the teenaged counselors, and some of the bitchiest girls in the history of cinema (although I recall several girls that acted just like that back then). I won’t even talk about the skin-tight short-shorts that everyone, guys included, sport throughout the flick. O_o Take that cast and add what appears to be a campy, typical low-budget slasher plot, and you’ve got…
…well, not exactly what you may think; there’s more to this…this plot only seems typical on the surface; underneath the campiness, we have a really disturbing mix of elements going on; the underlying themes are quite original, for any movie, let alone a horror flick. You really get into some deep psychological shit if you’re paying attention. This “under-plot”, if you will, is what really makes this film shine in my memory of ’80s slasherdom.
There’s not an overt amount of gore (although there is some), but a couple of the kills are quite creative…and there’s one that’s just…well…it’s pretty damned extreme, even though it doesn’t show you a lot. You’ll know it when you see it. I promise. The camera work is what you’d expect from the period; nothing more, nothing less. However, the direction is sound; the visual storytelling moves very well. The acting is what I found most impressive; although there’s quite a bit of corn and cheese present, considering the ages of most of the cast I thought the acting was pretty goddamn fine; I had no trouble believing in and caring about most of the characters. Of particular mention is Felissa Rose in the role of Angela; she was only fourteen at the time, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better performance of a shy, bullied and kinda sad teenage girl anywhere; quiet, melancholy voice, self-protective body language…and those death glares she gives the bitchy prissies…classic. While I’m at it, I gotta say something about Desiree Gould as Aunt Martha; boisterous and effervescent, she reminds you of a psychotic June Cleaver, and would give Pennywise a run for his money in the ‘creepy’ department.
What comes outta the gate looking like a cheapie knock-off turns out to be so much more; it’s the subtext of the film that really gets to you…that and what is probably the number one mind-fuck ending of the whole decade; I won’t detail it, you’ve either seen it or need to see it for yourself…all I will say is that the last twenty seconds of the film and the closing credits haunt me to this day; they’re images I personally will never un-see.
For my money, that’s what makes a horror film great.
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