Ah, Sleepaway Camp. I remember my first experience with it well. It was a hot summer night down in the hills of Tennessee. I had decided to throw a party and invited a few friends over. In the meantime, I got 10 bucks from my mom and went down the street to one of the three video stores in the town. I browsed the shelves repetitively before I noticed the Sleepaway Camp VHS staring at me. I grabbed it and April Fool’s Day (a movie which I hope to cover soon), got them out the door and back to my house in time for the first wave of friends to show up.
What ensued was them calling me a “fucking weirdo” for my taste in films. I don’t think they were as taken with my choices as I was. We ended up watching some other movies, but in my heart I knew that Sleepaway Camp was surely a masterpiece.
The movie starts out more like an after-school special than anything else. At a local lake a man and his two children who have unseemly Jersey Shore accents are on a small boat, while a cocky teen and his loud, bratty girlfriend take their friend water skiing. They are of no consequence to each other until the girlfriend starts screeching at her boyfriend about how she wants to drive the boat. He reassures her that she knows nothing about it, but she tells him that her daddy has one and yes she does. In the meantime, the kids have tipped their boat over to play a practical joke on dad. All is well and good until the bratty girlfriend has her way. She promptly hits all three members of the family, even though they were pressed up against the sand and could have gotten out at any time before she hit them, and presumably kills them, all while their friend screams at the top of her lungs in a manner that borders between hysterical and hilarious. A mysterious man on the shore seems grief-stricken, but that’s all we’re treated to before the movie flashes forward.
Here’s where it gets legitimately creepy for me. The next shot flashes to eight years later in a scenic house in the suburbs, where an insanely scary woman beckons two children down the stairwell so they can get on the bus for camp. The actress who plays Aunt Martha, Desiree Gould, is killing this part in one of the best ways ever — if you’re into that sort of thing. There’s a distinct Mommy Dearest vibe about her and she’s way over the top, but it starts off the movie in a campy (no pun intended), unsettling sort of way. Either you’re going to find it creepy or you’re going to laugh. Anyway, the woman has given both the children their physicals but tells them not to tell anyone. That’s not suspicious at all, right?
And so the cousinly duo of streetwise Ricky and seemingly mute Angela are sent off to Camp Arawak, where one of the first characters we meet is the lovable camp chef and pedophile Artie. Yeah, it’s just that sort of a movie. Ricky explains to one of his friends that Angela is just “kind of shy.” That’s putting it mildly. If this movie had been made circa 2011, Angela would have been heavily medicated and in group therapy. Ricky shows Angela around and sees popular camp bitch Judy, who has filled out over the summer and is no longer conversing with him. Immediately Judy dislikes Angela, as does the Queen Bee counselor, Meg. Three days later, we learn that Angela hasn’t spoken yet or eaten anything (camp counselor Meg quips, “If she were any quieter, she’d be dead”). She is taken to meet Artie who promptly tries to molest her in the walk-in freezer. Guess who gets killed first?
Like with most of my reviews, I won’t give much more of the plot away, but the movie is worth sticking with. The deaths start out intense and are amped up throughout the film. There is a particularly cringeworthy one that made every single one of my female friends gasp with horror during my first viewing of this film and it’s not even shown directly — sometimes implied horror works wonders. The gore in the film isn’t excessive, but it gets the job done without too many missteps.
The acting is fairly par for the course for a 1980s slasher flick. The two leads, Felissa Rose (Angela) and Jonathan Tiersten (Ricky) do well for themselves in their respective roles. Felissa Rose’s portrayal of Angela borders between sympathetic and disturbing. Both of them have stayed active in the Sleepaway Camp series and have even done conventions. The rest of the cast is fair to middling, but they don’t need to be extraordinary to convey the story. Another stand out actor is Karen Fields who plays Judy. She plays the part so well that you want to see her dead within the first half hour, if not less. Her performance gets even stronger as the movie goes on.
The plot comes with an interesting twist toward the middle of the film that will leave many viewers going, “Huh?” It does shed some light on Angela’s background story, but it doesn’t get too elaborated upon until the end of the film, which will leave even more viewers saying, “What the FUCK?!” The surprise ending of the film has long been lauded as one of the most shocking endings in a horror movie and with good reason; it packs a one-two punch that probably wouldn’t have eked by the sensors so easily today.
Sleepaway Camp was popular enough to have spawned Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers in 1988, Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland in 1989, and Return to Sleepaway Camp in 2008. With a legacy like that, you know it’s either gotta be so good you need to watch it, or so bad that it’s worth a view. Luckily in my opinion, it’s the former.
Sleepaway Camp is a fun movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously but manages to leave a lasting impression. Anyone who likes the slasher genre will find it worthy of their time. A few more viewings might be necessary to take in the film’s last five minutes — which is always a good thing, in my opinion.
Sleepaway Camp 1983 Trailer
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Yell! Rating (x/5 Skulls):
18 November 1983 (USA)
Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields, Christopher Collet, Paul DeAngelo, Tom Van Dell, Loris Sallahian, Desiree Gould, Robert Earl Jones