Sleepaway Camp (1982, dir. Robert Hiltzik) is a cult classic slasher flick that follows a young girl named Angela (played by Felissa Rose) who had survived a traumatic childhood accident that killed her father and brother. Now several years later, Angela’s cousin Richard (played by Jonathan Tiersten) takes her to her first summer camp experience, Camp Arawak which shares the same lake where the accident happened. As more people treat Angela unkindly, more staff and campers turn up dead. In a plot more akin to a mystery murder, the final twist of the film is something truly unexpected.
The first time I had watched this film it was a humid summer day; I had all the windows open. I remember feeling like it was a nice summer-time movie and I liked the vibes of the summer camp setting – but I was very anxious and excited to see the ending. An ending whose image, the first time I had ever seen it, sent chills down my spine and gave my heart a jolt of electricity. It was uncanny, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking at. What I did know was whatever this film was, I had to find a way to watch it. While the famous last shot of this film gets the recognition it deserves for being disturbing, how does the rest of the film hold up compared to it? Is Sleepaway Camp worth the watch? And, does it succeed as a slasher?
It was difficult for me to review this film because upon rewatch, the film was a lot better than I remembered. However, although the narrative is well detailed with a lot of time spent on developing each character, its downfall is that these areas are both forgettable and take up the majority of the film. I’ve rewatched this film many times and each time I forget about plot arcs such as the love story between Angela and Paul, the pedophile cook, Judy and Meg, and just about everything the group of older boys does. Most of the film is focused on showing kids and teens having relatively normal experiences at summer camp – to the point where I might argue this film is more like a drama or coming-of-age story than it is a horror or slasher.
One scene where I felt as if I were watching a made for television drama instead of a slasher was during the baseball game. In this scene a group of young boys and a group of teens verse each other in a game of baseball. While this scene is fun and we get to see some of the personalities in the boys come out more – even a geeky background character whose name I’ve never caught – it ultimately doesn’t do anything for the horror aspects of the story. It might do plenty for a drama or coming-of-age story as we begin to understand tension between the younger and older boys along with some comradery.
Likewise, the question of “who is the murderer?” never felt as if it were a pressing question to answer in this film. I believe the script would like audiences to believe the blame is on Richard, but I’ve never been fooled by this misdirection. Whoever is killing is completely silent. Richard is mouthy throughout most of his interactions with others. He’s always speaking loudly and he always has input on a conversation or argument. On the other hand, Angela spends most of the film not speaking. The first death in the film showcases this point the best as the victim attempts to have a conversation with the killer. In this scene, the pedophile cook is hanging over a large pot of boiling water when he gets pushed forward. Using a shelf to keep himself held upright, the cook begins to bribe the killer into helping him back up. As the chair is pulled from beneath him, the cook curses and begs before falling and bringing the pot of water with him. With the events that had transpired before this scene, I would have expected Richard to have some things to say if he were the killer.
As a slasher, Sleepaway Camp halfway succeeds in pulling off the genre. To say this film isn’t a slasher at all only because it doesn’t have an intense focus on being scary feels unfair to me. Especially because of the death scenes the film has blessed the horror community with. Sleepaway Camp has some of the most satisfying and gruesome deaths I’ve seen from a slasher flick – mostly due to the fact that all deaths feel deserved and victims aren’t selected at random. It’s personal. Where I find the film falling flat as a slasher is, again, in the drama that’s being focused on instead. There’s no urgency over a killer being on the loose like one might find in Halloween, Friday the 13th, or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Campers seem too relaxed that their friends are missing or dead. Although some of this could be explained by the man running the camp Mel (played by Mike Kellin) keeping the truth from campers, I find it hard to believe that kids and teens weren’t suspicious or didn’t know. For example, one victim is a boy who drowned and was found on the shore the next day. While it was a staff member who found him, I cannot help but think that surely the large group of boys and girls he was with the night before were not concerned that their friend was suddenly dead. It’s almost as if there is too much willing ignorance from the characters. Deaths or people missing are shrugged off as campers continue their activities such as capture the flag or volleyball.
I give Sleepaway Camp 2.5 out of 5 coffins
While this is an enjoyable cult classic, I believe most of the film’s fame depends on the final reveal too heavily. The rest of the narrative becomes forgettable too fast and doesn’t provide much other than simple teenage drama. While the film does build tension, the tension itself is between characters rather than the horrific murders themselves. No one, including Mel, seems to feel bothered by any of the deaths nor does any tension build about a killer being on the loose somewhere near camp. The film’s narrative reads more as a drama that got changed a little to fit into the slasher craze happening at the time.
Although I personally love Sleepaway Camp and will continue to return to the film -- it's boring. There could be a lot of room for improvement which could help the film fit into (at least) the horror genre better. One of my biggest irritations during this rewatch was the lack of urgency about a killer. I understand the argument could be made that characters not-knowing makes the plot scarier. I just feel as if less time was spent on men's crop tops and shorts then the film could find other things which help the story move better. I believe if the right director got their hands on the rights to remake this film, it could have the potential of doing much better than the original. For example, if a company such as A24 or Blumhouse remade Sleepaway Camp, I would be highly excited to see what they do with the story and Angela.