Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: May 27th, 2014
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The best joke* in Sleepaway Camp comes right up top, when director Robert Hiltzik dedicates his film “in fond memory of mom, a doer.” It’s a gag that feels more obviously deranged depending on one’s familiarity with the film, but even the uninitiated have to sense that something is just a little off about it, especially considering the demented history of slashers, a genre fraught with mommy issues, psycho biddies, and childhood trauma. Hiltzik’s entry into the slasher canon (which had become a cottage industry by 1983) is an especially off-kilter riff, a Freudian field day of gender confusion and sexual chaos intermingled with familiar genre trappings: summer camp, bloodlust, and sex. What better way to capture the agony of adolescence, right?
Angela Baker’s (Felissa Rose) youth has been particularly unruly. After a boating accident claimed the lives of her brother and father, she was shipped off to live with her kooky aunt (Desiree Gould), an overbearing old bird who could have easily been the star of her own psycho biddy flick (What’s the Matter With Aunt Martha, indeed). For the summer, Angela and cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) will be attending Camp Arawak, an idyllic upstate haunt where the latter has little trouble flourishing; meanwhile, wallflower Angela finds it difficult to socialize, preferring instead to confound the staff and fellow campers with her behavior.
To be fair, you can hardly blame her. Even before an unseen maniac arrives at the camp and begins to knock off its campers, Arawak is something of a sexual maelstrom, full of leering, sicko rapists, catty alpha females, and a host of nubile teenagers. Angela’s experience with sex (she and her brother once spied on their father’s bedroom cavorting with a male lover) and general trauma (again, she saw her family butchered by careless teenagers) only compounds the situation, and Rose’s vacant, wide-eyed stare marks Angela as a deer caught in the sexual headlights of adolescence. This is not to say that Sleepaway Camp functions as an insightful allegory on the matter, but it does scatter enough oddball quirkiness around the edges in order to feel like a cock-eyed take on a familiar genre.
It’s a good thing, too, as, otherwise, Sleepaway Camp is a fairly standard issue slasher, from the setting to the style. Hiltzik borrows extensively from a well-established bag of tricks, relying on point-of-view shots to both conceal the killer’s identity and to allow audiences to engage in voyeurism. Given Hiltzik’s schlocky aim, he predictably emphasizes gore over suspense. There’s rarely a question of whether or not a victim will survive; instead, viewers are teased about the methods of dispatch, which eventually encompasses drowning, a boiling broth, a curling iron, good-old-fashioned knife butcherings, and more, with effects artist Ed French crafting some staggering cadavers to provide some crudely effective post-mortem carnage.
“Crudely effective” describes Hiltkiz’s aesthetic as a whole, as the first-time director opts for an authentic approach, which is sort of a nice way of saying the acting is frequently amateurish, what with several young cast members making their debuts here. From the opening boating sequence, it’s obvious that stilted turns will be in abundant supply (the poor skier crying her eyes out for someone to please help the two ill-fated Bakers after the boating accident is a melodramatic hoot). Still, it sort of works at times, particularly since Rose isn’t tasked with doing much until she strikes up a summer fling with one of Ricky’s friends (Christopher Colet), at which point she’s still only serviceable at best, a sort of purposely repressed, subdued presence waiting to go off. She’s surrounded by similarly functional characters, such as Meg (Katherine Kamhi) and Judy (Karen Fields), the two predatory bunkhouse mothers who frequently lord their sexuality over Angela. On the other hand, Ricky spends his days engaging in typically jockish male behavior, as he and his friends are at war with a rival bunk, a group of older jerkoffs who also find time to tease Angela.
The gender roles here are almost laughably rigid and predictable; on some level, Sleepaway Camp is about navigating adolescent turmoil, only Hiltzik turns it on its head during the unhinged climax, at which all of the repressed, psychosexual subtext slashes to the surface and threatens to carve up everyone in its wake. Few get out alive, including the acting chops of Mike Kellen, as the film’s feverish culmination reduces its most accomplished actor to a puddle of laughable hysterics. That his pummeling of a 13-year-old kid isn’t nearly the craziest, most memorable moment of the climax speaks volumes.
At this point, I’m sure most are familiar with the eventual reveal—suffice it to say, it’s not so much about whodunit as much as it’s about the culprit’s identity crisis. It’s a reveal that’s come to define Sleepaway Camp, so much so that I’m not sure it’d be nearly as accomplished or memorable without it—again, it’s a rather pedestrian slasher without the odd quirks creeping about, and it doesn’t become truly iconic until its final, exceedingly strange image, which captures the murderer in a state of mania, finally freed of repression yet still arrested, frozen in their psychosis—call it the portrait of a psycho as a young man (sort of).
*The second best joke? When the teenage girl in the prologue goads her boyfriend into letting her drive the boat because her old man has one that’s twice as big, clearly a phallic foreshadowing of the film’s climax.
Sleepaway Camp rose to the upper crust of the video store slashers section throughout the 80s and 90s, thus solidifying its place as a cult classic. Surprisingly, that didn’t yield an enormous number of DVD reissues over the years—Anchor Bay did the honors with a bang-up box set and a standalone release over a decade ago, but that’s just about the extent of it. Scream Factory has rendered those previous releases moot with yet another stellar Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray/DVD release, which presents the film in its uncut form. Working from a new 2K scan of the original negative, Scream turns in a stellar transfer—Sleepaway Camp has never looked more vibrant or detailed (which sometimes does no favors to some wardrobe department’s work—I’m pretty sure the cop at the end is outfitted with a fake cop ‘stache that’s never seemed more obvious). The audio is a serviceable DTS-HD MA track that allows Edward Bilous’s Manfrendini-inspired score to breathe and provide the obligatory, ominous cues to the proceedings.
Scream also commissioned a new audio commentary with Rose and Tierston, which joins two previous tracks joining Hiltzik with Rose and webmaster Jeff Hayes. Once again, the centerpiece extra feature is one of Scream’s signature retrospectives, as “At the Waterfront After the Social” is a 45-minute collection of cast and crew interviews. As is often the case, the participants take audiences from the film’s conception to its release and scatter plenty of interesting anecdotes along the way (the final shot is examined in great detail, for example). A smattering of other odd features await beyond that, including a music video by Tierston and “Judy,” a short film shot by Hayes and starring Karen Fields. Some rare images from French, a Camp Arawak scrapbook, trailers, TV spots, and a look at the restoration process fill out an edition that should satisfy hardcore fans, especially if this is the first of many returns to Sleepaway Camp. It just wouldn’t be right if this weren’t eventually joined by its superior, more polished follow-up, Unhappy Campers. Goodness no, that wouldn’t do at all. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: