Sleepaway Camp (1983)
★★★ / ★★★★
Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp” does not hide the fact it has been inspired by Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th.” Both are slasher films with some psychological leanings. Both take place in a summer camp. Both contain an archery kill scene. Similarities stop there, however. This is a bit more versatile with its horror in that terrible happenings are not solely reliant on somebody getting stabbed, slashed, or maimed. On the contrary, the first time a typical murder weapon is employed occurs at around the hour mark—more than two-thirds of the way through. The other side of that violence comes in the form of bullying. The target is Angela (Felissa Rose), a first-time camper in Camp Arawak whose extreme shyness rubs others the wrong way. They don’t know how to deal with her silence.
The movie is not interested in parading one kill scene after another. Surprisingly, it goes out of its way to show how camp life is like for the male and female campers. They may live in the same area with similar cabin layouts, but their experiences are different. Notice that the boys are often shown at play, very physical, there must always be a winner and a loser. To lose is to walk away with shame. Boys may clash but there is a general sense of camaraderie. Girls, on the other hand, are almost always shown in their cabins hanging out, drying and brushing their hair. Unlike the boys, when girls clash there is a meanness, particularly between Angela and Judy (Karen Fields), the latter the boys wish to get with because she has… matured physically since last summer. Although Judy commands many of the boys’ attention, she covets a special kind of attention that Paul (Christopher Collet) gives Angela.
In a way, the mystery is not reliant upon revealing the identity of the killer. Anyone who is paying attention half the time is bound to notice that whenever something unpleasant happens to Angela—for instance, a threat of molestation, humiliation in when it comes to romance, or being thrown into the lake fully clothed—the incident is conveniently followed by a kill. Clearly, the murderer is someone who is either close to Angela (her cousin Ricky played by Jonathan Tiersen who gives a natural but standout performance), someone who admires her from afar or nearby (Collet who shares cute chemistry with Rose), or it could be Angela herself. I enjoyed that who is doing the killing is not all that important. What matters more is why.
And therein lies the picture’s biggest shortcoming: the screenplay fails to dig deeply enough when it comes to the psychological angle of its curious story. We are presented two or three flashbacks that may hint at a possible motive, but the connective tissues among these scenes are neither written nor executed in such a way that is truly compelling, however unique. It is a shame because gender roles coupled with societal expectations is one of the main themes of the story, but the screenplay is either undercooked or not as informed as it thinks it is. Without revealing too much, I believe that in order to subvert an idea, it must be understood fully.
Regardless, I found “Sleepaway Camp” to be worthwhile. I admired its ability to take risks (even some of the robotic and awkward acting can be very amusing) and its willingness to take a strange idea of a twist and run to the finish line held high. It could have used ten to fifteen more minutes to explain, but argument can be made that it isn’t necessary because the punchline has been delivered. What is there to say when the point itself is to shock or horrify? Another element I liked: not only are kills quite varied but the cosmetics and special effects are quite eye-catching. I wanted to look closer at the burns, the bee stings, the face of a person who had drowned and been in the water overnight.