By 1983 there had been so many slasher films – both independent and studio financed – that the best way for a movie to stand out amongst the pack was by adding a ‘money shot.’ Friday the 13th had the arrow-though-the-neck gag, The Burning had the raft massacre and Just Before Dawn had the fist-down-the-throat finale. Sleepaway Camp, meanwhile, had a chick with a dick. In fact, Robert Hiltzik’s directorial debut was loaded with so many taboos (a paedophile chef being the most unpleasant) it was a wonder it was ever made. Allegedly inspired by an incident from his childhood, Hiltzik was just twenty five when he wrote and directed this deviant and bizarre summer camp slasher, with its various sexual subtexts and twist ending guaranteeing Sleepaway Camp a cult following. Several sequels would follow but the original would remain the most unique and unsettling of the series.
Enjoying a day at the lake, John (Dan Tursi) and his children, Angela (Colette Lee Corcoran) and Peter (Frank Sorrentino), sit leisurely in a sailboat whilst they watch the various other vacationers having fun. The two youngsters eventually cause the boat to overturn, sending them all into the water. Further up the lake, Craig (Paul Poland) is riding his motorboat with Mary Ann (Alyson Mord), whilst their friend Dolores (Carol Robinson) is waterskiing behind them. Suddenly the boat finds itself crossing baths with the family and the father and one of his kids are mowed down, killing them instantly. John’s ‘friend,’ Lenny (James Paradise), who had accompanied the family, looks on helplessly. Eight years pass and Angela (Felissa Rose) is now in her early teens and living with her creepy Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould). Since the accident, Angela has become a shy and awkward soul, unable to cope with the loss of her family.
With the summer holidays arriving, Angela and her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) are sent away to Camp Arawak. The staff are made up of a selection of despicable and unpleasant characters, including the obnoxious owner, Mel (Mike Kellin) and the chef, Artie (Owen Hughes), who seems to have an unhealthy appetite for young children. Upon arrival, Angela meets Ricky’s friend Paul (Christopher Collet), whom she seems to share a connection with. Ricky’s girlfriend from the previous summer, Judy (Karen Fields), now seems to have distanced herself from him and looks down on Angela like she is a freak. One of Judy’s friends, Meg (Katherine Kamhi), informs the head counselor Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo) that Angela has not been eating, but matters become worse when Ronnie brings her to meet Artie, who takes an instant shine to her. But when he takes her into the pantry and begins to unzip his trousers, Ricky manages to catch them in time.
Some time later, as Artie is preparing a meal in a huge pot a figure appears behind him. Grabbing and thrusting him forward, Artie begs for his life, indicating that the perpetrator is a ‘kid.’ But as he falls forward the pot loses its balance and the boiling water pours over him. Desperate to keep the news from the counselors, Mel asks another cook, Ben (Robert Earl Jones), to fill in for Artie whilst he tries to avoid the parents hearing about the incident. Angela continues to keep herself distanced from any social activities, including skinny dipping. In fact, the only person who she seems comfortable around is Paul, who is obviously attracted to her. But as the bodies soon begin to pile up, suspicion immediately falls on Angela, mainly due to her odd behaviour, but eventually the truth is revealed in one of the most twisted endings to any slasher film.
It is impossible to review Sleepaway Camp without discussing the ending, so those who have yet to see it should probably stop reading about now. Whereas most other films in the slasher genre would boast a final girl, the one present in Sleepaway Camp defies all expectations. For a start, whilst they are usually shy and uncomfortable with the usual teenage activities, Angela is almost mute throughout the story, causing most of the other kids to either ridicule or just ignore her altogether. The fact that it is not revealed in the opening sequence which of John’s children actually died seems irrelevant as Angela appears in the following scene, but once the twist ending is revealed it becomes clear that the audience have been tricked for the last hour and a half. With the real Angela having perished along with her father, Aunt Martha had adopted the surviving child, Peter, but having always wanted a daughter decides to dress the young boy up as a girl.
The final revelation, where Angela stands naked with the severed head of Paul in her hand, may seem somewhat far fetched but is the sort of image that stays with a viewer long after the film has ended. Despite the scene basically showing a young boy’s penis, the effect was achieved by the filmmakers finding an eighteen year old student and loading him up on alcohol, before attaching a Felissa Rose mask over his face. The scene may not be entirely plausible or even logical, but there is very little about Sleepaway Camp which is normal. Hiltzik had fashioned a disturbing tale, full of every type of cretin imaginable, and whilst the film often fails to convince, the sheer surrealism of the script and Rose’s convincing performance help cover up its shortcomings. An acquired taste for sure, but those interested in a slasher that’s a little different may take great pleasure in this.