Sleepaway Camp (1983) Review


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.

sc1Enjoying 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.

sc2Some 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.

sc3The 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.

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27 Responses to “ Sleepaway Camp (1983) Review ”

  1. This one is truly bizarre but insanely original. Really creepy film that suprisingly holds up well even today. Probably my all time favorite slasher.

  2. Not my favorite slasher by a long shot, but unique never the less. The slashers with the twists (I am thinking Happy Birthday To Me) stay fairly popular today versus your standard run of the mill slasher, so maybe those directors had it right to begin with. There are several other slashers that I would say were much better but Sleepaway Camp will always hold a special place in my heart.

  3. It’s a great movie! I like that the killer is a transgendred person. They aren’t often represented in horror movies. :) The same with gay characters. Many horror movies are quite homophobic, so this one is an important movie.

  4. Is that story about loading up a kid for the twist real?

  5. Am I the only one who thinks Sleepaway Camp is pretty homophobic? You can argue that Angela is not only confused about her gender but also her sexuality. This is due to Angela being raised by a gay couple and having homosexual feelings towards another boy.
    The film portrays homosexuality has something traumatic that can mess someone up and drive them to murder.

  6. ‘Many horror movies are quite homophobic’ – I’m sorry but I don’t really see that in horror. Just because most horror films don’t really feature gays doesn’t mean they’re homophobic. Most writers base characters on themselves or people they know, and if that writer has no one in their life who is gay then chances are they wouldn’t include one in their script. And there’s no point including one just for the sake of it as they probably would be cliched and stereotyped.

    The only way I would say a movie is homophobic is if its message is clearly against homosexuality. Not including a gay character in a script isn’t homophobic. And as for the comment that ‘The film portrays homosexuality has something traumatic that can mess someone up and drive them to murder,’ whilst I agree its representation of homosexuality is a little dubious I wouldn’t say that it is making a statement on what it is to be gay, I just think the writer chose for those specific characters to be gay. Maybe the Bakers are just a fu*ked up family! But I could be wrong…

  7. I may have been quick to comment. I blame Aunt Martha. If Angela/Peter had been raised by gay parents maybe he/she would have turned out different.
    If anything Angela’s confusion over her gender and sexuality is caused more by her Aunt than anything else.

  8. I definitely agree there! No insinuations were made as to what kind of person Angela would have become had her gay father survived, as they seemed a happy enough family. But the Aunt wanting a daughter and dressing up the boy and forcing him to live as a girl… well, look at the likes of Henry Lee Lucas and various other serial killers. It’s twisted childhoods like those that breed psychotics, not homosexuality.

  9. I made my original comments without having seen the film in ages. I rewatched it this afternoon. Before the accident the Baker family seem really happy. In fact they seem happier than some straight families. It looks like Dad is fairly open about his sexuality. Aunt Martha is the problem. Aunt Martha is the one who makes Peter someone he isnt. Maybe the true message behined Sleepaway Camp is be who you are and dont hide your true self

  10. Either that or don’t go living with your freaky aunt!

  11. I’m amazed Ricky didn’t get messed up having a mom like Martha!

  12. I think it may be because when she had Ricky she wanted a son, but by the time Peter came along she already had a boy and wanted a daughter. Had Ricky never been born then maybe Peter would have grown up normal. Wonder why Ricky never had an issue with his sister not really being a girl, unless he didn’t himself.

  13. Have you heard the two killer theroy? That both Ricky and Angela where behined the murders? It kinda makes sense. Im guessing Ricky knew Angela’s secret which is why he is so protective towards her.

  14. This is a great little slasher with some creative murders and a great twist ending.

  15. It’s not about homophobia, it’s about gender-identity. Well before the accident, Peter and Angela see their Daddy and his male lover kissing in bed, either pre or post-coital. Now, the case could be made that they are portrayed as a loving couple, but also the case could be made that they were irresponsible to conduct that where they could easily be spied on by children yet to discover their birds and the bees, little own the bees and the bees. Witness the next scene, Angela and Peter point to each other as the camera swirls around them – subtextually, they have gotten mixed up as to who is the boy and who is the girl because what they have just seen does not jive with what they are used to seeing portrayed in society. They are too young to process it all. Then Martha adds another layer of mindfuckery by dressing Peter as a girl.

  16. It’s an interesting point, but gay couples adopting children are quite a common thing these days and most of those children don’t become serial killers. It’s irresponsible to let your children catch you when you’re getting it on, but I think the Aunt’s decision to force Peter to live a life that goes against what he was beforehand is the primary reason for the way he grew up. Have you ever spoken to Robert Hiltzik about this?

  17. It doesn’t matter if its Daddy and his lover or Mommy and Daddy in the bed. Either way the kids will be confused.
    How may slasher movies are tied to a traumatic experience with hetrosexuality? Christmas Evil and Pieces come to mind. Neither of those films are labelled hetrophobic.
    I view the spinning bed scene has Peter becoming Angela. When their hands touch its a sign that the two identities have joined. Thats just my view though. I could be wrong and have been before

  18. ‘It doesn’t matter if its Daddy and his lover or Mommy and Daddy in the bed. Either way the kids will be confused.
    How may slasher movies are tied to a traumatic experience with hetrosexuality?’

    Damn good point there Jay. Sex is not an easy thing for young children to understand, regardless of whether it’s hetero or homosexual. All these other slasher villains that punish the sinful are usually viewing a heterosexual couple engaging in that kind of behaviour.

    I read something once where the critic tried to compare killers such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees to AIDS, where they are punished for their pre-marital sexual deeds. A bit of a stretch I feel, I don’t honestly believe that these filmmakers read too far into the subtext when they are creating these killers. Surely they are only seeing as far as the dollar sign!

  19. I found the Sleepaway Camp box set for $10 and was excited to finally see this. I already knew the ending from Going To Pieces. I honestly didn’t think this was that great, compared to all the other 80s slashers. I really don’t see what the fuss is, aside from the ending I thought it to be pretty bland and generic. The commentary was interesting though.

  20. I beg to differ, but only slightly. Keep in mind we’re talking a 1983 frame of mind: Kids seeing a man and woman kissing and naked in bed is still wrong, yes, however it is at least consistent with their views of normalacy as perceived through male/female union, enough that man on man would be confusing. But that was then and this is now, it’d be much harder to do the same scenes and make the same (possible) statement these days since we’re more queer-friendly – kids are being brought up to know of, and respect, diversity. But being dressed as another gender before you can make and understand the choice yourself is still gonna F you up, no matter what!

  21. It depends on how long Angela and Peter have been raised by gay parents. If its what they are used to then seeing Daddy in bed with another man would be shocking but would fit with how they where brought up. One thing I would like to add is that Angela and Peter aren’t shocked or traumatised by what they see. They are laughing and giggiling as though they are watching something naughty or dirty.

  22. The flashback (mostly the finger pointing at each other) is a good way of demonstrating Angela’s inner conflict is at which gender/identity she’s supposed to be. A thesis could really be written on the sexual under/overtones in SLEEPAWAY CAMP – it really pains me to see it written off as homophobic propaganda.

  23. Surely if they spent their lives with a gay father and his lover then they would consider that normalcy. Whereas kids who were used to a straight family would be shocked to see their father with another man, if that’s the house you were brought up in the only shock would be to catch your father having sex. Which would disgust me, regardless of who he was with. I just don’t think stating that having gay parents would breed the kind of psychotic behaviour shown in Sleepaway Camp. If this was true, wouldn’t the child of every gay couple be a homicidal maniac?

  24. To borrow a phrase from Christian the portrayl of sexuality in Sleepaway Camp is dubious. Im not sure if its homophobic or not. Sleepaway Camp is one of the most fascinating slashers ive seen. Ive only been posting comments here and ive enjoyed this debate over Sleepaway Camp

  25. I don’t consider Sleepaway Camp homophobic. The gay couple are basically portrayed as good, loving parents in the opening scene. Though there is a flashback of the twins giggling when they witness their father and stepfather cuddling, there is a sense that it was the tragedy itself and the parenting of weird Aunt Martha that screwed up little Angela.

    Horror movies are not necessarilly homophobic. Rituals incorporates a homosexual character in a classy and unapologetic way. Adrienne Barbeau was a likable Lesbian in Someone’s Watching Me! Savage Weekend has Mother Nicky, who is good with kids and is good to have on your side in a bar fight. One of the guys in Just Before dawn was supposed to have been gay, and while it goes unsaid, it does come across in the actor’s portrayal. And let’s not forget the wild Lesbians in Torso! ;)

  26. Sleepaway camp!!!!!!!

    I love the orginal movie poster / VHS cover.
    The note? Cool shit…

    This was a very disturbing film to watch as an 12 year old.
    I always considered this one of the first low budget films I ever saw. Cause dammit it was! LOL!
    Even though I really liked it (still have the orginal VHS tape) that ending with angela…the knife..and her flacid penis was a shock man. I have to say I HAD NO CLUE IT WOULD END THAT WAY! did anyone? For years after me and a group of friends would watch that and just laugh and laugh. I just didnt see it-(no pun intended)-coming ;) Although her humming while holding his head in her lap was well shot and very creepy. Whats with humming and little kids giggling that can be so damn creepy at times!!!? :)
    Ricky was my fav character at that time. I liked that he stood up for angela and didnt take any shit himself. Strong character.
    Over al a good low budget horror film that still works till this day.

  27. The original was decent enough, but I think the sequels are overrated. Especially 2 and 3.

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