(Note: while I discuss the ending of the movie a number of times here, I’ve chosen to leave out exactly what happens. Yes, the movie has been out for 32 years but it is best seen without spoilers).
Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp is a magnificent 1980s horror, one of the purest definitions of “so bad it’s good”. If it had had a larger budget (the total was around $350 000) it may have actually been a great piece of horror. But what we got was a campy exploitation slasher film with one hell of a memorable ending. Sleepaway Camp was followed by a few uninspiring sequels but none could match the ‘glory’ of their predecessor. The movie has gained a cult following over the years and it seems like it may well see a reboot in the near future. Considering the how Evil Dead was adapted to modern audiences, it’s likely to be grittier and bloodier, which may be a good idea because it would be impossible to even attempt to recreate the horror of the original.
Sleepaway Camp follows Angela (Felissa Rose), a traumatised young girl who witnessed her father and brother die in a boating accident, and her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) as they spend their summer in Camp Arawak. Soon after their arrival, anyone with malicious intentions against Angela is picked off one by one in gruesome circumstances. With so many people bullying Angela over the course of the film, it’s no wonder there is such high body count.
According to Hiltzik, the major inspiration for the film came from his desire to get “into the heart of the film business” as soon as possible after completing grad school. He knew horror sold well and so he began by developing a beginning and an ending then filling in the middle later. What was important was to have an ending that would have audiences talking long after the film ended. And in that respect, he succeeded.
Besides the twist ending, part of the movie’s charm is just how violently 80s it is, especially in its fashion sense (or lack thereof) and its script (there are some fantastic one liners). The acting is amateur at best but oh so endearing. Special mention has to go to Angela’s main bully Judy (Karen Fields). There is almost no reason for her to be so mean to Angela but it’s great to see how bitchy she can be just because.
From the very beginning it’s hard to mistake this movie for any other time period. There are so many high-waisted shorts/pants, tight shirts and so much permed hair everywhere. The men wearing short shorts (that leave nothing to the imagination) and crop tops unironically means you can’t take anything seriously.
For its budget, however, the special effects are actually not bad. The gruesome deaths do pack a punch (if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief). They are gory and over the top and yet are comparable to some other classic horror movies such as An American Werewolf in London.
Although it’s the ending that people remember most, it’s actually the culmination of everything that has happened before it that makes it so shocking. Unlike other low budget B-grade horror movies, Sleepaway Camp has not been forgotten. 32 years on and it continues to gain fans. It’s not a masterpiece, not by a long shot, but it’s great fun.