Angela lost her father and brother in a boating accident when she was just a small child. Eight years after the accident, she is still traumatised and has problems fitting in at school. The problems continue when she gets whisked off to summer camp with her cousin, Ricky, where she starts to get picked on by the other girls. However, anyone with sinister or less than honourable intentions towards Angela soon meets their comeuppance.
One of the most infamous slasher films of all time, Sleepaway Camp would have been just another face in the crowd and lost amongst the tidal wave of 80s slashers if it wasn’t for its controversial ending. Few self-respecting fans of horror are unaware of the shocking climax here, even if you have yet to see the film. But if you know nothing about it and are watching it for the first time, the finale hits you like a sucker punch to the ribs. You’ll not see it coming a mile away and you’ll still have to go back and double-take to make sure you didn’t imagine it.
The ending. Without giving anything away, it certainly comes out of left-field. Not just for the reveal of the killer but the connotations and implications of the startling final shot, a shot which has been seared on my mind since the very first time I saw it. Sleepaway Camp does hold a special place in my heart as it was one of the three films that I studied for my university dissertation on masculinity in horror films. Along with The Burning and A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddy’s Revenge, it provided me enough ammo to discuss the role of the ‘final girl’ and why it wasn’t commonplace in the genre for a ‘final boy.’ The twisted and warped implications of this final sequence in Sleepaway Camp is the exact reason why I chose this film to analyse and support my views. Raising questions about sexual repression, behaviour and how we as a society view and construct gender, I’ve been entirely sure whether the director and writer actually had some deeper messages to send or whether the ending was purely for shock value. Either way, it provided me with enough ammo to absolutely nail my dissertation to a tee.
Sleepaway Camp’s iconic ending works because of the way in which it portrays its protagonist in the run-up. The film does a great job of making Angela one of the most sympathetic leading characters you’re ever going to see in a slasher film. Doe-eyed, reserved and genuinely looking like she’s about to break down with all of the torment she receives, credit must be given to actress Felissa Rose for bringing the character to life in such a way. It’s hard not like her and, because of her quietly-spoken grace, it’s easier to hate those who try to take advantage of her. The fact that she hardly speaks helps matters immensely given the appalling nature of some of the other performances in the film. By default, Rose’s performance is the best by virtue of remaining silent.
The fact that Sleepaway Camp is set inside another dysfunctional summer camp will draw the inevitable Friday the 13th comparisons. Whilst the two films share many of the same low budget qualities and grimy appearance, Sleepaway Camp is more concerned with unsettling its audience with a variety of dodgy-looking characters and secretive sexual allusions. It’s certainly a more ‘dirty’ film than any of the Friday the 13ths, with an undercurrent of filth and depravity running through the whole thing, and it’s certainly more mean-spirited. The adults who worked at the camp are sleazy, perverted and vaguely paedophilic. The rest of the kids there are a messy mix of bitchy girls, borderline rapists and leering sickos. I wouldn’t wish any kid the misfortune of staying at this place over the summer.
Whilst the camp staff are on the receiving end of the lion’s share of the savage deaths, the young campers are not spared either. This adds in an unsettling element especially given that the actors portraying them actually were teenagers rather than over-30s pretending to be kids again. This meant no nudity or sex, something highly unusual for an 80s slasher, and gives Sleepaway Camp another unique selling point. Not only is there a lack of sex but even the gore quota has been reduced. The body count is acceptable and the deaths are fairly decent and creative (death by bee stings, death by boiling water, etc) but it’s not the goriest of displays. You mainly get to see the results of the kills rather than the gruesome acts but the make-up effects are decent here and, what’s worse, is that the camera tends to linger on the bodies a bit, adding to that voyeuristic, creepy vibe that runs all the way through this.
Still harbouring that grimy early 80s horror feel, Robert Hiltzik’s seedy slasher plods along rather pedestrianly for the most but it’s only in that final few shots that Sleepaway Camp truly cements itself as one of the greatest. It doesn’t rely on the usual sub-genre tricks to keep its audience entertained. Definitely a film that would never be made today, sit back and enjoy one of the ‘dirtiest’ horror films going. You’ll need a bath after watching.