Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Filmera is having a viewing party with this movie this tonight, Sunday, October 7th! We start the film at 8PM. Feel free to join us on Twitter for discussion.

This review does not contain important plot spoilers! I’ll skirt around the plot details as much as possible but I will talk about the acting and the kills and pretty much everything other than the big stuff. If you want a completely blind experience, watch it before reading the review! It’s worth it!

Sleepaway Camp stands apart from other Friday the 13th camp slasher contemporaries by its sheer audacity, creativity, and fun mediocrity. That’s a lot of -ity’s, but if there was ever a case for an incompetent train wreck that warrants your full attention, it’s Sleepaway Camp.

Yet all your attention in the film is going to be going to ridiculously tiny shorts, so take that for what you will.

Director Robert Hiltzik was an NYU film alum among Spike Lee and Ang Lee. After school, he sought to put his heart and soul into this little slasher flick. He based the setting on a camp from his childhood. He even put in most of his own money for the production of the film. Hiltzik’s mother passed away in preproduction and with the insurance money he was able to contribute $300,000 dollars to the production. He dedicated the film to her. It released in a limited run at theaters and was a commercial success. Hiltzik stopped making movies after this and only started again in the last ten years when he heard about the cult success of the film.

The plot of Sleepaway Camp is straightforward on paper and messy in action. After a family tragedy, Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) is sent to live with her aunt and cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Eight years later Angela and Ricky go to a summer camp where they struggle to fit in. Ricky used to be popular but finds himself among the younger campers, and Angela is scarred by her previous trauma and her ongoing silence and reluctance to connect with people leads to bullies ridiculing her and predators attacking her. There seems to be a killer at the camp however, watching over the two. This culminates in a final night that can only be called a massacre.

This girl looks at the camera like I look at people that still wear crocs.

So why is it messy in action? Hiltzik’s poor directing skills and modest budget really show in the film. Hiltzik screams film student, but that’s better than amateur. He understands a lot of what makes a movie work and goes out of his way to insert symbolism and mature themes in the film, but they’re merely ventures that explore the mediocrity. He shows no regard for continuity, likable characters, or proper pacing. Every character in this movie looks the same, they act poorly (most of these actors are actual children) with inappropriate emotions, and ultimately tries to serve a plot and a tone that Hiltzik cannot handle.

I gotta say though, it’s fun. Everything I just said is true, but you don’t take your eyes off the screen. When there’s a ten minute baseball sequence for absolutely no reason whatsoever you still laugh at the absurdity of the dialogue and how short the shorts are. Like John Stockton short. You laugh at the errors, like the cop who has a fully grown mustache investigating the canoe murder but who clearly wears the worst fake mustache the cinematic world has ever seen before eventually he resorts to wearing grease. There’s a group of children clearly under the age of ten who are murdered in their sleeping bags because they threw sand. That’s the kind of logic that permeates the entire film, the kind of logic that would only make sense to an auteur divorced from reality.

It’s Ed Wood meets Tommy Wiseau meets David Lynch, and that’s a movie that can’t exist anywhere else.

Hiltzik’s creativity and whatever competence he has show up in the weirdest places. Thankfully, that includes the kills. There is only one typical knife kill in the film, the others have some gimmicky effects and concepts. This includes boiling someone’s skin, a particularly nasty bee-hive attack, and a creepy use of a curling iron. A lot of these kills also serve thematic purpose. All of them involve a Freudian angle, and water is commonly used as an underlying factor throughout the entire film. The unlikable characters who dominate the film work as the perfect victims, such as the pedophile cook and the mean girl Judy. Certain scenes that establish tone are also done effectively; if you ask me the first shots of the film showing the closed down campgrounds might be the most chilling part of the film.

I’ve tied a string around my finger to remember something… what was it? Oh yes! Yes! This movie was directed by a lunatic!

Other competence is shown in some of the more careful performances. Rose’s Angela walks a beautiful line between scarred and scary, her vacant unblinking stare shows a volatile fragility. It’s a great performance. Desiree Gould’s performance as Aunt Martha Thomas? This is the stuff dreams are made of. She has two very short scenes in the film, both utterly captivating. It feels like she knows the movie she’s in, and the type of character she is, and she delivers that dialogue in a way closer to expressionism than the director probably envisioned. It’s great.

Not to go into too many spoilers but to discuss something important to the legacy of the film, sexuality is a huge theme in the film, and it’s not done in the most graceful of ways. The rampant and comedic use of pedophilia, and the approach to homosexuality, are particularly uneasy. I think the movie is more genuine in its approach than some critics say. I think if this movie wasn’t clearly so personal to Hiltzik it could be condemned for such politics, but it never goes into hate. It probes trauma and sexuality and identity and the line blurs and it just doesn’t blur in a settling way because of the context (it’s an 80s slasher!) and the inappropriate handling of the material.

It’s absolutely worth watching. Could not recommend highly enough. I’ve been holding back this entire review, just trying to give everyone a little taste and a little depth to really let people enjoy their first time watching it. Watch it as soon as you can, with as many people who don’t know about it as you can, and enjoy it. Your life will not be the same once the credits roll.