By the fall of 1983 when Sleepaway Camp was released, slasher movies were beginning their downturn. It’s easier to see this is a lower knock-off of Friday the 13th, itself an attempt to cash in on the success of Halloween. At this point, filmmakers had to have an ace up their sleeve to keep it from being just the same old thing. And this movie does, but more on that later.
The movie begins in the summe of 1975 when a same-sex male couple, John Baker (Dan Tursi) and his partner, Lenny (James Paradise) are enjoying a nice day at the lake. John is in a sail boat while Lenny is on shore. John’s young children, Peter (Frank Sorrentino) and Angela (Colette Lee Corocoan) prank John by capsizing the boat. But little do they know, a motor boat being driven by clueless teenagers with a teenage girl water skiing are heading their way. The skier tries to warn them, but it’s too late as the boat heads right toward the capsized boat killing John and one of the children.
Flash forward to eight years later, Angela (Felissa Rose) appears to have survived the accident but is still traumatized as she is shy and hardly speaks. Living with her eccentric aunt, Martha Thomas (Desriee Gould), and her overprotective son, Ricky, they are sent away to a Camp Arawak for the summer. This is the first year for Angela as Ricky has gone in the past. Ricky immediately sees an old friend, Paul (Christopher Collet), who takes a liking to Angela.
But he is the only one. Because of her meek and introverted behavior, Angela is the subject of much ridicule and bullying by other campers and counselors. Yet things start happening to people who mess with Angela. When a perverted cook, Artie (Owen Hughes), tries to sexually assault her, he is interupted by Ricky. Later when Artie is boilling a huge pot of water, an unseen person causes an accident resulting in the pot spilling boiling water all over him. He is sent away in an ambulance but the camp director, Mel Kostic (Mike Kellin), considers it an accident and offers to give the other cooks raises and promotions if they keep quiet about Artie’s behavoir.
Campers Kenny (John E. Dunn) and Mike (Tom Van Dell) meet unfortunate ends after mocking Angela. Kenny is killed but in a way that it looks like he drowned while taking a canoe out on the lake at night. Mike is killed when he is locked in a toilet stall and a hive of bees are placed inside through a cut in the screen window. The bees attack him stinging him to the death. This along with the incident involving Artie cause many parents to pull their kids out of the camp leaving only a couple of dozen.
Mel, frustrated that this will cause him to close down the camp in the future, suspect Ricky as the only behind all the incidents as he spotted Angela being hit with water balloons earlier. Angela starts to be attracted to Paul, but it seem Paul might just be interested in her just to fool around. Then one night when the camp throws a social, more killings occur with it finally being revealed who is behind it? As if you didn’t know already. (READ NO MORE BECAUSE THERE ARE SPOILERS.) It’s revealed that when Peter and Angela were younger, they observe John and Lenny making out. This has made her uncomfortable around Paul who wants to make out with Angela.
SPOILER ALERT!! In anger, Mel beats Ricky unconscious after finding the body of Meg (Katherine Kahmi), who he was interested in, suspecting him of her murder. But it’s revealed that Angela is the killer. Or should I say it’s Peter. In 1975, John and Angela were killed in the boating accident. Peter was sent to live with Martha since she was next of kin and it’s 1975 so placing him in the custody of Lenny was totally out of the question. Martha decided to raise Peter as a girl calling her Angela instead as she already had a son, Ricky.
The revelation that Angela is actually Peter might have been groundbreaking for 1983. Unfortunately, in recent years, it’s been criticized for the depiction of a transgender person as the killer. Yet, I would argue that Peter/Angela isn’t transgender. She’s really a boy and doesn’t suffer from gender dysphoria the way other transgender people do. The trauma of having witnessed the death of a parent and sibling at an early age without any grief counseling had a lasting effect on Peter/Angela. Also being forced at an early age to live your life as someone else leads Peter/Angela to their behavoir. The trigger was when Artie tried to sexually assault them.
It’s not a fair representation of the LGBTQIA community, but in 1983, there was still some transphobia that was common. Take Terror Train released in 1980 where the killer is revealed to have disguised himself as a woman. That being said, the revelation in Sleepaway Camp comes off more as a gotcha moment. Peter/Angela kills those who are bullies and cruel. Yet there is a sense at the end, Peter/Angela has crossed a line that goes beyond getting revenge.
If you take away the twist ending, Sleepaway Camp is impressive slasher considering how little they had to work with. With only a $350,000 budget, it does look impressive for a schlock B-movie, even though some special effects would make Ed Wood cringe, such as a really bad fake moustache. The kills are very gruesome. This isn’t just stabbing someone with a knife, even though that does happen, the cruel people get what’s coming to them. (Hey, who wouldn’t want to see a sleazy pedophile covered in boiling water?) And it’s obvious the bullies’ behavoir goes beyond the normal teasing and name calling into a level of sadistic cruelty.
Slasher movies have made us almost want to root for the bad guys. Who wasn’t bullied in school and hasn’t watched the Carrie prom scene with a little smile as everyone gets what’s coming to them? Even that P.E. coach is to blame. And while the Friday the 13th movies up to this point only featured 20-somethings pretending to be teenagers, there’s actually teens and kids in this movie. Rose was only 13 at the time of filming while Tiersten was 17. Collet, who had a brief amount of success in some movies, such as The Manhatten Project, was 14.
It’s definitely a time capsule of the early 1980s with the fashion and the hairstyles. That’s part of what makes these movies so memorable, even though a joke on the TV show Robot Chicken parodied how forgotten this movie was. It reportedly made $11 million at the box office and contemporary critics favor it despite the twist ending. There were two sequels filmed back-to-back that up the camp level but featured Pamela Springsteen (sister of you guessed it) as Angela. They’re not near as good as this one.
Robert Hitlzik, who wrote and directed Camp, made a direct-to-video sequel, Return to Sleepaway Camp, releaded in 2008 that I haven’t seen but have heard it’s pretty terrible. Part of the allure is that this movie resides during that peak time in cinema where veteran actors were cast along up and comers, most of which went on to do TV work or horror movies. The twist ending would no way fly today unless the filmmaker’s goal was to piss off a bunch of people.
What do you think? Please comment.