Retro Review: Sleepaway Camp

Sleepaway Camp is a classic slasher film but not entirely for the best reasons. While creepy and disturbing, it shows its age constantly; and because of that, it has become a cult classic that has endured for 40 years.

For those unfamiliar with the story, cousins Ricky and Angela are going off to camp, however Angela is still dealing with trauma from her childhood when she witnessed her family die in a boating accident and as a result doesn’t speak much. Arriving at camp, Angela struggles to fit in with the other girls and has trouble with the staff. Soon after, violent incidents, deemed accidents, start happening to anyone that crosses Angela’s path. As camp continues, tensions grow along with the body count until the culprit’s identity is revealed.

The film’s plot is a trope of horror that is often accredited to Friday the Thirteenth: killer offs campers, staff, and councilors. It is surely what the filmmakers were going for, however this is one of the very few that actually has campers in it and even more of a rarity, has campers murdered.

The execution of the film itself is less than stellar.

Much like it’s camp counterpart Friday the Thirteenth, this film uses the camera as the killer’s perspective in order to hide their identity. This feature works as well as it does in Friday the Thirteenth, however the blatant shock and surprise associated with the reveal works only once.

One thing the film does well in the script is the capturing of the kids. From the moment they arrive at the camp, they cannot be controlled. They come across as young teenagers in the most true sense. They are chaotic, childish, and mean. Scream is often given credit for having teenagers with black humor and acting like real teenagers, but Sleepaway Camp does it a bit better. One of the most memorable lines is from a baseball game : “Eat shit and die, Ricky!” and the reply “Eat shit and live, Bill.”

The cast of campers is wide, with a number of minor characters, too many to get into, but it is worth noting that they do an amiable job of making it feel diverse and full. However, at times the film seems to get distracted by them. The boys play practical jokes, the girls bully Angela frequently, and then the aforementioned baseball game that doesn’t have any point to it.

The bully of Angela throughout the film is vicious. Angela is a bizarre character that we are expected to sympathize with, which isn’t too hard after seeing what she went through, and what she’s been forced to put up with, namely her Aunt Martha, but her constant staring is creepy and definitely something that would trigger teenagers to act. Angela was played by newcomer Felissa Rose. Angela comes across as shy and timid and is a bit of a one note character and there doesn’t seem to be too much for Rose to do with the character, but she does well nonetheless.

Alongside Angela is Ricky, her cousin, played by Jonathan Tiersten. Tiersten is the best actor of the bunch and is given a wide range of emotions to work with that show off his abilities. While being younger, Tiersten plays a likable, believable, and normal character that grounds the movie. It’s a role that is very needed with the rest of the cast.

Rounding out the family, and certainly worth discussing is Aunt Martha. Aunt Martha is the most bizarre character in this film, and potentially cinema, which might be saying a lot, but I will stand by it. The character is weird, but it would be hard to believe that the actress Desiree Gould didn’t bring something to it and imagining anyone else in the role is hard to do. With limited screen time, Gould gives a memorable performance that ties the film together.

The deaths in the film are effective over all with original kills and gruesome visuals, particularly a scalding and bee stings. However the opening boat deaths demonstrated how low of a budget the film had when face down bodies float across the camera. Thankfully the rest of the film improves on that with flat out better effects or implied action by the murderer, demonstrating the adage of less is more.

The film at the core of the horror and gore is young teens getting murdered and dealing with sexuality. This is not a film for everyone by any means. Further, the counselors at the camp are among some of the worst you could imagine. Meg, one of Angela’s counselors partakes and encourages Angela’s bullying. Artie, the cook is a predator. And at the top of them all is Mel, who connects with Meg, which feels wrong in several ways.

Warning, spoilers below.

The deeper story, the inciting incident seemingly for everything else, is the way that Aunt Martha raised Angela and her very bizarre childhood. The implications the few scenes that we see from that carry tons of weight. The film attempts to use sexuality and gender identity in a twisted way that doesn’t age well. The inclusion of a homosexual relationship for the father seems to imply that it negatively affected Peter, and then the forced transition by Aunt Martha is horrid. That alone makes Aunt Martha the greatest monster in the film.

However the film also seems to imply that this has turned Peter/Angela into a murderous monster as well because of the transition. This is a giant leap in logic and doesn’t make much sense, much less have any supporting evidence. Doing this fed into a negative movement against the queer community that continued for years in film.

Unfortunately, the entire film ends up resting on that premise. The film’s great reveal is meant to shock without really explaining or wrapping up in any way what we’ve seen. It’s a great reveal in horror history, standing right there with the Psycho fruit cellar scene with mother, but it doesn’t leave any real answers other than transgender and queer individuals are twisted murders by the Kuleshov effect. This is the greatest failure of the film.

Sleepaway Camp is a classic horror film but isn’t a great movie. It’s a mix of results on individual parts and bad overall but is going to be on required viewing lists for slasher fans, and horror fans at large, and also a candidate for bad-movie-nights.

Screenwriter. Lover of horror.