The Baker family has suffered a great tragedy. While boating on the lake one day John Baker and his two children, Angela and Peter, are run down by a wayward ski boat.
Jumping ahead eight years we learn that Angela, the lone survivor, has been adopted by her (very) eccentric aunt, Martha. Aunt Martha is sending her son, Ricky, and Angela off to Camp Arawak for the summer. Young Ricky is athletic, outgoing, boisterous and already familiar with the camp, proving that he will likely assimilate easily. Shy, nearly mute, doe-eyed Angela, however, looks like easy pickings, and sure enough it isn’t long before some of the kids (and adults) come out of the woodwork to torment her.
But shortly after Angela’s torment begins, people around camp start suffering from mysterious ‘accidents’ and begin dying. Who could the killer be? Overprotective cousin, Ricky? The clearly paranoid day manager? Someone from Angela’s tragic past? Or could it possibly be poor, quiet Angela herself?
Nope. Nadda. Couldn’t be. No way.
Sleepaway Camp falls into kind of a weird spot in the whole ‘mass killer at summer camp’ sub-genre. For one, it doesn’t feature some lumbering psycho picking people off in auteur mode, and for another the victims are, shockingly, not primarily the camp counselors, but rather the younger campers the counselors are supposed to be watching. That by itself makes the film a bit more unsettling, because really, what’s more frightening than someone going around killing kids? But some of the film’s tone also comes across as if it’s trying to be fun and lighthearted. Add in a heaping dose of campiness (I’m sorry, but that’s really the only way to describe some of the acting and ridiculous outfits) and you have a film that sometimes feels like it’s suffering from a bipolar episode and you’re unwittingly going along for the ride.
Please, dude. For the love of all that is holy, put on different pants.
Sleepaway Camp also differentiates itself from the pack by dropping in moments of complete normalcy into the story that have little to do with the murdin’ plot. The kids tease one another, the boys ruffhouse in their cottage, the kids interact awkwardly at a social and there’s an innocuous baseball game thrown in for good measure. For younger audience members, they’re likely all very relatable ‘camp’ moments. In many ways, it feels almost like it’s more of a teen drama than a horror film. But then the movie comes back and reminds you that it is supposed to be a horror film by balancing those moments of child normalcy with more ‘adult’ moments and throws in a paranoid, sixty-year-old day manager who’s clearly hoping to get lucky with one of the counselors and an audaciously brazen chief who has no compunction against vocalizing his pedophilic intentions towards the campers to his uncaring co-workers.
My only issue with this film is that none of you died a horrible, painful death.
Which brings us to the characters. With the notable exception of one person, everyone here is a pretty easily identifiable trope and thus exactly what he appears to be. Despite the film’s ambitious inclusion of several character arcs, don’t expect there to be any redemptions or last-minute changes of heart. There’s never really any question about who’s going to end up on the chopping block or not. Be nice to Angela, and you’re probably safe. But once Angela has been wronged it’s a good assumption that, at the very least, someone is going to get boiled to death.
In this case, I meant that literally.
One of the main things slasher fans judge a slasher by is the creative ways that characters meet their untimely demise. While the deaths in Sleepaway Camp do contain a couple of mundane genre staples (a drowning, a good-ole’ shower stabbing) there is also a death by beehive, a death by curling iron and a death by arrow to the neck. So, not anything too exciting, but it is a marked improvement from your typical ‘just stab them in the chest’ fare.
What a lot of slasher fan probably won’t like is the surprisingly sparse amount of blood and nudity. With the exception of the ending, blood is kept to a minimum, with a lot of what you do see either happening just out of view of the camera, or shrouded in darkness. And the same thing can be said for much of the violence in general. While some of the deaths are horrible, don’t expect to see much of the gruesomeness happen on screen. For instance, one boy is nearly beaten to death, but all the viewer sees of this is the guy who’s throwing the punches. You know the boy is there, but you only see the after effects of the beating, you never see the boy physically getting beat or the fists making contact with him on the screen.
Admittedly, the snake in the mouth is a nice touch.
As for the nudity….well, it’s there, but those who typically seek out films for such things are going to again be disappointed. Usually, nudity in horror movies is meant to either titillate the audience or, if the director is trying to be fancy, to be a metaphorical visual representation of voyeurism. But here, what little there is, is primarily made for laughs and shock value. Don’t get me wrong, it utilizes it quite well in both forms, especially the later, but some people are going to be put off by it. Especially when one considers that all of the nudity involves males and much of the film contains a lot of homoerotic undertones. This may be one of the few camp-related movies I can think of where I realized mid-viewing that most of the boys were wearing even skimpier outfits than the girls. Is it meant to be some subtle commentary on sexuality in the 80s? With some of the other themes going on in the film, I suspect it’s highly likely. But who knows. All I know is that I found it very amusing, though I do suspect that many a straight male is going to find it slightly off-putting.
I think this was meant to be shocking. I actually thought this was a sweet moment, but whatevs.
So, you implied about it being too ‘gay’ if there were no girls to accompanying you, but you didn’t let that stop you either….
So, is Sleepaway Camp any good? Well, it’s hard to say. I think it’s actually better put together than a lot of slashers from the 80’s. Compared to some of its contemporaries it’s got some unique ideas, it’s engaging, it’s well paced and it actually looks and sounds pretty damn good. Sure, the acting can be a bit hokey, but the campers are mostly played by kids, so the hokey-ness feels a bit more genuine in its execution. Plus, it’s got a twist ending that actually may end up surprising you.
At the same time though, the movie also feels horribly dated. When placed next to the slick, gore-filled films of today it comes out looking pretty tame. It’s also got some…interesting things to say about homosexuality. And while I’m still not 100% sure about exactly what those things are, I’m 99% sure that whatever it is trying to say would likely set the LGBT movement back a good 40+ years. Then again, I’m not at all sure how much thought went into the implications of that shock ending beyond the initial thought of ‘wouldn’t it be a cool if…?’, so I’m not really sure how intentional those implications are.
Regardless, if you can look past its flaws, Sleepaway Camp is still a uniquely fun slasher/teen drama that fans of the genre will likely enjoy. You just might not want to watch it with some of your more socially conscious friends.
Sleepaway Camp is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
It has also recently received a very nice Blu-ray release along with Sleepaway Camp II and Sleepaway Camp III, thanks to Shout! Factory.