In my youth, as a frequenter of mom and pop and national chain video stores, I thought I possessed the fine ability to sniff out a unworthy film simply from the box art. Sleepaway Camp always failed my test. The box illustration showed an adidas sneaker punctured by a butcher knife, the hallmark of a by the numbers slasher film.
I was wrong, I now know. What should have clued me in was how year after year, decade after decade, across all the stores, there always sat a copy of Sleepaway Camp. Other horror and exploitation films came and went, but Sleepaway Camp always justified its real estate on the shelf.
By 1983 slasher films resorted to gimmicks to differentiate themselves in a crowded market, normally this meant elaborate kill sequences. A harpoon straight to the camera! A stuntman on fire! Sleepaway Camp takes a different route. The gore and leavings from the kills are left more to the imagination, instead director Robert Hiltzik’s ragtag production adopts some pretty ambitious subtext.
Everything begins well enough for a genre entry. A man and his children are swimming in the lake when a motor boat strikes them down. Only one child survives. Flash forward eight years and Angela and Ricky are getting sent off to summer camp by a strange woman. Neither of whom resemble either of the children from the lake sequence. The tone of the film shifts dramatically here. The lake sequence was fairly realistic, but the woman addresses the two children in a sing-songy cadence. It’s a very exaggerated delivery, but also deliberate on the part of the production. The performance teases the fourth wall, when she looks to the camera to confide a rhetorical question to the audience. She mentions the need to forge doctor’s notes for the two children.
It takes a while to sort out, but Ricky is the woman’s son. Angela is her niece and also the sole survivor of the boating accident. It seems she is painfully shy, near catatonic. It takes days in camp before she utters a word. Some of the counselors were notified of Angela’s condition, but those assigned to her seem to resent the need to provide specialized care.
Angela’s not entirely defenseless. For one thing, Ricky is quick to jump to her aid, even if it means taking on a group of men who dwarf him. Angela too, can shift her doe eyed gaze into a piercing stare that disarms her tormentors through sheer intensity. But in the morass of summer camp, simple interactions lead to more torment for Angela. It’s not long before she’s cornered by a much older child molester, saved at the last moment by Ricky. Then the killings start….
Eventually we reach the ending. That ending.
I won’t spoil it, but at the same time themes in the movie point toward it anyway, so continue at your peril.
Sleepaway Camp is an exercise in confused and unresolved sexual tension, flipping the mores on their heads. The film practices gender reversal akin to Johnny Guitar. It’s the men who wear revealing clothes at this camp. It may have been more in fashion for men to wear short shorts and cutoff shirts during the eighties, but Sleepaway Camp goes much further than the contemporary styles. There’s a bodybuilder counselor who’s shorts look like speedos. Another male counselor leads a baseball game wearing the masculine equivalent of a halter top, which doesn’t cover more than his pecs.
Where there’s the promise of genre-standard female nudity, Sleepaway Camp pulls a bait and switch. At one point a group of boys try to convince their female counterparts to skinny dip. Failing miserably in their arguments, the boys strip and jump into the water. The girls walk away, still clothed, arms crossed over their chests.
It is interesting that while the male murder victims are dispatched in a number of gruesome ways (boiling, bees, decapitation), the couple female victims both are “penetrated” to death. The first by a knife and the second via a curling iron.
The themes around sexual confusion are made explicit by a flashback dream sequence where Angela spies her father in bed with another man. Then the siblings seem to make a game out of their nascent sexuality, clothed in their beds.
Puberty also provides a good deal of tension to the overall picture. This is one of the few summer camp films where most of the leads look to be of the camp-going age. Ricky and Angela are just on the cusp of puberty while other camp goers seem to be closer to full adulthood.