Even though I never went to summer camp, this movie reminds me of being a kid during the 80s – the shorts are short, the socks are long, the shirts are half, and the hair is business in the front, party in the back. In fact, when I consider movies that epitomize the concept of “cheesy 80s horror movie”, Sleepaway Camp is typically the first to come to mind and it might just be my favorite horror movie of all time. That’s not to say I think it’s the best horror movie of all time, but if I’m picking my favorites based on which movies I enjoy watching and rewatching the most, this one is always near the top.
Sleepaway Camp opens with a scene showing a father and his two children become the unfortunate victims of a boating accident that takes the lives of the father and one of the children. The rest of the movie is set eight years after the accident with the surviving child Angela (Felissa Rose) now living with her aunt Martha (Desiree Gould), going off to summer camp with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Her first year at camp, Angela is shy and (if we’re being honest) a little bit weird and gets picked on by the other kids and camp counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi, Silent Madness) even though Ricky, a camp veteran, does his best to protect her. It’s not long before “accidents” begin claiming the lives of the bullies, throwing the camp into a panic.
Sleepaway Camp was writer/director Robert Hiltzik’s first, and for all intents and purposes, last movie. He started with an idea for an ending and worked backwards, drawing from his childhood summer camp experiences, until he had a complete film. He cast mostly young, inexperienced actors including fourteen-year-old Felissa Rose who was great in the lead role of Angela Baker (no relation to yours truly, as far as I know) and made his movie for around $350,000. Considering its low budget, Sleepaway Camp had a decent return at the box office, but as with most movies destined for cult-classic status, it took quite a few years before it really began to amass a following. Hiltzik, apparently hoping for better short-term results, decided to walk away from filmmaking to become a lawyer, and it wasn’t until 2003 that he became aware of his movie’s late-blooming popularity. After a twenty-year hiatus, Hitzlik decided he would give directing another go and created the truly awful, direct-to-video, movie-like product known as Return to Sleepaway Camp. He really should have quit while he was ahead.
The reason I like this movie so much is that it manages to hit the sweet spot of being well-done enough to be entertaining in its own right and campy enough to push all the right so-bad-it’s-good buttons. The story is interesting, the kill scenes are creative, and the pacing is good, but there’s also plenty of what-the-hell moments, bad dialog, and over-the-top acting for it to rank among some of the cheesiest movies I’ve seen. There’s Artie the pedophile cook ogling tween girls (“Look at all that young fresh chicken”). There’s leering, sneering Judy who is seethingly evil in the way only teenage girls can be (She always seems to come out of nowhere when entering a scene, at one point appearing to pop up from a hole in the ground). There’s Meg (that’s M-E-G), the hottest girl in the camp, who is excited about her “date” with Mel (Mike Kellin, Just Before Dawn) the 60-year-old owner of the camp who looks pretty good for an 85-year-old. And then there’s Aunt Martha who just has to be seen to be believed. Throw in a closing-credits power ballad terrible enough to make the members of Stryper roll over in their graves (They’re dead, right?) and no entertainment stone is left unturned. Yes, there’s a lot to love about Sleepaway Camp, but without a doubt, its most memorable part is its ending, and it would be impossible to do a proper review without talking about it. This obviously means there are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie, skip down to the last paragraph and then come back after you’ve watched.
The final scene of the movie shows a naked Angela on the beach holding a knife, standing over a body no longer attached to a head. Then, as the camera pans out, it is revealed that Angela’s body is, in fact, attached to a dick. It turns out it was the boy who survived the boat crash at the beginning of the movie, but crazy Aunt Martha wanted a girl and so raised him as Angela. The scene is simultaneously surprising, chilling, weird, and funny and remains one of the most satisfying twist-endings of any horror movie I’ve seen. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it, and it’s those final few seconds of footage, I think, that kept Sleepaway Camp from being just another forgotten slasher flick. To pull off the effect, the filmmakers found a local college kid willing (after downing a six-pack) to put on an Angela mask and stand naked on the beach. As far as I can tell, the owner of horror’s most famous penis is unknown, and apparently he wants to keep it that way. I suppose I can’t blame him. (The role was uncredited, although according to IMDb it was played by someone named Archie Liberace which is most certainly a fake name.)
Sleepaway Camp is a blast and a must for horror fans, but I think many who claim not to like horror movies (weirdos) will have fun with it too, particularly anyone who grew up in the 80’s. There’s not much scare and only a moderate amount of gore, but there’s enough cheese that I still find something new every time I watch. Give it a try and it may quickly become one of your favorites as well.
“Yo, Angela, how come you’re so fucked up?”