A campy horror in more ways than one, Robert Hiltzik’s SLEEPAWAY CAMP is as demonic as it is peculiar. This 1983 picture is a wicked slasher, showing us a world that is insane and wholly recognizable. Its placement at a deliriously detached and amoral camp plays to the fears of anyone who’s been dropped off in the middle of nowhere to “enjoy the summer.”
Because summer camp is bound to notions of identity and conformity, the central conceit – and subsequent twist – of SLEEPAWAY CAMP is clever. We have kids struggling through a transitory social order; these are young people who aren’t that familiar with one another but still forge a societal hierarchy.
First, however, the tragedy. We meet Angela (Colette Lee Corcoran) and Peter (Frank Sorrentino) when they are young children summering with their father. Tragedy strikes. Fast-forward several years and we are told Angela’s living with her oddball aunt (Desiree Gould). Angela gets sent off to summer camp with cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten).
Camp is a living hell. Angela (Felissa Rose) is the quiet type who draws the attention of several tormenting girls, including Judy (Karen Fields) and the counsellor/enabler Meg (Katherine Kamhi). As some counsellors try to help Angela fit in, people start turning up dead. The camp owner (Mike Kellin) tries to hold everything together in his own way, but it’s no use. A killer is on the loose.
There’s something fascinating about how anarchic Camp Arawak is. Ricky has been there and done that, so he has a past with Judy and is kind of brash. He participates in pranks, teasing a boy in his own cabin and ensuring the pecking order is maintained. But he also defends Angela, sympathetically understanding the reason behind his cousin’s lack of social skills.
For the boys, it’s mostly part of the fun. Their bullying is seen as part of The Way Things Are. When the kid Ricky teases chases after him with a knife, it’s all in fun. The girls have it worse, exasperated by sweltering jealousy and odd sexual undertones. Consider Meg’s draw toward Kellin’s character as part of her psychosexual power dynamic.
Like many slashers, sex has a price. In SLEEPAWAY CAMP, the equation is more mystifying than usual. The final revelation has earned attention as one of the most shocking in horror history – and for good reason. It contextualizes the movie, somehow rearticulating this sweaty land of short-shorts, half-shirts and striped tube socks in a language that finally makes sense.