The slasher movie is such a basic and standardized format that it practically demands the addition of some kind of quirk to make it interesting. A lot of the slashers that resonate with horror fans achieve their status for these quirks: good examples include the wild twist-happy plotting of Happy Birthday To Me, the bizarre medical backstory that informs House On Sorority Row or the self-referential humor in Scream. However, the quirkiest of all beloved slasher films is Sleepaway Camp: this infamous title packs in more eccentric elements per reel than a dozen of its competitors and tops it off with a finale that will leave you reeling.
The premise of Sleepaway Camp is unusually complex for a slasher: Angela (Felissa Rose) is sent off to summer camp for the first time with her protective cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). She’s unusually quiet because she’s haunted by the tragic death of her father and brother, illustrated in an over-the-top prologue. Camp reveals itself to be a menacing place full of “mean girl” types like Meg (Katherine Kamhi) and Judy (Karen Fields), taunting boys and even a pervy camp cook (Owen Hughes) who’s got eyes for Angela.
The one positive seems to be the romantic attentions of Paul (Chris Collet), a friend of Ricky’s who aims to be Angela’s first love. However, his attention brings up other past traumas that Angela is desperate to repress. At the same time, people begin to die under mysterious, violent circumstances at the camp (the audience is allowed to see that some offscreen person is killing them). As camp owner Mel (Mike Kellin) tries to keep things covered up, the tensions at the camp grow more intense. It all builds to a death-packed finale capped by a genuinely unpredictable twist ending.
Sleepaway Camp is an unforgettable experience because it does its own, uniquely personalized interpretation of the slasher movie formula. It provides some of the expected elements (creative deaths doled out regular intervals, a mix of suspects, a tragic backstory) yet it is radically different in unique ways. It’s unusually dense in its plotting and the usual cardboard-cutout characters are replaced with deliciously over-the-top characterizations.
Robert Hiltzik’s script has also got the kind of tricky, psychological trauma-dominated backstory you might associate with a ’60s era Psycho ripoff. It’s most distinctive element is the way its story walks a fine line between a kind of Afterschool Special-style kid’s melodrama and a darker set of sexual themes: homosexuality, incest, gender identity and pedophilia are woven into the story, along with a surprising frankness about the sexual fumblings of puberty-age children. The film never goes in for sleaze – there’s no nudity here – but there’s a deeply unsavory undertone to the goings-on that gives the film a unique tension.
Hiltzik’s direction pushes this unusual cocktail of elements into feverish territory. His approach to the visual aspects of the film is fairly straightforward but he allows his cast to go for broke. Rose and Collet give nice, surprisingly low-key performances but everyone else chews scenery to some degree. Tiersten is charmingly feisty (he delivers profanity-laced tirades with the glee of a Mamet character) and old pro Kellin hams it up as the story requires his character to get more off-kilter. Hughes is fascinatingly sleazy in a Method actor sort of way while Fields gives a grand, wide-eyed and nostrils-flaring turn as the camp’s queen bee, with Kamhi adding amusingly snotty support. These performances give the film a campy, hothouse intensity that is amped even further by stunningly bombastic orchestral score from Edward Bilous.
However, the key element that makes Sleepaway Camp a classic of the genre is its ending. After a final reel that indulges in plentiful killings and scenes of people getting unhinged, it delivers a final plot twist/reveal that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the slasher subgenre. All other slasher film endings pale in comparison to this finale, which is so perverse and so left-field that even genre pros will be left slack-jawed by its audacity. It just might be The Greatest Ending In The History Of Endings.
Thus, it should be obvious that Sleepaway Camp is a must-see for any stalk & slash flick devotee. The slasher subgenre seldom rarely gets as wild, weird or perversely inspired as it does in this classic.