A Horrifying Education: SLEEPAWAY CAMP

     October 13, 2014


I don’t avoid any genre of cinema, but horror is my blind spot.  I have favorite horror films, but the genre is so rich and diverse, and I feel like I haven’t even come close to scratching the surface.  Thankfully, I’m now lucky enough to be working alongside two horror aficionados, Evan and Perri.  Since October means Halloween and therefore horror, we decided to do a four-entry feature where they would decide on four horror films I would have to watch and then report back with my thoughts.  They would then reply with why they chose the film, their thoughts on it, and the movie’s legacy.  Hopefully, if you’re as ignorant of horror films as I am, you’ll join in on the lesson.

Hit the jump for our thoughts on the first assignment, 1983’s Sleepaway Camp. [Note: To encourage discussion, the comments section can contain spoilers.]

The Trailer:

The Plot: Eight years after a tragic speedboat accident, Angela (Felissa Rose) and her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) are going to Camp Arawak.  Ricky is outgoing and fiercely protective of Angela, who is a disturbingly quiet teenage.  However, she is eventually charmed by Paul (Christopher Collet), which further arouses the bullying of the camp’s sneering queen bee, Judy (Karen Fields).  Although camp is filled with fun, games, and teenage angst, things turn deadly as campers and staff get picked off by a mysterious attacker.

My Thoughts: First, I was so glad I decided to watch this with friends, although it would still be a fairly entertaining movie on its own, especially because it’s so freaking weird but never abrasively so.

Sleepaway Camp is appropriately schizophrenic, which is rather fitting for the disruptive genre.  Sleepaway camp is kind of scary on its own, but it’s also supposed to be fun and lighthearted.  The notion of introducing a serial killer—especially one that kills campers instead of just staff like in Friday the 13th—is a ridiculously outsized antagonist, but we’re forced to accept it.  And if we accept this conceit, how far can the film push it?


That’s what director Robert Hiltzik seems to be doing from the moment we meet Angela’s bonkers aunt, Martha (Desiree Gould) who is given to drifting off and talking to no one in particular.  There are also little reveals along the way leading to the famous twist (which I won’t give away here for those who haven’t seen the film) that let us know Hiltzik is in on the joke even though I wouldn’t qualify Sleepaway Camp as a spoof or a parody.  It knows the genre is crooked, but it plays the tropes straight.

I like how the movie just drops in scenes of normalcy that have little or nothing to do with the overall plot.  There’s just as much emphasis given to the kills as there is to a baseball game or the teenage guys teasing the teenage girls.  The situations are identifiable, which makes it kind of creepy to a younger audience that may not notice the campier aspect like the bulging packages or the brazenly pedophilic chef, Artie (Owen Hughes).  Sure, younger viewers stealing a look at this movie would know he’s a bad guy, but older viewers would be agape that his co-workers would just laugh off his creepy comments as nothing more than, “Oh, that Artie.  Always wanting to sleep with prepubescent teens.”


I never found Sleepaway Camp scary, but I don’t know if that’s really its intent.  Looking at it now, it almost seems designed to be a camp classic that could also be dissected for how it treats gender roles albeit in the broadest strokes.  Perhaps for pre-teens actually about to go to sleepaway camp for the first time, it would be a scary movie, but for adults, it’s incredibly entertaining, and I’m glad it was my first piece of homework for this series.


Why did I select the film?  Honestly this is the sort of movie I will always recommend to a non-horror fan just to see their reaction not only to the ending –  which is worth it in and of itself – but the absolutely insane tone of the film.  We’ve come a long way in the thirty or so years since Sleepaway Camp was made (or at least I hope we have given the camp’s institutionalized sexual predation).  But yeah, just the idea of someone uninitiated watching it is enough for me to recommend it.

What do I think about the film in general? I like it.  It’s actually much better assembled than most 80’s slashers and the bizarrely homoerotic slant to the camp itself seems like some kind of clarity of vision given how predominant it is.  And I think there’s something genuinely sweet about Felissa Rose’s performance as Angela.  It definitely bites off more than it can chew when it comes to all of the character arcs, but the fact that it even has that ambition is nice.

How does it relate to other horror movies in its subgenre and what legacy does it have if any? Its legacy is relatively minor though I wonder if that has more to do with the fact that it took 5 years for a sequel to come along and it missed the momentum that an ongoing franchise could have provided.  It certainly has a lot in common with Friday the 13th in terms of setting, though it actually took that franchise six installments before there were actually campers at the summer camp.


Why did you select this film? Sleepaway Camp is a classic, but a lot of iconic horror movies came out of the 80s and it feels as though this one took a backseat to some of them. I’m a sucker for all the heavy hitters like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Sleepaway Camp always had a special place in my heart having been to sleepaway camp myself. Yes, it’s sick and twisted, but part of the fun of a movie like this is getting to see all of these insane, violent things go down in such a familiar setting. I’ll never forget the distinct mixture of nerves and excitement that comes with heading off to camp for two months every summer, so being able to tap into that during the film always made it a particularly satisfying watch for me.

What did I think about it in general? I’ll always have a soft spot for this one, but I’ll admit, it’s definitely dated. I was about 10 or 11-years-old when I first saw it and if a 10 or 11-year-old picked it up nowadays – parents permitting – it might not be able to match the super slick, gore-heavy cash grab remakes we’re getting. However, I’d still say Sleepaway Camp is a must for anyone with an appreciation of horror from the late 70s and the 80s. There’s certainly some stiff dialogue delivery, a bunch of the characters are totally one-note and there are scenes that have absolutely nothing to do with the core plot, namely that lengthy baseball showdown, but the film is so highly engaging and well paced, it’s impossible not to get caught up in and have some fun with it. Plus, you just don’t see endings like that anymore.

How does it relate to other horror movies in its subgenre and what legacy does it have if any? The obvious connection to other horror movies is the sleepaway camp setting. There’s this, Friday the 13th, The Burning, I Spit on Your Grave and more. It makes sense though. The location comes with a number of cliché but highly appealing genre musts. You’ve got the secluded setting, good-looking young adults and a wide variety of objects and locations to use to kill them all off. On top of that, loads of kids go to camp. In fact, the sleepaway camp I attended is getting so big, it opened up a whole new location.  If more and more kids really are attending camp, it would make sense to get that Sleepaway Camp remake going, or at least start developing a brand new sleepaway camp-set horror film.

Next Assignment: Martyrs


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