Sleepaway Camp (1983)

22 Nov

Couuuuusins! Identical cousins, and you'll find... they laugh alike, they walk alike, at times they'd even talk alike (if Angela talked, that is). They're two of a kiiiiind!

I started the month of October with a review of “The House of the Devil,” a new film aiming to resurrect the feel of a 1980s horror heyday movie. It’s fitting, then, that I ended the month with “Sleepaway Camp,” a bona fide and beloved 80s-era slasher. I got the recommendation for the film from none other than horror auteur Eli Roth in his five picks for great Halloween flicks, and I followed his admonition to know as little as possible about the film before seeing it. In that spirit, if you have never seen “Sleepaway Camp,” you should stop reading right now. I’m not giving away any true spoilers, but honestly, it’s best to go into this one absolutely blind.

Young Angela (Felissa Rose) is the sole survivor of a boating accident which claimed the lives of her brother and father. Now she lives with cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould). For the first time, Martha is sending both children to Camp Arawak for the summer, the same camp that was the site of the fatal accident which forever changed Angela’s life. (Why she would choose to do this, when Angela would clearly have memories of spending her summers at a house across the lake from Camp Arawak is open for speculation. Then again, Aunt Martha isn’t exactly all there, if you get my meaning, so who knows?)

Angela is ridiculed and mistreated pretty much from the moment she sets foot on camp property. She’s quiet and shy, and she has a habit of staring intensely at people. Despite Ricky’s pleas for everyone to just leave her alone, crabby counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi) and bitc.. erm, unpleasant bunkmate Judy (Karen Fields) are among those intent on persecuting the backward teen. Only Paul (Christopher Collet), a close friend of Ricky’s, takes a genuine interest in Angela. She speaks her first words at camp to him, and the two spark up an awkward flirtation. But as the campers glory in their mostly unsupervised summer fun, something sinister lurks. And when the bodies start piling up, the camp’s owner, the counselors and the other campers start looking for someone to blame.

I don't have words for how awesome the wardrobe is in this film. Why wasn't this a look that came back during the recent 80s fashion nostalgia, hmm?

From the limited synopsis, you might wrongly conclude “Sleepaway Camp” is much like any other summer camp slasher from the 80s. Without giving anything crucial away, here’s a hitlist of what makes this film so different:

(1) Extremely inventive deaths. Most slasher camp movies in the 80s resorted to gratuitous gore to make their death sequences really kill. “Sleepaway Camp” boasts a mixed bag of death scenes, from fantastically original to homages to classics, and this makes for a more fun film. The death scenes also owe their success to…

(2) Surprisingly good effects. The physical effects and makeup are really top-notch, especially for such a low-budget film. The dead people look actually — disarmingly, even — dead, and the actors do a great job of selling it. You don’t catch anybody’s chest rising or eyes fluttering, and that’s largely due to…

(3) The quality of acting. The film revolves primarily around the campers — the younger teens — and not the counselors, which makes the strong performances in this film all the more impressive. The three main characters of Angela, Ricky and Paul are all very well-acted, and the support from Karen Fields and Katherine Kamhi as the principal bad girls is solid as well. Sure, some of the acting is a little over-the-top and cheesy, but kids that age are a little over-the-top and cheesy, so it all feels realistic. Even some of the bit roles — the kitchen staff, the camp owner, etc. — are filled by talented professionals who keep the film from sinking to the level of a typical B-movie. Of course, it helps when they have a…

(4) A solid director and story. Writer-director Robert Hiltzik’s tale is a many-layered, smart, scary story. His campers seem realistic, and the dialogue is spot-on for the teens. There’s no attempt to contrive a lot of slangy lingo, nor do the kids shy away from the swears. Much like real 12- to 14-year-olds, the campers test out every blue word in the book. I hate to keep harping on the point, but it’s all so jarringly realistic. So many other horror films (whether of the 80s or beyond) have such odd and stilted dialogue it seems as if the action takes place in an alternate universe. Not so with “Sleepaway Camp,” and that increases the scariness of the film.

I was really surprised at the quality of the makeup and special effects for this movie. I think it's a case of less is more.

Hiltzik makes the most of his limited budget and turns in a movie that’s quite visually interesting. His flashback sequences are in particular extremely stylized and atmospheric, but throughout the film he finds new ways to shoot the familiar and recurring sets. There’s some handheld camerawork that’s used to great effect, and the lighting of the nighttime scenes in particular is quite striking. But what really makes this film unlike any other typical 80s slasher flick you’ve seen is its…

(5) Killer ending. With “Sleepaway Camp,” Hiltzik has crafted one of the most unforgettable endings in the history of horror. It’s just amazing.

“Sleepaway Camp” borrows familiar bits from the slasher teen genre but reformulates them into a wholly unique film. It’s fun and scary, nicely unsettling and utterly original. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

Sleepaway Camp“: Rated R. Starring Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten (as Jonathan Tierston), Karen Fields, Christopher Collet, Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo, Tom Van Dell, Loris Sallahian, John E. Dunn (as John Dunn), Willy Kuskin, Desiree Gould, Owen Hughes, Robert Earl Jones and Susan Glaze. Written and directed by Robert Hiltzik. Cinematography by Benjamin Davis. Special effects by William Bilowit (special effects coordinator) and Ed Fountain (special mechanical effects). Makeup by Ed French (makeup illusions). Original music by Edward Bilous.

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One Response to “Sleepaway Camp (1983)”

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  1. 31 Nights of Horror: Final thoughts (2010) « Rhanda watches - November 23, 2010

    […] As far as which films were the most fun to watch? “Night of the Demons” and “Sleepaway Camp” as straight horror and “Fido” as a […]

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