Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Sleepaway Camp (1983) movie poster

director Robert Hiltzik
viewed: 10/15/2015

Earlier this year, I watched Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) on a whim at the behest of my kids who were about to go to camp for the first time.  It was available on Netflix streaming, so we watched it, sort of against my overall approach to movies, liking to watch them in sequence, but assuming that with your usual slasher franchise that sequence is not so important.  This would prove significantly wrong regarding Sleepaway Camp.

I don’t want to spoil Sleepaway Camp for anyone who hasn’t seen it, so please stop reading now if you have any inkling of seeing it for the first time.  Its biggest element is a shocking plot twist, a plot twist that turns to be the film’s reason for being and is almost impossible not to discuss in any significant discussion of the film.  So, stop.

For me, the plot twist was already ruined by watching the sequel first and reading up on it.  Knowing what is coming in the end doesn’t ruin Sleepaway Camp but it certainly changes it and modifies the shock value of the ending, though doesn’t actually take away everything from it.  Still, I think anyone who has the chance to go through it fresh, it’s worth saving the surprise in total.

Sleepaway Camp is odd in its ineptitudes in contrast with its successes.  Parts of the film are laughably amateurish and bad (My favorite of which would be the amazing Desiree Gould as Aunt Martha — Gould takes overacting to soaring heights of grandeur.)  Other parts of the film wind up having real power.  And the resultant film is a melange of these elements, striking particularly odd notes, and winding up having surprisingly profound effects on its audience.

The film at its heart is a summer camp flick, starring actual teens, dealing with a love story about a painfully shy girl, some realistically nasty mean girls, and a couple of more sincere boys.  Beneath the surface lies a twist that extends the story on to gender dysphoria, sexual identity, repression, and childhood trauma, and while the film’s attitude toward that subject might be less wholly enlightened, its earnestness in its characters and their story, particularly that of Angela (Felissa Rose) transcends somehow.

The final scene is shocking and powerful.  Angela cradles her sweet-natured boyfriend’s head in her lap, his nude body, glimmering by moonlight, she rises to reveal his decapitation and her crazed, fixed look, standing naked, her own body that of a mature boy.  The full-frontal nudity is a shock in itself, rare as it is to see a penis, especially in 1983.  The fact that the film has not been rife with nudity to this point, adds to the impact.

The film seems packed with queer subtext.  It’s been noted that the only nudity in the film is that of males (highly unusual for the genre), the flashback scene of Angela’s father spied in bed with another man by her and her sister as children (quite a tender moment, rather than imbued with pure shock), the homoerotic campers in crop-tops, tighty-whities, and short-shorts.  The film’s tone towards its subject matter is a mixture of titillation and empathy.  It makes me wonder how much of this queer subtext was intentional.  I’ve got a feeling that this must have been discussed in great detail somewhere over the years, the whole analysis of this film via queer theory.

Sleepaway Camp is an amazing example of the wonder of cinema and art.  So many things conspire to make this film as unique and special as it is, intention and unintention, ineptitude and brilliance.  Actually, what might make for a really interesting discussion is the variety of personal impacts that this film has had on people over the years.  Just a little web research seems to suggest that this film has had a wide array of significances in the lives of its viewers.  Quite fascinating.

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