Disclaimer: harsh language, sexual themes
Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp has all the hallmarks of an 80’s slasher film: an insane mother, killer POV shots, shorts so small that they’re practically boxer briefs, make out sessions, and—of course—plenty of camp. But what sets this summer slasher apart is its unforgettable dialogue, hilarious overacting, creative kills, and—as people who have watched the film already know—the final scene, which is absolutely bonkers. If you haven’t heard of Sleepaway Camp, just watch it before you look anything up. (I won’t be spoiling anything major here.)
The movie starts with a dramatic title card, set to Edward Bilous’s terrifying music. We pan over the desolate campgrounds as various kids’ voices and sounds interweave with the music—some chanting, some playing sports, some guy saying, “Ey get away from me with that pail ‘a water, I’ll kill ‘ya”—and end up on a sign that says “Camp Arawak – For Sale.” I’m still not sure if this is meant to be after the events of the movie or before—but anyway, we fade to a lake on Camp Arawak where a man, John, is playing with his two children, Angela and Peter. The kids prank their dad by capsizing their boat, leaving them all laughing in the water. John’s friend, Lenny, waits for them on the shore. Meanwhile, two teens are dragging an unhappy water skier behind them in their motorboat. The water skier screams at them to turn to avoid hitting the family, but they can’t hear her over the boat’s motor. John and his children attempt to swim to shore, but it’s too late. We then cut back and forth between John’s floating body, a shocked Lenny, and the waterskier screaming wildly (seriously, this girl is giving it her all). One of the children’s life vests floats up from the water, bloody and mangled. The other child is apparently unharmed, treading water.
Eight years later it is revealed that Angela (played by the delightful and charismatic Felissa Rose) was the child that survived, and she has been taken in by her aunt Martha and her cousin Ricky. Before Martha sends her and Ricky off to camp, she has several asides, looking off into the distance, placing her fingers on her chin, and answering her own rhetorical questions. This scene is meant to portray Martha as “off,” and though it succeeds to some degree, it mostly comes off as a series of hilariously awkward line deliveries, and it’s one of my favorite moments in the movie.
We then cut to a horde of kids rushing off buses, being shepherded by camp counselor Ronnie short-shorts and camp owner Mel, who looks like a mafia boss out for a round of golf. One of the kitchen staff ogles the kids as they pass and says, “look at all that young, fresh chicken.” Another kitchen employee, played by Robert Earl Jones (James Earl Jones’ dad– and yes, he also has an amazing voice), laughs, apparently not disturbed by the other’s overt pedophilia. Ricky introduces Angela to his friend Paul and attempts to say hi to Judy, the popular girl with whom he used to go steady. (Judy wears a shirt with her own name on it, so you know she’s a big deal). As camp activities begin, painfully shy Angela is constantly harassed by the other kids for being so quiet and staring all the time. Meanwhile, campers and counselors are being killed off one by one, and camp owner Mel is struggling to chalk them all up as accidents.
It’s difficult for me to not summarize the whole movie, but I want to avoid spoiling anything. Sleepaway Camp is loaded with entertaining content, and unlike many slashers, the plot is surprisingly involved. Several of the best parts, though, have almost nothing to do with the plot—such as the baseball game that lasts too long and even has two dissolve transitions. Here we get some choice dialogue:
Ricky: This guy blows dead dogs!
Billy: Eat shit and die, Ricky!
Ricky: Eat shit and live, Bill.
In fact, the insults thrown between campers, whether intentional or not, are ceaseless in this movie. Here are some gems:
“She’s a real carpenter’s dream: flat as a board and needs a screw!”
“Yo Angela, how come you’re so fucked up? I mean like, what’s your problem?”
“You’re a real peckerhead, you know that, Meg?”
And: “Do you have to kiss so wet?”
I would be remiss not to mention that some variation of the phrase, “I’ll get you back for this” is uttered by any character probably every 10 minutes. This is the brilliant misdirect. How are we to know who the killer is when literally every character is plotting their own revenge? They don’t give us any hints either, for whenever there is a killer POV shot, the victims only say, “oh it’s you,” or “what are you doing here?” Blast! I guess you’ll have to watch the movie to find out!
Obviously, I can’t shut up about Sleepaway Camp. There’s so much more I could delve into, but I implore you to watch it and discover the magic yourself. To me, it is the perfect balance of 80’s campiness, bad writing, good writing, unintentional comedy, intentional comedy, original kills, and genuine scares. No wonder it has become such a classic in the horror community!
Here’s what you’ll miss if you cover your eyes:
A whole bag of chips… well I’m almost sure of it…
The ol’ mind over matter trick
Rooftop water balloon fight
A wicked dump
Obvious fake mustache
And so much more…