If any one genre of films dominated the 80’s it would be the slasher film. It just wasn’t a good time to be a teenager, as your chances of living to the end credits was very slim indeed. While Jason was out stalking his victims in 3D, director/writer Robert Hiltzik decided to take a stab at the genre with Sleepaway Camp.
As a child I was never sent to summer camp, but going by all the “Lord of the Flies” activities I’ve seen depicted in the movies I can’t say I’m all that sorry to have missed out on the experience. Having a large group of unruly kids being looked after by a smaller group of unruly teenagers seems like a recipe for disaster, and that’s not even taking the serial killer factor into consideration.
A key ingredient to this type of movie is setting up the tragic backstory that must contain at least one wrongful death that will turn out to be the root cause of the film’s death toll. In the case of Sleepaway Camp a single father (we assumed widowed as I can’t see an 80’s judge granting custody to a gay man over the mother even if she was Lizzie Borden) along with his son and daughter are in a tragic boating accident where a distracted idiot girl runs them over with her boat.
We then get the standard time jump “eight years later” and are introduced to our two leads; Ricky Thomas (Jonathan Tiersten) and Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) who are being sent off to camp by Ricky’s wacky mother Dr. Martha Thomas (Desiree Gould). Angela was taken in by her Aunt Martha after her father and sibling were killed in that boating accident. Her cousin Ricky has been to the camp before, but this is Angela’s first time, and after watching Aunt Martha for two minutes I can’t believe she hasn’t tried to flee home years ago.
At the camp things don’t go too well. It turns out that Angela is an extremely shy introvert, one who apparently goes the first three days of camp without talking or eating, and with most her free time filled up with being bullied by her fellow campers. Now you may think this is impossible, what kind of people running this camp would allow that? But once you see cigar chewing camp owner Mel Costic (Mike Kellin) and uberbitch Camp Counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi) at work you quickly come to the conclusion that this camp is far from top notch. I haven’t even mentioned that the camp cook is a pedophile that tries to molest Angela in the walk in cooler.
Lucky for Angela her cousin Ricky walks in and interrupts the cook before things get out of hand, but not so lucky for the cook who later gets a giant pot of boiling water poured over him by a mysterious intruder. I’m assuming that the filmmaker’s reason for only showing us the killer’s hands is to hide the fact that Angela is the killer and that maybe it is protective Ricky who is killing anyone who antagonizes or attacks his cousin, but after repeated scenes of Angela just creepily staring into space one can’t help but realize she’s our only real suspect.
The movie then follows a pattern of someone being mean to Angela and then that someone dying horribly. The pedophile cook is only unbearably maimed, but everyone else who even looks at Angela sideways gets the axe, and in the case of several small children who flung sand at her, they get it literally.
Mel at first tries to cover up the deaths for the obvious reason that if word got out he’d have to close the camp, but eventually after a couple more deaths parents start pulling the kids from the camp, which leads us to believe that the parents of the kids who stayed must have really hated their children.
The two defining elements of a good slasher film are its killer and its cruel and unusual deaths. Felissa Rose as quiet sociopathic murdering Angela is really quite convincing, and for the most part we can enjoy her revenge fueled killings… well, that is until she rams a curling iron up her cabin mate’s vagina and the aforementioned murdering of little kids with a hatchet. These kills would even give Jason Voorhees pause. Hats off to the make-up effects guys who do stellar work here for a low budget movie.
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Now we come to the big twist. While at the camp Angela had only one ally other than her cousin Ricky, and that was a sweet kid named Paul (Christopher Collet) who got along well with Angela until he tried to move to second base and was firmly rebuffed. When Angela later catches him kissing her bitchy cabin mate this results in the curling iron incident and leads to Paul’s grisly end. Angela lures Paul out to the beach under the pretense of a possible reconciliation and some heavy petting, but instead the police and surviving campers find a naked Angela holding a bloody knife and cradling Paul’s severed head.
In a flashback it is revealed that the surviving child was the boy but being that Aunt Martha already had a son, and having two boys “Would just not do,” she decided to make some changes. So poor Peter was forced to become Angela to please his crazy aunt. What is not made clear is where Ricky fits into this messed up twist as it’s hard to believe that he lived in that house for eight years with his nutty mom and did not find out his cousin wasn’t actually a girl. Some people believe that Ricky was actually in on the killings, and as actor Jonathan Tiersten was the on screen hands, as well as providing the silhouette of the killer there is some credence to that theory, but in fact the use of Tiersten stems from not wanting to subject young Felissa Rose to that part of movie making.
Director Robert Hiltzik went on to become a self-employed lawyer instead pursuing a career in the movies, which is a shame because his darkly twisted movie was easily better than half the dreck other horror directors were churning out at the time. It’s by no means a perfect movie, the endless and pointless baseball scene nips that claim at the bud, but it is entertaining and the cast led by Felissa Rose all give credible performances, and that ending, oh my god that ending makes this movie a must see. I knew the twist going in and still that ending was a bit of a shocker.
Bonus Trivia: Actor Allen Breton, who plays the local police officer, left the production and shaved off his moustache and when he returned to film the climax to Sleepaway Camp their solution to his missing moustache was less than convincing.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
There have been many “twist endings” over the years but Sleepaway Camp will always be one of the most memorable.