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Review: ‘Sleepaway Camp’ Cult Horror Classic (Contains Spoilers)

Horror fans are often introduced to popular franchises through sequels. Especially before streaming or even DVDs were so accessible viewers would have to wait till a Freddy or Jason movie came on TV to record it. More often than not this would mean the original would not be their first experience of the franchise. This was the case for me with the Sleepaway Camp movies. I ended up watching the series in reverse – starting with Part 3: Teenage Wasteland, then Part 2: Unhappy Campers. These sequels gave me certain expectations of what the tone, characters and death scenes of the original would be like.

The first two sequels (I had not yet seen Return to Sleepaway Camp which quite frankly was awful) are punk rock comedy horror. Pamela Springsteen’s Angela is a comedic performance similar to Robert England in Freddy’s Dead. She quips one-liners and has quirky conversations with the corpses of her victims. So already I knew that Angela would be the killer in the first film. This isn’t made immediately obvious. There’s a murder mystery element. The murder victims are Angela’s bullies but she is so timid that her volatile cousin Ricky makes an effective red herring. In fact a popular fan theory is that Ricky did commit some of the killings.

The deaths are imaginative and impressively executed. The practical effects look realistic even today. A paedophile cook is covered in scolding water and you see the boils form under his skin. A boy is drowned, not a particularly original kill but later we see a close-up of the drenched, decaying body. A water snake slithers out of his mouth. It’s a remarkably well made effect for a film with such a low budget. It is also one of several shocking moments that make this much more of a genuine horror than the Sleepaway Camp movies that came after. Unlike most other camp slashers young children are murdered.

Sleepaway Camp Review 2

The score is foreboding and gives a feeling of building dread. Despite this the movie has some severe flaws in other aspects of production. There are moments where the film looks so comically cheap it could be watched with friends as part of a drinking game. In one scene a cop’s moustache is suddenly replaced with one that looks drawn on.

Sexuality, sexual confusion and gender are major themes. Homosexuality isn’t touched upon much in horror and when it is the film is often unfairly criticized (for instance Nightmare on Elm Street 2.) In this film the characters are driven by sexuality – satisfaction of its desires for Mel, Judy, Ricky and Meg and frustration over it in Angela’s case. She kills not just because she is victimised but because she finds her male and female prey attractive to varying degrees. Fuelled by flashbacks of her gay father her confusion over her own gender and sexuality makes her lash out. By the end of the film she is naked holding the decapitated head of the boy she finds most attractive. Felissa Rose’s quiet performance (she doesn’t talk till 30 minutes in) is the polar opposite to Pamela Springsteen’s. It helps make the twist ending one of the most shocking I have seen.

It’s made clear in the sequels that Angela is a transsexual. So I should have seen the ending coming. But this film was so different to the sequels I assumed perhaps they were only loosely based on it. You root for her, knowing the people she brutally slays more or less deserve being the victims of her revenge. It’s our allegiance to shy yet murderous Angela that contributes to the sense of horror we feel when she’s revealed to be not what she seems.

The score we hear in the opening credits is used to great effect in the final scene. We see the back of Angela as she hums creepily and the camera slowly moves towards her. It’s an effect of pure suspense that’s more often seen in modern haunted house films than in 80’s slashers. We see a short flashback revealing that the real Angela died at the start and we’ve been following Peter who’s been forced to play a girl by his demented aunt. A cut back to present day Angela shows she is now a wide mouthed animalistic creature. Given some of the weaker scenes earlier in the film it would have been easy for director Robert Hiltzik to make a shot of a penis unintentionally hilarious. However the dread filled score, the sound of heavy creepy breathing, the stillness of her demented face, the look of horror from the actors watching her and the tight framing that slowly reveals a fully nude male Angela combine to make it one of the most shocking endings ever made.