Sleepaway Camp — A Review

DISCLAIMER: Spoilers regarding plot and well, you know. And if you don’t know, go watch the damn movie before you read this. Seriously. You don’t want to hear it from me first.

Starting at about the age of 7 or so, I was a latchkey kid. I spent a lot of time alone after school, waiting on my mother to come home from work. She was a single parent and couldn’t always find a babysitter, but it was ok, because we lived within walking distance of the school, and I had a couple of aunts who lived in the neighborhood who would check in on me. As an only child who spent a lot of time alone, I had a lot of free time on my hands. Most of it was spent thinking about and drawing monsters.

But I had to leave the house sometime, and my mother was also wise enough to realize that there was nothing more mind-numbingly boring to your average little boy than to go shoe shopping with this mom. So when it was time to run errands, she would sometimes arrange to drop me off at a laundromat, where my grandmother happened to be the manager.

Mom would get her shopping done and I’d get quality time with Grandma. There was a Ms. Pac-Man machine there, and sometimes she’d let me go round to all the dryers and clean out the lint filters. If I found any spare change, it was mine. For a while there, I got really good at Ms Pac-Man.

The laundromat was in the same shopping center as a Pic-A-Flick, which was, at one time, one of the biggest video store rental chains in this area. This particular Pic-A-Flick was pretty massive and when I wasn’t foraging for quarters, I was sneaking over there and scoping out the extensive horror section. Always the horror section. Fast forward years later, and I would go on to work there while in high school.

For you kids who never had the pleasure of basing your movie watching choices solely on the artwork of a VHS box, I cannot begin to express the depth of my pity for you. It’s incredibly tempting as I type these words just past the witching hour on a Tuesday night, to take a different path here. A path where I spend paragraphs avowing my love for the VHS experience and what it’s meant to me over the years, but I’m going to hold back. That’s another post.

Down the rows of boxes, I scanned titles like Hellraiser, Phantasm, Halloween, and Puppet Master. A lot of slashers, demons, and knives caught my attention. I would spend hours meticulously examining the artwork and screen grabs, looking for any clue as to what would lay inside. And of course, there were always the descriptions.

I was always a little more transfixed by the series. I dreamed of jumping into them, marathoning them either in an afternoon, or intentionally spacing them out over the course of a week in order to build anticipation for the next installment. The good thing about being that age in the mid ’80’s is that so many of the best horror series had already hit their stride and were waiting for me to jump in and get their claws into me. For a budding horror fanatic, it was a golden age of gore.

One box I would always return to was Sleepaway Camp. I was a few years away from my own summer camp experience, although I’d heard stories from my friends about what it was like. I knew that the series wasn’t the only one that explored the notion of a camp killer. A few rows back, all those boxes with the hockey masks on the covers got there first, but this one stood out in a few ways. First of all, check out that cover!

Cover
The bloody knife! The frightened letter home! Not a single still from the actual movie. I just knew that some seriously scary shit was going down at camp.

By the way, despite having been raised in a very religious family, there were no restrictions on what I watched. I can’t explain it, but I got away with murder when it came to my video rentals. I just had to wait for Mom to show up, pick out some blood covered boxes, and she took care of it. For some reason, she was much more concerned about the music I listened to than people getting slaughtered on camera. I could watch Black Sabbath. I just couldn’t listen to Black Sabbath.

But, when it came time to actually pick a flick, I somehow always avoided the Sleepaway Camp series. I can’t explain it. Maybe I was intimidated by the number of installments (there couldn’t have been that many then) or maybe I was just more intrigued by whatever was going on with those Hellraiser boxes, but for whatever reason, I put it off. I mean, I REALLY put it off.

How far off?

Last year, when I first launched this site, I teamed up with Bill of Veggie Macabre to make this video, proclaiming all this rad stuff I was going to do, including finally making my way through the entire series…for the first time ever. I don’t know how I’ve come this far and haven’t marathoned it yet, but to this day, I’ve only seen the first two, and even that was in a failed attempt to actually start this project a year ago, and then promptly abandon it.

Well, it’s summer, I’ve waited long enough, and it’s time to light this candle. This is the first of many installments in which I will spend the next month or so REVIEWING THE ENTIRE SLEEPAWAY CAMP SERIES, naturally starting with the first film.

I kind of agonized over how I was going to tackle this. What fresh angle can I apply to something that’s been discussed so many times already? I guess the only one that I know – just that I’m an adult, life-long horror fan and I’m coming to this with brand new eyes. As I watched it, I jotted down some thoughts. Ok, a lot of thoughts. Keep in mind, I knew nothing about this film other than it has a reputation and of course, the big twist. This won’t be a complete summery. We’ll just hit some highlights along the way, we’ll probably go off on a few tangents, and we may not stay in order. Let’s go.

Aunt Martha
I’m going to start where most people do, I suppose; Aunt Martha. Good lord, I love her. She’s bonkers as all hell, isn’t she? I’m not sure exactly what the thinking was in that performance, but Desiree Gould really brings something and I kind of want to check out the rest of her work now.

Angela
It’s also in this scene that we get our first glimpse of Angela. At the risk of getting into dangerous Artie-esque territory here, it’s worth noting that we can already see that Felissa Rose, who was only 13 at the time she was cast for the role, was already incredibly beautiful, and she conveyed a shy vulnerability to the role that I don’t think anyone else would have offered.

Let’s go to camp! Immediately after the arrival of Angela and her cousin Ricky, we get introduced to the aforementioned Artie, the pervy cook, and Judy, the queen bee bitch. I immediately played a game with myself called, “Who gets it first?” There’s no way either one of these folks are going to make it to the end. They may as well just split off from the group, go smoke some dope, and make out with each other in the woods.

Artie
And it’s Artie, by way of boiling water! It was a fun first kill and demonstrated a trope that we’re all used to by now; the faceless, silent killer that we only know through the occasional pair of hands, popping into frame just long enough to dispatch the next victim.

A little while later, we see some camp hijinks including a baseball game, a fight, and someone’s face going into a butt. Around this time, something kind of becomes apparent. The kids at Camp Pottymouth over here all have the mouths of sailors. I hardly have a delicate disposition and have been known to get a little colorful myself, but I don’t remember this kind of language flying around summer camp when I was a kid. Granted, I went to church camp, but still. Someone should have a word with their parents.

I soon started to notice the nuances of Felissa’s performance. I suppose an argument could be made that she got a easy gig, not having to speak a word for most of the film, but she has a way of holding herself and conveying quite a bit with just an expression all throughout. There’s something very deep and deadly going on behind those big, dark eyes.

After the second kill – some horny teenagers on a boat – Angela finally opens up to a female camp counselor. This is the first real conversation we’ve heard out of her so far. Meg, another resident, gets frustrated at Angela’s refusal to speak, freaks out on her, and shakes her. This leads to Meg getting into a spot of trouble. That bitch Judy then rails on Angela, and speaks the best line of dialogue in the entire film:

Judy
“She’s a real carpenter’s dream! Flat as a board and needs a screw!”

After a balloon fight, Angela decides to pass out some more camp justice (oh, did I spoil anything by saying it’s actually Angela doing the killing?) by beehiving the shit out of someone while he sits on the toilet.

Paul, one of the few guys to be nice to Angela, manages to get to first base with her, and then some of the other kids decide to throw her in the lake. Mel, who’s in charge of the whole camp, is convinced that the killings are the work of Angela’s cousin Ricky, and nearly beats the crap out of him. Has no one made the connection yet that every time you piss off the new girl, someone ends up dead?

Knife
And in the case of Meg, it’s by getting stabbed through the wall while taking a shower. Interesting note here: In this scene, and in all others in which we see Angela’s hands doing the killing, we’re actually seeing the hands of Jonathan Tiersten, who played Ricky. This was done for 2 reasons: 1) Because Felissa Rose’s mother forbid her actual hands be used, being only 13 and possibly impressionable, and 2) To throw off the audience. Since Tiersten played Ricky, maybe the audience would think it actually was Ricky the entire time, or anyone else.

curling iron
And finally, the moment we’ve been waiting for. No, not THAT moment (hang on, we’ll get there). It’s time for whore Judy to get it. Angela walks in, decks her, covers her head with a pillow, and proceeds to do…something…to her with a curling iron. All we know is we see the silhouette of the curling iron raise, then lower. We then hear a scream as Judy throws her hands in the air. The gory details happen entirely off camera.

There has been some speculation that Judy gets curling-iron-raped, but upon first viewing a year ago, it didn’t read that way to me at all. I just thought Angela slipped it under the pillow and shoved it down her throat or something. But, after a recent second viewing to refresh myself for this post, no, Judy straight up got screwed by that curling iron, you guys.

Mel
We’re in full on kill frenzy mode now. Angela wastes no time in proceeding to take out Mel with an arrow to the neck after he beats up Ricky again.

There is a point in every slasher movie that I refer to as the “Shelley’s Dead Moment”. I named it after the scene in Friday the 13th Part 3, when Chili finds Shelley dead, at first thinking it’s another one of his stupid pranks. After realizing it wasn’t, she runs upstairs yelling, “Shelley’s dead! Shelley’s dead!” It’s at this point in the film that there is no doubt we’re in the third act. People are no longer screwing. They’re just finding the bodies.

Meg
They found Meg’s body! Well, technically, Mel found it earlier, and just…left it there? I guess? I’m not sure.

Cop
Anyway, another group finds it, and I can’t dwell on possible plot holes because I’m too distracted at this point by this cop’s astonishingly realistic mustache. The wardrobe department went all out on this one, didn’t they? Good hustle out there, fellas.

Alright, here we go. It’s been a long ride. We’ve had some ups and downs, we’ve seen a lot of over the top acting, and things got a little date rapey there for a minute, but at last we’re here. THE BIG TWIST! I wish that his hadn’t gotten blown for me years ago because I would have loved to have not seen this coming. But it was pretty unavoidable. You know what I’m talking about.

mouth
And here’s THE SHOT. The campers come upon Angela stroking the decapitated head of Paul, she stands up, and we see her in her full-on, full frontal glory (I’ll spare you the full shot. You’ve seen it). Turns out Angela’s got a peter! No, she was Peter! She’s actually been a boy this entire time, but was raised by Aunt Crazypants to be a girl named Angela! It’s one of those Crying Game deals! Spoiler!… I mean about The Crying Game… Um, sorry about that.

In case you’re curious, the “long shot” was pulled off by having a slender 18 year old guy wear a mask modeled after Felissa’s face. Simple and effective. And of course, the close up is all Felissa.

She hisses in a most creepy fashion, we fade to green, and THE END. I love it. I absolutely love it. That was some out of left-field nuttery. Such a great, unexpected take on the slasher genre.

Sleepaway Camp, written and directed by Robert Hiltzik, was released in 1983, and while it was hardly the first to break ground in the world of slashers, the last two minutes have gone down as one of the biggest twist endings in not only the world of horror, but in cinema.

Felissa Rose went on to keep up a solid career in the horror genre and is probably one of the coolest celebrities you’re likely to meet. I’ve met quite a few, and I will say not all interactions have been positive (looking a you, Danny Glover). But, the few that I have had with Felissa online have been really fantastic. She’s incredibly grateful for her fans (whom she refuses to refer to as fans, but rather friends) and is one of the friendliest and foxiest scream queens around.

I recommend this interview with her over at Killer POV, and Killer POV in general. Seriously, quit your job and just sit at home listening to every single episode. I love those guys.

But we’re not done yet, kids! Remember Judy? She came back! Sort of. Karen Fields reprised the role later in the series (we’ll get to that in another installment), and also in well… this.

This was also a thing that happened. Think that was the only time you’ll get to see Felissa reprise her role as Angela? Nope. It happened in canon… much later. We’ll get to that in due time. Next up, Angela’s back (sans Felissa) in Sleepway Camp II: Unhappy Campers. More super weird deaths to come! Come back for it!

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