1 Hr., 24 Mins.
Sometimes a twist ending becomes more famous than the movie it from which it comes, and Sleepaway Camp, a shameless 1983 Friday the 13th knock-off, is no exception: it contains perhaps the most shocking, most memorable plot jerk in the history of horror cinema. It is so out of the blue (yet so surprisingly convincing) that we leave the theater stunned and disturbed, a sign of an effective horror movie if there ever were one. It’s the sort of film you cannot watch a second time — knowing of what’s to come will ruin that intense screech you may have emitted during first viewing.
All jolts aside, though, Sleepaway Camp is nothing more than a paltry slasher that gets more credit than it deserves simply because of its conclusion. Had it gone the Halloween or Black Christmas route, leaving the identity of the killer ambiguous one way or another, it would be a rote genre foray, not necessarily because of its lacking of blood but because of its lacking of genuine suspense and interest as to what’s coming next. Most who view the film as an important moment in the history of horror better think again — if it didn’t have that final gut punch, would it be so infamous, so renowned?
It introduces itself with a laughable sequence set in 1975, which features a family out boating for the day. It is a warm summer afternoon, perfect for familial bonding — laughs abound as a father and his two kids, Peter and Angela, frolic about the starboard, pushing each other playfully into the water when need be.
But such picturesque, sun-soaked fun cannot last in a 1980s slasher movie, so it comes as no surprise when a couple reckless teenagers with a motorboat fail to pay attention to what’s in front of them for a good two minutes and crash into the family, instantly killing father and Peter.
Sleepaway Camp then jumps ahead eight years, where Angela (Felissa Rose) is living with her quirky aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and spending every moment reliving the traumatic incident that destroyed her childhood. She hardly ever speaks, her overprotective cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) doing most of the talking.
As the film opens, the kids are in the process of being shipped off to Camp Arawak, where they'll spend the next month or so making memories and forming bonds. Ricky is familiar with most of its goers, but Angela, shy and innocent, is mercilessly picked on, particularly by the melodramatically bitchy Judy (Karen Fields) and her sidekick, Meg (Katherine Kamhi). So you could say that the atmosphere reaches unfathomably tense heights when mysterious attacks and murders begin occurring left and right, the person responsible impossible to guess as a sleepaway camp holds hundreds of inhabitants.
Though it bears a concept worth a great deal of interest, writer/director Robert Hilztik does not have quite enough filmmaking aptitude to provide Sleepaway Camp with the self-referential tone from which it would so greatly benefit. It feels like a parody of itself, with body builder counselors, sexually thirsty (and disgusting) camp head honchos, aggressively mean girls, and virginal youths as stereotypes who never seem to be in on the joke. And the deaths, though a bit more inventive than the ones found within its slasher peers (consider slaughters involve a stickily situated beehive and a vomit-inducing use of a curling iron), feel like a chore the film had to endure. They lack any sort of excitement, coming by hastily and without much payoff.
Perhaps I’m in the minority — its cult fanbase considers Sleepaway Camp to be even better than Friday the 13th — but the film is, in truth, a run-of-the-mill slasher that just so happens to be christened with a great ending. Take away its gimmick and you've got a depraved snoozer on your hands. C