Sleepaway Camp (1983)

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*. I remember my first experience with this movie in the ’80s. A “friend” had recommended I rent it. I watched about fifteen minutes of it and then pulled the tape. I figured my friend had just been playing a joke on me. The next time I saw him I told him I’d rented it but hadn’t finished watching it. He got very excited, saying I had to watch the whole thing. But I didn’t, at least not until years later.
*. Of course the joke is in the twist ending. And if you’re one of those people who require spoiler alerts then you should stop reading now.
*. What is more shocking? The reveal that Angela is really a boy, or the display of full-frontal male nudity? Either way, it does make for an unforgettable ending, especially when it’s coupled with that heavy, rasping breathing and Angela’s rigid mask of a face (and it is a mask, on a male double, in the full-body shot).
*. What I think makes it a camp camp film, with a minor cult following, is that when it works the effect is mostly accidental. I don’t think the people who made this movie knew what they were doing. Adam Rockoff, in his book The Horror of It All, has this to say about the performance of Desiree Gould as Aunt Martha: “I have no idea which one Aunt Martha really is — a good actor pretending to be bad, or a bad one trying to be good.” The same dilemma applies to the film as a whole. Is this movie succeeding at trying to be bad? Or is it bad and just happens to be so bad it’s good?
*. I’d go for the latter. I don’t think there’s any talent involved here. But they got lucky.
*. Look at Felissa Rose. She can’t act, but she’s got a face that has since become iconic. It seems constantly in danger of being swallowed by those big brown eyes that stare with blank, silent rigour at her victims. Or at least it’s her eyes that are front and center until the end, when she (finally) opens her mouth and her maw stretches so wide it turns into a black hole that drowns the frame.

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*. This isn’t to say there’s no intelligence at work. I like the opening series of pans across Camp Arawak, concluding with the For Sale sign. It had me thinking of Citizen Kane and the opening montage of the ruins of Xanadu. Honest!
*. I also like the sleazy touch of having all that crowded fly tape hanging in the foreground of the kitchen shots, and the can of roach killer prominently displayed. It’s like this is a low-budget, summer-camp version of the run-down school in Les Diaboliques.
*. This may be the first time that this movie has been compared to Citizen Kane and Les Diaboliques. And it will likely be the last.
*. I’ll also give some style points for leaving us with the broiled cook’s clutching hands. It’s a shot that  writer-director Robert Hiltzik liked so well he repeats it later with Judy’s hands (in shadow on the wall) making the same gesture.
*. By the way, just how does Judy die? By curling iron would be the short answer. I’ve seen it said more than once that she is penetrated by the iron sexually, which I guess makes a kind of sense given the nature of Angela’s rage. But we’re never given any real indication of the nature of the violence, before or after (Judy’s body is one that is never discovered).
*. Did Robert Hiltzik do anything else but these Sleepaway Camp movies? What a remarkably . . . focused career.
*. It’s the notes of oddness that help this film a real curiosity.
*. There is, for example, the lecherous cook Artie ogling the fresh young “chickens” that he likes to call “baldies.” Could you get away with such a scene today? And note how all his fellow kitchen staff laugh along with him!
*. Then there is the slutty counselor Meg looking to hook up with camp owner Mel, who appears to be fifty years her senior (in fact, the age gap between the two actors was 42 years). Again, I’m not sure what is more surprising: that she propositions him or that he takes such an incredible offer in his stride.
*. Of course there is also Aunt Martha. What are we to make of her? I can sort of come to grips with her twisted psyche. I assume she knew her husband was in a gay relationship and that’s why he dumped her, so she now has a major hate on for males. But what’s with all the thinking aloud, a pensive finger to her cheek? Is it just an incredibly awkward way of allowing for exposition?
*. Another question: Does cousin Ricky know about Angela? It seems as though he doesn’t, but . . . how could he not?
*. Everyone likes jumping to conclusions. The cook trips and has a pot of boiling water fall on him. A boy drowns in the lake. Another boy is stung to death by bees. From this everyone assumes that a murderer is loose. And Mel in particular is certain that it’s Ricky. Where does that obsession come from?
*. Is that the fakest screen moustache in film history on the cop? It must be close. Groucho’s greasepaint looked more convincing.
*. I find it odd that the actual murders are poorly, or evasively done — we never see any bees coming out of the hive, the knife going into Meg, or what is done to Judy with the curling iron — but the after-effects are very effective. That snake crawling out of the drowned boy’s mouth was great.
*. Oh, but the ’80s were an ugly decade. I wonder if those cut-off t-shirts we see the guys wearing are ever coming back. I hope not. And even little girls had big hair! It’s cringeworthy.
*. It made money, and sequels followed. You won’t read much about them here.

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