Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Rated R (unrated version reviewed)
On the surface, Sleepaway Camp may look like a stereotypical '80s slasher flick, but there's far more to it than that. Even as it wears the trappings of one, it bucks convention by being less about a bunch of horny teenagers getting killed and more about the journey of its protagonist Angela and the adolescent awkwardness of the young campers themselves. Yes, this is a slasher film about a summer camp where, for once, the camp actually opens and has kids running around, and the result feels less like a Friday the 13th sequel and more like a horror version of Meatballs or Wet Hot American Summer. Even with some hokey performances and production values, it's still a really good example of its genre, bringing a ton of creativity to the table in far more than just the kills, all capped off by an ending that utterly makes the whole movie.
Our main characters are two young teenagers, Angela Baker and her cousin Ricky Thomas, sent to Camp Arawak for the summer by Ricky's mother Martha, who clearly has a few screws loose from what we see of her. Angela lost her father and her brother in a boating accident eight years ago, and has lived with Martha ever since, while Ricky is fiercely protective of his introverted cousin in the face of the bullying she receives daily. At camp, they meet friends, assholes, and a staff that ranges from compassionate to apathetic to (in the case of the pedophile cook Artie or the bitchy counselor Meg) outright malicious, while also having to worry about a series of "accidents" that have been leaving people dead or at least horribly maimed. Who's causing this? Is Ricky taking his protection of Angela too far? Is Angela herself taking matters into her own hands? Has an employee gotten fed up with the camp?
I won't say who, since even though I will say that I knew the basics of the twist going in (it's probably the most famous thing about this movie, and one that the sequels readily spoiled right on their posters), I never anticipated the massive shock that it was. Not only is it simply a great "oh my God" moment on its own, but once you think about it, it casts the film and a number of characters in an entirely different light. It's a far more complex story than just "psycho murders people at a cabin in the woods", with several different layers revealed in this film once you realize who's killing everyone, and more importantly why. Entire essays can, and probably have, been written on the symbolism of the big reveal. More importantly, it's an ending that flows logically from the rest of the film and plays right into its themes. The portrayal of youth bullying on display here is as harrowing as the kills are, and probably more so. These kids are no angels, and they treat each other with all manner of horrifying abuse; as someone who remembers his middle school years, these scenes rang true enough to cause some of my own memories to come boiling up to the surface of my mind. The stock slasher cliches are virtually nowhere to be seen in these characters, both young and old; while not all of them get the most development, and (with the notable exception of Felissa Rose as Angela) many of their actors didn't exactly give the best performances, they all felt unique.
And then we get to the "action" itself. The killer here doesn't wear a mask, and doesn't need one, instead striking from the shadows so that only the victims know who it is. The kills are creative, and while the blood doesn't flow like a river, the special effects work is still outstandingly gruesome, with "highlights" including a drowned body with a snake slithering out of its mouth, the aftermath of being trapped in a bathroom stall with a whole hive of angry bees, lingering shots of what happens when you dump a huge pot of boiling water on someone's face, and the obligatory severed head. Apart from one scene, it still holds up more than thirty years later. I only really found fault in the camp administration's lackadaisical reaction to the murders. After two people dead and one critically injured at the hands of the killer, they're too slow to realize that maybe these "accidents" are in fact connected, and it's only when the body count reaches the usual slasher movie levels that they even consider the possibility that someone is going around killing people. It's not a problem that seriously derails the movie, but it is some rank stupidity on their part.
Score: 4 out of 5
Some parts of this movie have aged fairly poorly, but others are probably more relevant today than ever. Sleepaway Camp easily stands out as one of the better examples of the '80s slasher genre, and shouldn't be overlooked.