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Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Quirky, cheesy, less violent than its peers, and frequently kind of sweet, Sleepaway Camp is not your average 80s slasher film. There's no reason it should be -- it was made towards the end of the first slasher cycle (which ran from Halloween until Silent Night, Deadly Night) and that particular subgenre was stretching for new ideas. Sleepaway Camp takes on a concept that should have been a natural for Friday the 13th but never quite worked that way -- using the frustration of summer campers' early adolescence as the background for murder. Toss in a terrifying ending, and you have a minor cult classic.
Eight years after a tragedy robs her of a father and a sibling early in her life, painfully shy Angela (Felissa Rose) makes a return to the very same camp where they died. In tow is her hot-tempered, foul-mouthed cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), who defends Angela from every insult and slight. Oh, and there are many. Angela's not making a lot of friends, and the people who are really nasty to her keep dying. Can she come out of her shell and find summer lovin' with Ricky's friend Paul (Christopher Collet) before it's lights out for the entire camp?
I won't lie -- this isn't Shakespeare. It's not even Stephen King. It's a kooky slasher that's been grafted onto a sweet, even adorable summer camp comedy -- an actual one that deals with the campers' emotional and sexual issues more than it does the counselors.
It's a potent ground to tread upon -- I'm hard-pressed to think of a group more screwed up then summer camp misfits. Isolated from their home environment, with only strange and occasionally hostile adults to turn to, and nowhere to run when the bullies start up their games... I'm surprised that summer camp murders aren't more prevalent.
Writer/director Robert Hiltzik obviously agrees. He keeps the focus on the campers and their hijinks for the most part -- almost too much at times -- in order to maximize the effect of the murders when they do come along. A solid rationale is built for the choice of each particular victim (even if the reasoning behind the actual killing itself turns out to be flimsy as hell). We know the people dying for the most part.
Of course, we don't like the people who die -- they're among the worst bullies and jerks that teen cinema ever saw. This might have been a problem if Hiltzik hadn't made the focal point of the story Angela. See, it seems almost obvious who does all the killing if you put the pieces together with the knowledge of slasher films past, but Angela's so cute and so vulnerable. It's difficult not to cheer on her budding romance with Paul. Despite the circumstantial evidence, we want very much for Angela to be the victim of unfortunate circumstance, and we want some other explanation for all the dead bodies. When we get the shock reveal of the true culprit at the end of the film, it's certainly unexpected and it is definitely unnerving.
Hiltzik intersperses the proceedings with bizarre flashbacks from Angela's past. These are twisted upon twisted. Any interactions with her slightly dotty Aunt are to be remembered and cherished -- you might as well, because they're going to stick with you anyway.
There's about 11 murders in the movie, attempted or otherwise. Perhaps to avoid a need to recut the film later, Hiltzik chooses to suggest the worst ones through shadow or by obscuring part of the action. I preferred this approach as it lent more atmosphere to the film that you'd usually get from a slasher. For the gorehounds, there are a few definite gross-out jobs, makeup-wise, and they are fairly impressive for the early 80s -- especially the death by bee sting.
As a bonus to the rest of the fun, Sleepaway Camp is knee-deep in 80s kitsch. Guys wear short shorts -- one counselor wears a red pair so short that they're probably better described as very sturdy underpants. The hairstyles are all feathered and Judy, the queen bitch of camp, wears a sideways ponytail of immense fluffiness -- people could die in that thing.
Sleepaway Camp's biggest fault is that sometimes it doesn't maintain a solid rhythm of suspense. This seems to be due to some errors in directorial judgment regarding the overall pacing of the story, but it's a problem that's surprisingly easy to overlook given the natural pace of the non-horror elements and the chilling final shot. If you consider having more fun than fright to be an issue, you may want to think twice about this movie.
Sleepaway Camp is available on Anchor Bay DVD either individually or as part of the "Sleepaway Camp Survival Kit," which also features the two Sleepaway Camp sequels and bonus footage from the aborted fourth film in the series. Be warned that the Anchor Bay edition is slightly edited, although it appears to be a matter of the print that AB was working with rather than any censorship on their part. In any case, the print is beautiful and the cuts (at least according to the official series website) seem relatively minor. I wouldn't let this deter you from picking up the film and having a little 80s slasher nostalgia. It's all good, creepy, and, dare I say, campy fun.