Breaking from the Slasher Mold: Sleepaway Camp (1983)
From the outside looking in, horror is an easy genre to mock or judge for any number of reasons. Overt violence, troubling gender dynamics, harsh language, crossing lines of “good taste,” or the fact that these films can be made on the cheap. Let’s put aside that some of these complaints are why many of us love horror in the first place. Another common complaint is that all horror movies are the same. In some cases, and within sub-genres of horror, this can be hard to refute. After all, Wes Craven’s Scream detailed the “rules” of surviving a horror film, which satirized his own work. The sub-genre of the slasher film is a typical target of this complaint. Whether your favorite is Michael Myers, Chucky, Jason, or Freddy Krueger, one can argue that there are not going to be a lot of plot driven surprises within the script. However, this does not mean that there are no slashers with some serious, unexpected turns.
And that brings us to 1983’s Sleepaway Camp. Of course, the thought of a slasher movie housed at a summer camp is not exactly breaking new ground. But unlike most films of its ilk, the most famous of which is, of course, Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp focuses mainly on the young campers, as opposed to the sexually-driven camp counselors. This choice, to cast age appropriate for these roles (which must have been a tough sell, even for stage mothers and fathers) gives the audience an instant buy-in due to the realism of their portrayals. Felissa Rose as the main character of Angela, is a rarity in a slasher film. She is certainly not perfect as she is introduced, as many “final girls” would be. Due to her lack of communication skills, we actually understand that she is not going to be well-liked in this new situation at camp. As we get closer to her, the audience does start to understand why she may be awkward and quiet. Much of this is due to seeing her treatment by Judy (Karen Fields), the alpha girl who represents every bully, and yet, never feels unrealistic to any of us who has grown up as a misfit.
Another important difference in Sleepaway Camp is that it does not relish in showing off its killer. As a matter of fact, the killer is only partially revealed in the final moments of the film. Additionally, this is so under-explained that there are still numerous theories about who the killer truly is to this day. What the movie does relish in, however, is the kills. Sleepaway Camp, to say the least, does not shy away from the blood and gore of the typical slasher film. Some might even argue that the film goes too far into the realm of viciousness, especially in its treatment of Judy and other young campers. But many of these kills, as in most horror films, seem designed to punish some truly awful people, including a would-be child rapist and a camp counselor who assists in the bullying of Angela. The kills are filmed cleverly, and many from a first-person perspective. Sure, much of this is connected to the film’s micro budget, but that does not take away the skill on display from director Robert Hiltzik.
But none of this is the reason for Sleepaway Camp’s lasting appeal and cult classic status. If you ask a fan about the film, the most likely response you will hear is “that ending!” In probably the screenplay’s (also written by Hiltzik) most clever twist, it helps us make an assumption after the death of a father and one of his two children (a boy and a girl) in the opening sequence. In the final scene, one of the most shocking in horror history, the audience must quickly come to grips with the fact that Sleepaway Camp has duped us all in the best possible way.
Sleepaway Camp is proof positive that, even within the bounds of the horror genre in general and the slasher sub-genre in particular, these films can still surprise us by broaching new ground. And this is truly one of the greatest things about horror. Because of some of the complaints discussed earlier, there is a certain freedom in the creation of these films. Yes, in general, the budgets are limited and some corners need to be cut (keep an eye out for the police officer’s mustache in Sleepaway Camp). But this opens the door for choices that could never be made in other genres. This pushing of boundaries creates an environment of freedom which enables the terrifying creativity on display in Sleepaway Camp.