Sleepaway Camp

Sleepaway Camp
Director: Robert Hiltzik
Screenplay: Robert Hiltzik
Stars: Felissa Rose (Angela Baker), Jonathan Tiersten (Ricky Baker), Karen Fields (Judy), Christopher Collet (Paul), Mike Kellin (Mel), Katherine Kamhi (Meg), Paul DeAngelo (Ronnie), Tom Van Dell (Mike), Loris Sallahian (Billy)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1983
Country: U.S.
Sleepaway Camp DVD
Sleepaway CampWith so many slasher films coming out in the early 1980s, it took something special to stand out from the crowd. And, while Robert Hiltzik's Sleepaway Camp consists almost entirely of characters, situations, and settings that are interchangeable with any number of other Friday the 13th knockoffs, it has the distinction of pulling off a last-minute surprise twist that ends it on such an unexpectedly giddy-weird high note that the entire film benefits, making it seem better in retrospect than it actually is.

The actual revelation at the end is a memorable shocker, albeit one that is hardly unique in the realm of psycho horror movies. But, what makes it stick in your mind is the way Hiltzik presents it. Most of Sleepaway Camp is aesthetically bland; with the exception of the simple, yet ominous opening credits sequence, in which the camera pans around images of a deserted camp while the ghostly sounds of children playing echo on the soundtrack, most of this film is functional, but hardly inspired. The numerous point-of-view tracking shots are effective, but just barely so, and there is little suspense generated. Yet, in the film's final few minutes, Hiltzik morphs into another filmmaker entirely; it's as if he were suddenly possessed by the spirit of Brian De Palma.

As the title suggests, Sleepaway Camp takes place at a summer camp for teenagers. The two main character s are Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and his cousin, Angela (Felissa Rose). Angela is an orphan, her father and brother having been killed in a boating accident in the film's opening sequence. Eight years after the tragedy, she has become so withdrawn that she barely speaks or even reacts to those around her. Ricky is fiercely protective of her, especially once they arrive at Camp Arawak and Angela's mute despondency makes her the target of every cruel character on screen, including a pedophilic cook, a snobby fellow camper named Judy (Karen Fields), and her viciously mean counselor, Meg (Katherine Kamhi). So, when these characters start turning up dead, it's not too hard to figure out who's doing the slashing, although the answer isn't quite as obvious as you think.

There are a number of things about Sleepaway Camp that make it stand out from the glut of slasher movies the clogged cinemas in the early 1980s. Like so many of those other movies, it trades heavily in psychosexual trauma, but it is simultaneously more explicit and subdued. Unlike so many other slasher movies, there is virtually no sex activity in Sleepaway Camp; characters don't die post-coitus, thus it lacks the sexually punitive angle so common in movies of its ilk. However, issues of budding sexuality and confused gender hang heavy over everything in the movie, which is heightened by the fact that most of the characters are early teenagers trapped in their awkward phase. There is something more genuine about the kids in Sleepaway Camp (even if most of them are intensely dislikable) since they don't look like 30-year-olds trying to play college kids.

Sleepaway Camp was an independent production put together by 25-year-old writer/director Robert Hiltzik, who was fresh out of film school. The film's limited $350,000 budget shows at times, but Hiltzik coves over some of the film's rougher edges with a genuinely good orchestral score by Edward Bilous (who sets an ominous tone with a rising crescendo of strings before we see anything on screen) and better-than-usual cinematography by Benjamin Davis. He also directs his actors to play their roles pitched about one note higher than they should be, which gives the whole film a slightly surreal tinge (particularly when Ricky's bizarro mother is on screen, hamming it up like an escaped mental patient).

The film has some definite slip-ups, though, such as a scene in which a character discovers what appears to be a mutilated body (or bodies), but we never find out who it is or if it's even a body at all (since it's so dark, it's hard to tell and there's no set-up for the discovery to explain it). And the there's also the laughable moment near the end where a police officer shows up with a embarrassingly painted-on moustache (the actor apparently shaved off his facial hair before filming was completed, which explains why he has a real 'stache in earlier scenes).

Nevertheless, since its release in 1983, Sleepaway Camp has gradually built up a devoted cult following, particularly on video. There were two quickie sequels churned out in the late 1980s, and Robert Hiltzik recently came out of obscurity (having made no films since this one) and directed a new sequel that reunited the principle cast members (at least those whose characters survived to the final frame). This new "official" sequel has yet to be released, so whether it lives up to the enjoyable nuttiness of the original has yet to be seen.

Sleepaway Camp DVD
Campy Classics Fright PackSleepaway Camp is available individually or as part of Anchor Bay's new "Campy Classics Fright Pack" collection, which takes six previously available DVDs and repackages them together in a clever foil case that looks like a six-pack of beer that is then placed inside a small, soft-sided cooler. This pack also includes Elvira, Return of the Killer Tomatoes, Transylvania 6-5000, Return to Horror High and Vamp.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 2.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary by director Robert Hiltzik and actress Felissa Rose, moderated by Jeff Hayes
  • Theatrical trailer
  • DistributorAnchor Bay Entertainment
    SRP$34.95 (Campy Classics Fright Pack)
    $9.98 (individual disc)
    Release DateAugust 20, 2002 (individual disc)
    July 26, 2005 (Campy Classics Fright Pack)

    Sleepaway Camp has been given a new anamorphic widescreen transfer that is light years ahead of the old video copies that fans have treasured for the past 20 years. The image is relatively clean and sharp, with only a modest amount of dust and a few barely-there vertical hairlines. The darker scenes tend to be a little muddy, but that is likely a result of the original cinematography. Hard-core fans should take note that this version of the film differs slightly from the previously available video versions. As detailed by Jeff Hayes' frighteningly comprehensive fan site, there are two shots missing from this DVD that were available on the circa-1984 Media Entertainment videocassette, one of a watersnake coming out of the mouth a dead body and another of a group of boys running to the end of a dock to go skinny-dipping. Apparently, the print supplied to Anchor Bay by the distributor contained these cuts, and no one seems to know why.

    The split two-channel monaural soundtrack is clean and clear throughout.

    Along with an original theatrical trailer, this disc contains a screen-specific audio commentary recorded by writer/director Robert Hiltzik and actress Felissa Rose, who were reunited for the first time in 20 years thanks to the tireless efforts of Jeff Hayes, Sleepaway Camp's biggest fan, who moderates the track. It is certainly a fun commentary to listen to, as Robert and Felissa have a grand old time yucking it up together and cracking jokes, although it sometimes comes at the expense of information. Longtime fans will certainly enjoy hearing them talk about the film, but those looking for tons of detailed information about the production may find themselves somewhat disappointed.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Anchor Bay Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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