We’ve all seen the slasher movies of the 80’s the ones with killers named Jason, Freddy or Michael. They’re fun movies, filled with cliches, tropes, predictability and not much substance to them. My personal favorite of the slasher films is Michael Myers of Halloween. The entire movie is filled with a tension that director John Carpenter’s deliberate pacing escalates until the final scene.
There are some missing pieces from my horror movie watching and one of those was the cult classic Sleepaway Camp. This is the tale of a serial killer on the loose at a summer camp and as it progresses the violence is increasing until the final shocking twist ending…but more on that in a second.
It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving too much away but by this point if you haven’t seen the movie or heard about the ending either stop reading because there will be spoilers or carry on because I’m not in charge of you.
The first thing you will notice about the movie is that it is awash in everything 80’s. Things are tight, bright and often very short and this can be distracting as we found ourselves commenting as much on what was being worn as the movie itself.
We open on a tragic boating event that take the lives of a father and one of his children. The aunt takes in the remaining child in and raises her as her own. We fast forward to when the now grown Angela and summer vacation where she and her cousin are sent to summer camp.
Here we see that Angela is a little off, she doesn’t really speak much, is shy and you assume she is traumatized from the events of her childhood. Her cousin is angry and ready to fight anyone at the drop of a hat. The kids in the camp are a mixture of jocks, girls with attitudes, bros and other cliched characters. The counselors are a mixture of the same with the head counselor breaking the mold and being a muscle bound nice guy. The owner of the camp is a sleazeball who’s interested in relations with the female counselors and covering up anything that happens at the camp.
The kitchen staff is also comprised of sleaze and people that would not pass a background check to ever be hired to work at a children’s camp. The head chef in particular is a horrible character and also where we see the first kill happen and it’s possibly one of the most illogical/bizarre I’ve yet to see in a movie of this type.
The rest of the movie consists of Angela getting picked on, her cousin coming to the violent/temperamental rescue, the budding relationship that Angela is involved in and of course more deaths, this is a slasher film after all. As the killing frequency increases so of course does the sheer violent ways in which the victims are dispatched and while the ending (more on this in a second) is where we are supposed to be most shocked, the killing of the younger campers in their sleeping bags I think was more shocking.
Now for the ending. It’s supposed to be this massive twist and shock of an ending and I suppose for an audience of the 1980’s it probably was and that’s because it dealt with a transgender person in Angela. She of course is the killer and in the shocking final scene, she has beheaded her love interest and is standing there naked exposing the fact that she is/was actually a he. This ends up being a creepy scene not because she is the killer but because of the pose and visceral scream she unleashes, it’s haunting.
Angela for her involvement in the murders is more the victim as she was forced into this by the Aunt who already had a son and wanted a daughter.
For an audience experiencing this in the 80’s I think the issue of homosexuality (which we get a flashback scene of that featured her father) and the transgender issue it was probably shocking. The issues presented on screen were not talked about, nor common to most people of that era, where now we as a society are aware of LGBTQ issues and don’t believe that they are unnatural or killers simply because of who they are. I imagine that the audience leaving the theater after watching this were shocked at what they had seen and probably even were a little scared into thinking that transgender individuals were potential murders. I don’t think this was the implicit meaning of the film but more that the ending was there as a simple tool of shock and discussion to carry the film forward through word of mouth.
My experience of watching Sleepaway Camp now of course is a lot different and the ending was creepy but not for the reasons given by the filmmaker and watching an origin horror movie such as this, gives you a sense of appreciation for where a lot of the cliches and tropes we see in horror movies originated from.
Overall if you’re a horror movie fan and have not seen Sleepaway Camp then you should add it to your list of movies to watch if nothing more than to see where many of the tropes originate from. Is Sleepaway Camp a good movie? I wouldn’t say it is and at times it does drag with overacting, some cliche characters and bad dialogue but in terms of the history of horror, it’s worth watching for that alone.
I give Sleepaway Camp a 2.5 out of 4 – It’s not good but it’s an originator and has something to offer for that reason alone.