Though no amount of warning can prepare you for the many pleasures of Sleepaway Camp, it’s probably best to enjoy this pinnacle of ‘80s horror trash with the virgin mindset of its lead character. (That said, come back to this review after you’ve seen the film.) Nothing here makes a lick of sense (how many people must die at summer camp before parents show up and whisk their kids away?), but there’s something to be said about the way director Robert Hiltzik parallels (possibly intentionally) the confusion of its lead character in the story’s many provocations, even in the tired trends familiar to so many other ‘80s horror flicks, from overage actors playing teens and pre-teens to the last-act, no-child-left-behind contextualizations for the string of killings scattered throughout the film.
Sleepaway Camp begins with two moppets (a boy and a girl, both with similar dos—for a reason, of course, though you’re not meant to know that quite yet) and their unusually hot dad swimming in a lake. Offshore, a second inexplicably hot man yells to the group to get out of the water before a trio of crazy teens runs over the dad and one of the moppets with their runaway speedboat. Eight years later, Desiree Gould’s preposterous Aunt Martha ushers her son Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and her niece Angela (Felissa Rose) away to camp, where someone starts killing campers and counselors alike, all of whom seem to have it “out” (tee hee!) for the inexplicably silent Angela, presumably the moppet that survived the opening set piece and who has yet to get over the shock.
From Rose’s literally wide-eyed interpretation of her character’s constant state of petrification (try and count how many times she blinks during any given shot) to Gould’s narcissistic solo act, which envisions what it might have been like had Andrea Feldman’s character from Paul Morrissey’s Heat done Shakespeare, one of Sleepaway Camp‘s pleasures is its consistently high-pitched performances. Just as bizarre is the story’s psychosexual mean streak: From the girls Angela shares a cabin with to the boys who throw water balloons at her (notice where the water balloon game takes place and how close in proximity the participants are to each other), Sleepaway Camp evokes a period in time before Ritalin and common sense. Seriously, watching Angela (and to a lesser extent Ricky) being targeted throughout the film is like watching a group of shrill brats shooting rocks at a baby bird—if it wasn’t so obvious that everyone’s non-stop cruelty was in service of some big-reveal, or if the performances weren’t so damn preening, the film would be completely intolerable.
Sleepaway Camp may be the only horror film from the ‘80s where the boys show more flesh than the girls. Not a single tit can be seen in the film—even Meg (Katherine Kamhi), who’s entirely too happy to be going out on a date with the head camp counselor twice her age, and who’s murdered in the shower when the killer gruesomely runs a knife down her back, is seen only from the upper part of her chest to her head—but there isn’t a minute that goes by where a prepubescent boy isn’t showing off his barely-there chest or some guy isn’t wrapping his sculpted legs around someone or grabbing onto his dick in a show of intimidation. What’s going on here? It’s tempting to think that Hiltzik is some queen and that he’s getting his jollies by putting one over the Hollywood machine, except the film’s preposterous conclusion suggests Hiltzik would rather beat the shit out of a queen than stick his tongue down one of their throats.
In many ways, ‘80s horror films with cautionary slants can be seen as reactions to frank and open expressions of sexual behavior throughout the ‘70s. If sex was “free” a decade earlier, now it came with a price. Just before it’s revealed that Angela is really Peter and that Aunt Martha inexplicably decided to raise him as a girl after the accident that killed his sister and hunky dad, a series of flashbacks sheds light on the identity crisis of the film’s killer: two men (yes, the hunky guys in the film’s opening scene) caress each other in bed, and after witnessing this ‘50s-PSA spectacle of queer petting, two siblings reach for each using an E.T.-phone-home-pull-my-finger gesture that seems to imply that they’re going to fuck each other (in the butt perhaps?). (The scene is eerily similar to what happened in a recent South Park episode in which Butters, dressed in a bear suit, repeatedly pokes Paris Hilton’s squishy vagina.)
Everything suddenly makes sense (everyone’s obsession with Angela’s “hot bod”; why Angela gets upset when she/he is hit by a water balloon; why she won’t shower with the other girls) and it’s all very “complicated” (not that the film is really concerned with the character’s sexual confusion and if she/he prefers boys over girls), but how does one explain the lascivious nature of the film’s murders? This isn’t just some person being driven over the edge by rampant bullying—it’s a mathematical equation being solved after eight long years (or 90 minutes). Gay Dad + Incest + Foster Mom (a.k.a. Refugee from Andy Warhol’s Factory) = I’m Going To Put A Curling Iron In Your Vagina. If the film wasn’t so hilarious, and if the final money shot wasn’t so damn creepy (look everyone, she has a pee-pee!)—what with the film looking as if it was paused so as to ensure you get a real long (or short) look at the weiner—you might actually have time to be offended.