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Our reviews of Fright Pack: Campy Classics (published July 26th, 2005), Return To Sleepaway Camp (published November 14th, 2008), Sleepaway Camp (published September 6th, 2000), Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (published September 4th, 2002), and Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (published September 4th, 2002) are also available.
You won't be coming home!
One of the most notoriously crazy slasher movies of the '80s gets the full Scream Factory treatment and it is glorious.
Facts of the Case
Welcome to Camp Arawak, where young Angela (Felissa Rose, Satan's Playground) is spending the summer despite being so shy and awkward she can barely talk to anyone but her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten, The Perfect House), who has watched out for her ever since her father was killed in an accident and she came to live with wacky Aunt Martha. Angela's first summer at camp runs into trouble when someone begins killing off the campers and staff, because that's the kind of thing that happens in these movies.
There are very few critical standards against which writer/director Robert Hiltzick's 1983 slasher Sleepaway Camp would be considered a classically "good" movie. Yet for what it is, it's kind of great—one of the goofiest, most bonkers horror films of the '80s that distinguishes itself as such long before the now-infamous "twist" rears its head.
Yes, Sleepaway Camp is best known for its shocker ending, which I will not spoil here for the five or six of you not already aware of what it is. I'm not sure we would still be talking about the movie over 30 years later if not for that twist ending—it's why the movie has stuck in the minds of horror fans—but it's also not what defines the movie. There are too many fascinating choices made even before those last few minutes for that to be the whole movie.
Plenty of horror movies have been set at summer camp, from The Burning to most of the Friday the 13th series. But Hiltzick's movie feels different from the others for a host of reasons, chief among them that he used actual kids as actors. Instead of the twentysomethings playing counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, Hiltzik uses 13-year-old Felissa Rose as wide-eyed Angela and surrounds her with other real teenagers. They act like real teenagers, too; instead of the "witty" Catskills banter of Friday the 13th, the kids of Camp Arawak are emotional and reactionary. Every character in the movie has a hair trigger when it comes to rage-filled insults. They're nasty people, and Hiltzik's dialogue begins to become its own kind of weird, profane poetry. It also feels like a real camp because it was shot at a real camp—the camp at which Hiltzik spent his own summers as a kid.
It's the weird touches that make Sleepaway Camp special, like an impossible-to-believe romance between camp owner Mel and camper Meg, which we're supposed to believe is even remotely possible, or the bizarre flashback sequences (that only make sense after the final reveal) or the eccentric Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould), who is straight out of a David Lynch movie. The kill scenes are memorable not because of the gore (which is present but never shocking, even in this unrated cut) but because Hiltzik has devised ridiculous ways in which to dispatch his characters: swarm of bees, boiling water and, most famously, curling iron. Each one stands out because each one has never been seen in a movie before or since. Though Sleepaway Camp was clearly made as a reaction to the slasher craze of the early '80s, it distinguishes itself not by getting the words right but by making the music sound completely crazy. While he's no John Carpenter, it can't be denied that Robert Hiltzik is an auteur of sorts. Sleepaway Camp is a movie very much made in one person's voice. I love that about the film.
It should come as no surprise that Scream Factory is responsible for bringing Sleepaway Camp to Blu-ray, seeing as they are singlehandedly rescuing a huge number of cult horror films and allowing audiences to rediscover them. The new 2K scan of the film is as good as the movie has ever looked. It's never going to totally transcend its low-budget roots, meaning it still appears grainy and soft and times, but the print is generally clean and more detail has been revealed in the image than ever before. The new DTS mono audio mix is clear and faithful to the source, balancing Hiltzik's bizarre dialogue poetry with the occasional music cue and sting scare. Scream Factory couldn't turn Sleepaway Camp into something it isn't, but they have made sure it's as good as it can be for what it is.
There are quite a few bonus features packed into this special edition Blu-ray (a standard def DVD comes packaged as a set). The original DVD commentary with Hiltzick and star Felissa Rose has been retained, accompanied by two brand new commentaries. The first features Hiltzick and Sleepaway Camp expert Jeff Hayes (who appears on the former track as well), while the second reunites Felissa Rose with co-star Jonathan Tierston. Because the three of the four people are repeated across the three tracks, there's some overlap and repetition, but a good deal of fun to be had (particularly when Rose is involved; she's a hoot) and plenty of information about the production. Scream Factory has included another of their great retrospective documentaries, too; while I wish a few more of the movie's participants had been interviewed, there's good stuff here, too. Jeff Hayes' shot-on-video short film "Judy" has been included, which was shot some years ago and stars Karen Fields resuming the character she originated in Sleepaway Camp. Also included is a "scrapbook" with some archival stills and the movie's original theatrical trailer.
I have tried, but I don't think I can really articulate why I love Sleepaway Camp. Some movies have their own unique charm, even ugly, confused movies like this one. It succeeds by being so much its own thing that I can't help but admire it—in the sea of '80s slashers, this one stands out. Oh, and that ending. It's something.
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