Slasher movies are a bit paradoxical by nature, in that they are, on the whole, some of the most ridiculous films in the horror genre, and yet they seem to take themselves so deathly seriously. It’s a counterintuitive and incongruous tonal clash that often makes these films seem overly cheesy or cheap, as the corny acting and the nonsensical, soap-opera plots undermine and invalidate what filmmakers often intend to be a concept that’s played straight.
I think the reason for this is largely two-fold:
- A basic lack of self-awareness. A lot of slasher films are helmed by amateurs or first-time directors, who set out to make their first big hit. As a result, they treat the thing like it’s some sacred, solemn piece of art that needs to be treated with the utmost sense of reverence and respect. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for an inexperienced filmmaker who doesn’t necessarily have the tools or experience to translate such an earnest vision to the screen, the practical reality is that something like that just isn’t in the cards.
- The stigma of the genre itself. Horror has a reputation in the mainstream for being grim, dark, and gruesome, when in actuality, it probably relies just as much on levity as it does depravity. But the stereotypes and trappings of the genre can also affect not just audiences and critics, but filmmakers themselves, so less genre-savvy first-time directors and writers feel the need to oversaturate their stories with mature themes and tones that, again, their level of skill simply can’t support.
Regardless of the reasons, the end result is the same: A messy, bloated subgenre full of films that seem totally unsure of their identity. Which makes it all the more special when a slasher comes along that knows exactly what it is, and masterfully strikes the balance between the cheesy and the suspenseful or the scary. The films that know, with horror (especially slashers), you can’t exercise the lighter aspects altogether, so you might as well embrace them. Funny thing is, this doesn’t have to be an intentional choice on behalf of the filmmakers. Sometimes it can just sort of… happen.
Sure, some of the big slasher mainstays like Friday the 13th have tried towing this line from time to time, with Jason Lives in particular being especially wink-wink-nudge-nudge with its meta humor and self-aware irreverence. And Child’s Play is practically built on the premise of showcasing the goofier side of the slasher trope. But again, these are all deliberate choices. Yet, sometimes, a perfect storm of inexperienced filmmakers, amateur actors, troubled production, and a complete lack of studio faith or interest can come together to churn out something beautifully, wonderfully bananas. Something so unintentionally stupid and goofy that it goes beyond being terrible and loops around again to being amazing. A rare gem that manages to be not only a parody of the genre, but also an excellent example of the very thing that it’s spoofing.
Enter Sleepaway Camp.
Released in 1983, the early days of the slasher craze spawned by Halloween in ’78 and Friday the 13th in 1980, Sleepaway Camp is an enigma of a film, due entirely to its nebulous sense of purpose and intent. On the one hand, it has all the markings of another film in a long, long line of imitators intending to capitalize on the subgenre’s rising popularity. You’ve got a first-writer, director, and executive producer in Robert Hiltzik. You’ve got a cast of completely unknown, inexperienced child actors, along with a few scattered established performers (one of whom is Robert Earl Jones, father of Darth Vader himself James). You’ve got a microscopic budget and a run-down campground set. And lastly, but perhaps most damning, you’ve got a story that may as well be a paint-by-numbers rundown of slasher clichés that were already stale, even by the early 80s.
If the film that we got from this dime-a-dozen production had been watered down by the same self-important and unaware tone as Friday the 13th or any number of other identical films, we wouldn’t be talking about it today. Because something magical happened during the making of Sleepaway Camp, something wonderfully inexplicable and borderline transcendent that seemingly emerged ex nihilo, that transformed this unassuming little film into an insane, hilarious fever dream.
First, we have our actors. In a rare occurrence, the campers that populate the fictional Camp Arawak are comprised mostly of actual children. Typically, the “teens” in movies are played by, at best, twenty-something, and often by actors who are even older. This is mostly just to get around labor laws that prevent anyone under 18 from working lengthy days on set, making it difficult to actually get the coverage necessary on a day-to-day basis. Sleepaway Camp says “no” to that logical, practical decision, and instead features a whole host of little goblins running around causing mayhem onscreen.
And these kids are great. They have brought their genuine A-game to this film, something that they absolutely didn’t have to do. I don’t know why anyone would look at the script for Sleepaway Camp and decide “You know what? I’m going to give this my full effort and attention,” and yet somehow the production team managed to find an entire cast full of exactly that type of person. I’m being somewhat facetious here, because a lot of these actors are terrible, but they’re terrible in a charming, endearingly real way. Like, you can tell the line delivery is garbage sometimes, but garbage in that wonderful way that kids actually talk sometimes, because they’re the weirdest demographic of people on this planet. It’s strangely perfect.
And what really helps the performances here is the dialogue. Sleepaway Camp adopts the same philosophy that Matt Stone and Trey Parker would eventually use as a basis for writing the child characters in South Park: Kids are vulgar as all hell. And these kids are little monsters. They let loose some of the most vicious, hateful monologuing diatribes I’ve ever heard this side of a prison movie. Just listen to this:
That is some professional cursing, right there. And it’s one hundred percent how young boys talk when left to their own devices. Again, it’s perfect.
It’s not just the boys who are written this way, either. Sleepaway Camp gives equal opportunity for both sexes (and everything in between) to be raging sociopaths. Here’s designated Mean Girls predecessor giving one of the greatest insults in film history:
Bitchiness on a scale hitherto unknown, I tell you. I love it.
And that’s just the kids. Wait until you meet the mother of our main character, Ricky, in the opening act of the film as she sends her son and niece off to camp:
I don’t even know how to describe that. It’s so camp, so over-the-top that it has to be deliberate. There’s no way that the director, no matter how green he may have been, would have allowed that otherwise. It’s an intentional choice, unquestionably, one that only makes a modicum of sense with the greater context of the film’s ending which, believe me, we’ll get to later.
Outside of the dialogue choices in this film, the actual plot of Sleepaway Camp has the same kind of fascinating, ruggedly slap-dash feel as the characters do, which again only helps to sell the authenticity of the film, even as it gets increasingly ridiculous. There are entire scenes in this movie that serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. There’s a nearly five-minute long baseball scene with multiple cuts and fades to show the passage of time. Nothing of any plot relevance or character development happens here. It’s just a bunch of boys playing baseball and swearing like sailors. And still, somehow, it doesn’t feel at all out of place or incongruous with the rest of the movie.
There’s a subplot about a cook being a pedophile, a weird third-act detour showing the characters having a flashback to a gay affair they witnessed as a child (again, with no real reason behind it whatsoever), and all sorts of random, background bits of characterization and backstory that serve no real narrative purpose other than to just fill this film with as much weirdness as possible.
The film also defies horror tradition and solely sexualizes its male characters, rather than its female ones, which is played as overtly as logistically possible:
Even the kills in the film, which are about the only part that takes the slasher premise even remotely seriously, are openly self-mocking. A guy gets locked in toilet stall and has an entire beehive thrown at him, a man is doused in boiling corn water, and a girl gets a piping-hot curling iron shoved somewhere I’d rather not mention. It feels like every single choice that went into making this film was done to be as subversively satirical as possible. And yet I know that wasn’t the case. Everything I’ve managed to find about the production of Sleepaway Camp suggests that it was meant to be a fairly standard camp slasher film. Everything that makes it so silly and fun is mostly just happenstance, and learning that is the closest I’ve ever come in my life to believing in magic.
And we haven’t even gotten to the ending yet. Perhaps the reason that this film became such a cult classic in the first place, the final shot in this fever dream of a movie is one of the most memorable and iconic shock twists in cinema history. This single end scene is more infamous, more famous than anything else in the movie which, let me tell you, is saying something. If you don’t know how Sleepaway Camp ends, stop reading here and go watch this movie now. NOW. I’ll wait.
Take your time.
Okay, ready? Holy shit, right? What the hell was that?! For those of you who didn’t watch it, and just want to know what on Earth I could possibly be talking about that could be any zanier than what I’ve already described or shown, brace yourselves. The twist: A penis.
Told you it was incredible.
See, the backbone of Sleepaway Camp is a young girl named Angela, the shy younger cousin to our potty-mouthed protagonist, Ricky. Angela was involved in a tragic boating accident as a child, which we see in the opening scene in the film. During the occurrence, her father and her twin brother were killed, leading to her traumatized, fragile state in the present day.
Only, that’s not what happened. The twist, the big reveal here is that it was actually the sister who died that day, not the brother. “Angela” is actually Peter, was forced to grow up as a girl after his aunt, Ricky’s mother (whose special brand of crazy is only now slightly relevant to the plot) decided that she already had a boy, and another one simply wouldn’t do. This is all revealed to us in a terrifying, hauntingly bizarre shot where a group of councilors come across ‘Angela,” completely nude, holding the severed head of ‘her’ love interest, and growling like a cornered animal, all while grinning widely in one of the most disturbing bits of imagery I’ve ever seen. Look at this:
It’s so out of left field, so unnecessary, and so ridiculous, and yet, like everything else in this endless parade of oddities and sideshow freaks, it feels strangely appropriate. Like it was the only natural, rational way this could end. Again, the gender-bending reveal has no real bearing on the plot itself, and not a whole lot in terms of setup or foreshadowing. The twist is just a twist for the sake of having one. Of course, narratively, the real twist is supposed to be that the quiet, harmless Angela has been the one committing the grisly murder this entire time. But this fact is completely overshadowed by the other bonkers stuff happening in that scene.
The play on gender identity in these final moments of Sleepaway Camp open up a whole can of worms that I don’t feel qualified to get into here, nor would I want to if I was. There’s nothing to analyze, nothing to justify or explore. It’s just another weird thing in a fantastical parade of weird things.
Seriously guys and gals, go see this movie. It’s such an utterly bizarre experience that it has to be seen to believed. Nothing I’ve said here today can properly do it justice. If you love slashers, it’s a loving homage and an effective example of the subgenre. If you hate them, it also spends a great deal of time mercilessly mocking them. If you have no strong feelings whatsoever on the subject, watch it anyway. It’s worth your time alone for the stories you can tell to your friends about it. Hell of a way to spice up the water cooler talk, I promise you.
When a slasher film allows itself, intentionally or not, to go all in on the more absurd and farcical aspects of the genre it belongs to, it can make all the difference in the world. Without the ludicrous, unbelievable quirks that it would randomly come to define it, Sleepaway Camp would be just another generic, soulless cash-grab slasher flick that would have been lost to the ages. Instead, it became one of the most wholly unique and exceptionally, unusually remarkable horror films ever made.
This movie should serve as a shining beacon to every filmmaker in the genre: Make your movies weird! It could be the only thing that stands between a lifetime of obscurity and one of notoriety. There’s been so many horror films, so many films in general, released to the general public that to stand out is next to an impossible task. It’s why the strange, the subversive, and the charmingly repulsive tend to make waves, even if only among cinephiles and movie snobs. Films like Mandy, Rubber, and most recently, James Wan’s Malignant are notable for how well they don’t adhere to expected genre tropes. They forge their own identity, independent of the mundane, and rightfully received all the attention and praise that such brave choices deserved.
And even if it’s not deliberate, if it isn’t your goal to make surprising, rebellious cinema, don’t be afraid to let the rough edges show! Sleepaway Camp owes a lot of its remarkability to how unpolished and accidental it feels. What some might consider to be amateur, others will see as raw and spontaneous. I’m so tired of seeing an unending stream of unoriginal stream of predictable, boring horror films in the mainstream. It’s time we got weird again, and Sleepaway Camp should be our Sherpa, guiding us into the world of the extreme and the borderline schizophrenic.
Go watch this movie as soon as you get the chance, and let me know what you think! Maybe I’m just crazy, who knows?
And, as always, Happy Halloween!