THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Sleepaway Camp has a long-standing reputation for being daring. Released in November 1983, it was a box office hit, thanks in part to buzz over a plot twist that was incredibly edgy for the era. Time wasn't as kind to Sleepaway Camp as it was to another summer camp-set chiller, Friday the 13th, but if it failed to enter the general pop culture lexicon, it at least maintained a rabid cult following that continues to grow. Thanks to a new Blu-Ray/DVD Collector's Edition from Scream Factory, the movie is about to get another chance to earn new fans.
The story begins with a boating accident that kills a father and his son, while his daughter and male lover look on in horror. Eight years later, the little girl, Angela (Felissa Rose), is living with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and her insane aunt who sends them to Camp Arawak for the summer. It does not go well. Angela is preyed upon by a pedophilic cook and bullied by her peers, most notably mean girl Judy (Karen Fields). Ricky tries to stand up for her, but there's only so much he can do. Eventually, the people who harass Angela begin dying horrific deaths, via things such as burning, bee stings, and being sexually molested with a curling iron. (I told you it was edgy!) Who is doing the killing? Is it Angela? Ricky? Someone else? The movie's shocking final seconds reveal the truth.
I won't say Sleepaway Camp is a good movie, but it's definitely fascinating, and also shocking. Aside from the aforementioned chef and curling iron, there are several ideas here that could now be considered politically incorrect. (SPOILER ALERT!) Chief among them is the suggestion that transgender people are mentally unstable or dangerous. Some may see the issue as empowering – the transgender character doesn't take anyone's guff – but others will see it as an antiquated, less enlightened portrayal that feeds into negative stereotypes. Either way, it's impossible not to see how it created a stir at the time of the film's release. Homosexuality, bullying, and child murder are other bold subjects that movies of any genre, much less horror, rarely touched in the early 1980s. That the film was willing to incorporate them makes it especially notable.(END SPOILER ALERT)
There are a couple of really effective post-kill shots in Sleepaway Camp, including a corpse that has a snake come out of its mouth, and another whose head is covered with bees. A lot of effort went into making the effects as realistic as possible. That gives the movie an undeniable jolt. Writer/director Robert Hiltzik goes all-out in the horror moments, displaying a willingness to make the audience uncomfortable. Other times, Sleepaway Camp is unintentionally hilarious, as in the way characters tend to just stand and scream endlessly when seeing someone die, rather than calling the police or an ambulance. Look closely and you will also spot some funny continuity errors and goofs. For instance, one character, who has a real mustache at the beginning of the film, reappears later with a fake one clearly drawn on.
The combination of edgy themes, a shocking twist, appropriately nasty violence, and some humorously amateurish moments of filmmaking make Sleepaway Camp kind of fun, even though it's by no means a great work of art. Rose, Tiersten, and Fields all give good, authentic performances, and the twist ending really is surprising. Sleepaway Camp ends with that twist, freeze-framing on an image that has become iconic to hardcore horror buffs everywhere. The movie won't be everyone's cup of tea, but for those with a strong interest in cinematic scares, it is most definitely a gutsy picture that deserves to be seen and discussed.
Scream Factory has given Sleepaway Camp a brand new 2k scan, taken from the original camera negative, so it looks very good. The creepy visual atmosphere really pops. Three audio commentaries can also be found. The first is from Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten, who offer a lot of terrific memories of making the film. We learn that Tiersten's name is misspelled in the credits, and that Jane Krakowski was originally supposed to star. Rose discusses some of the issues involved in filming the final scene. It's obvious that the two stars have an affection for the movie, and their commentary makes for great listening. Rose returns for a second commentary with Robert Hiltzik, while Hiltzik and webmaster Jeff Hayes provide the third.
The rest of the bonus materials fall into one of two categories. The first is supplemental stuff, starting with an excellent 45-minute retrospective documentary entitled “At the Waterfront After the Social: The Legacy of Sleepaway Camp.” Rose, Tiersten, Fields, and Hiltzik all return for this, offering behind-the-scenes stories. Among the revelations: the two leads had an on-again/off-again flirtation. Hiltzik, meanwhile, discusses fears that his movie would earn an X rating, and acknowledges now being uncomfortable including a scene involving the slaughter of young children. The funniest story involves a college student who worked as a body double for Angela and required multiple beers to perform the scene. This is a thoroughly entertaining feature that gives real insight into the film. The original theatrical trailer and some TV spots also fall into the supplemental category, as does a demonstration of the 2k scan process. It's interesting, even if a little too technical to understand.
The second category is more of a “What Are They Doing Now?” sort of thing. Judy is a 15-minute short film from Jeff Hayes that has Karen Fields reprising her Sleepaway Camp role. Judy is now an unhinged woman who torments a deadbeat dad and his money-grubbing wife. Honestly, the film is incredibly amateurish, with inept acting (Fields aside), and sloppy direction. It's virtually unwatchable. Jonathan Tiersten fares better, as a professionally-made music video for his song “The Princess” is included, as well.
Sleepaway Camp has a lot of goodies to go with the main feature, making this new Blu-Ray an impressive package. For more information, or to order a copy, please visit the Scream Factory website.
Sleepaway Camp is rated R for strong graphic violence/gore, sexuality/nudity, and adult themes. The running time is 1 hour and 24 minutes.
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