When “Sleepaway Camp” was released in 1983, it was immediately attacked as merely being another “Friday the 13th” rip-off. But people need to be reminded that “Friday the 13th” is a MAJOR rip-off of Mario Bava’s great “Twitch of the Death Nerve”. Having said that, “Sleepaway Camp” was the feature film debut of actor Felissa Rose who has gone on to appear in numerous low-budget horror films as well as being one of director Dante Tomaselli’s muses. Even her cameo in Tomaselli’s “Horror” is an homage to her performance in “Sleepaway Camp”.
The basic storyline of “Sleepaway Camp” revolves around shy Angela Baker (Rose) who, eight years earlier, lost her father and brother in a tragic boating accident. Taken in by THE weirdest aunt in film history, Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten, who has a vocabulary R. Lee Ermey would be proud of), Rick and Angela are sent off to that most horrific of childhood rites, summer camp. In this case, it’s Camp Arawak where Ricky is apparently one of the popular kids while Angela just tries to survive the viciousness that her female bunkmates, the camp “beauty” Judy (Karen Fields) – god, the 80s were an era of fashion nightmares! – and her camp counselor, Meg (Katherine Kamhi), constantly dish out to her.
Early in the film, the lecherous head cook Artie (Owen Hughes) makes a play for the silent Angela but is soon “rewarded” by death by boiling water – a pretty hard-to-watch scene. The camp owner, Mel, creepily played by Mike Kellin, wonders if one of the other cooks, including Ben (played by Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones), might have had a hand in the horrific accident. But not wanting the camp to have any bad publicity, he covers everything up by giving the kitchen staff raises. Soon, more and more campers are dying in mysterious but not graphically gory ways, although a few are quite inventive (death by “pleasuring” one’s self with a curling iron, albeit against one’s will) and Mel’s suspicions soon turn to Ricky and his hot temper in protecting his beleaguered cousin Angela. The bitches are still at it, wondering why Angela doesn’t have to participate in certain activities with them and why she doesn’t shower with the other female campers. Like the famous shower scene in “Carrie”, Judy, Meg and a couple of other Alpha Female campers gang up on Angela and mercilessly tease her about her lack of physical development. Unfortunately, a lot of the dialogue in this movie rings very true for kids of that age.
Things start to look up for Angela when Paul (Christopher Collet), a friend of Ricky’s develops a crush on Angela and finally starts to bring her out of her shell. But as with any slasher film, there is no happy ending and in the case of “Sleepaway Camp”, the ending in this film is one of the most shocking seen since, possibly, Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. Not that “Sleepaway Camp” is anywhere near the masterpiece of “Psycho”. But I knew the plot of the film when I watched it for this review and I was still horrified at the ending.
The doe-eyed Felissa Rose was all of 13 when she won the role of Angela and she does an amazing job of projecting her pain and vulnerability with those eyes. The other actors behave pretty much like any kid at a summer camp although Karen Fields as the uber-bitch Judy seemed a little old to be going to camp. The counselors were hilarious but I attribute that more to their mid-80s camp attire – shorts that were VERY short AND tight. And that was on the men! And Desiree Gould, in her brief role as Aunt Martha was SO completely bizarre and “out there”, I had to wonder how Ricky turned out as normal as he did.
The film was shot in Fort Edwards, Glen Falls and Argyle, New York so there are plenty of “Noo Yawk” accents to snicker at – for those so inclined. I found the accents added that much more realism to the movie.
There have been four sequels to “Sleepaway Camp”, none of them approaching the cult status of the original but then nothing could ever top that shocking final shot in the original. The most recent sequel, “Sleepaway Camp V: The Reunion”, which was shot in 2003 but not set for release until later this year, reunites Felissa Rose with writer/director Robert Hiltzik as well as her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Wonder what other secrets Angela has in store for us?