Schlock Art is where truly tasteless, gleefully grotesque and insanely inventive works of genre cinema are celebrated with unironic fervor. Every other week, we highlight a title available for streaming you may have overlooked. This week, we plunge into the fever dream of a slasher that is 1983’s Sleepaway Camp.
In the vast expanse of ’80s slashers left in the wake of John Carpenter’s Halloween, the majority are nigh unwatchable. Even the better ones tend to suffer from long stretches of nothing in between some creative kills. Certainly, there are a handful of sleeper gems in the likes of The Prowler or My Bloody Valentine, but even those pale in comparison to the perpetually underappreciated Sleepaway Camp.
Judged by its summer-camp setting and release date, it may at first appear to be a quotidian Friday the 13th knockoff. In reality, Sleepaway Camp is nearly impossible to categorize, as it has just as much in common with Wet Hot American Summer as it does the aforementioned genre staple.
On a basic narrative level, the movie doesn’t stray far from Friday’s hack-and-slash summer camp formula save a select few touches. As a child, our protagonist, Angela, witnessed her father and younger brother run over and killed by a careless camp counselor in a speedboat. This is shown in the film’s opening scene, a stunningly convoluted flashback that also reveals the father had a secret lover in the form of Lenny, who also witnesses the accident. It’s a testament to the poor editing in this sequence that even famed movie podcasters have been incapable of deciphering just how all of this goes down.
The film picks up eight years later when Angela, now a traumatized mute living with her Aunt Martha, is sent to Camp Arawak with her younger cousin, Ricky. From there on out, it’s whodunit horror as counselors and campers alike are picked off with inventive brutality.
Sleepaway Camp is an oddity among its ilk in that its tonal inconsistencies are what give it strength. For the first 15 minutes or so, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is simply an amusing trainwreck in the vein of The Room and Troll 2: There is truly a wealth of bizarre character work and incredible dialogue to dive into here.
For those who found the support staff at Camp Crystal Lake a tad incompetent, Camp Arawak seems to have been taken over by escaped inmates from an asylum. Arawak’s esteemed staff are, at worst, loudly-and-proudly pedophilic predators and recklessly oblivious at best. As the kitchen staff watches the campers arrive, the head chef’s comment on how these young kids make his mouth water is met with lighthearted laughter (don’t worry; that creep meets the fate pictured above). It is beyond strange.
The kids here don’t act much better, and their frequently vulgar dialogue makes the Bad News Bears come off like a bunch of puritanical Mormons. For campers whose ages seem to fall between 12 and 15, they act like a bunch of vicious degenerates in their 40s. Here’s a choice bit of dialogue:
“Eat shit and die, Ricky!”
“Eat shit and live, Bill.”
Poor Ricky. He wears the dubious honor of being the single likable character in a film filled with ones who appear genuinely unhinged.
Where many slashers from this era grind to a halt in between their gruesome set pieces, Sleepaway Camp doesn’t contain a dull moment in its downtime. In fact, given the almost nonexistent filmography of writer / director Robert Hiltzik, it’s impossible to tell whether or not these baffling moments are intentionally hilarious. They come so fast and furious as to border on Lynchian.
Further evidence of this intentionality comes in the chilling nature of the kills, on which such films live and … well, die. It’s clear Hiltzik put a great deal of effort into these. Hapless counselors are killed with everything from bees to curling irons, and the practical gore is remarkably unsettling. The shot of a snake slithering its way out of a corpse’s mouth is pure nightmare fuel.
Any discourse surrounding this film typically concerns the twist ending, which is simultaneously haunting and deeply stupid. The mechanics behind the reveal are too farfetched to make any real sense, yet the execution is undeniably effective. Some have found elements of this ending problematic in its misogynistic overtones, but I personally find the entire thing too ludicrous to take seriously.
While Sleepaway Camp might not be quite as underseen as other films chosen for this column, it’s often overlooked when discussing all-timers in the slasher pantheon. That’s a shame, as there really is nothing else like it. It’s both a sitcom from hell and a slasher made in heaven.