Fri. Jun 21st, 2024

Renowned For Sound

For the latest music reviews and interviews

October Challenge – Sleepaway Camp

3 min read

Far too often films shirk away from their own potential. There are so many movies out there that will hint at subject matter, only to suddenly back off, unwilling – or perhaps unable – to follow a plotline through to its logical conclusion. Sleepaway Camp is not one of those films. Outrageous, foul mouthed and distinctly and determinedly shocking, it reaches dizzying heights of greatness largely through its own excess. It doesn’t just deliver on its early promise: it exceeds every boundary that any rational, morally upstanding viewer might expect. In that way, it’s a vicious masterpiece, an exercise in inspired bad taste that is braver than almost any other film of its type.

Initially the plotline seems composed of your basic 80’s slasher movie tropes: the prologue sets up your required tragic accident, as a boating accident claims the life of a father and one of his two horrified children. We cut to years later as the lone survivor, Angela (brilliantly played by the ever magnetic Felissa Rose) is sent off to camp with her protective cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten.) Once there, things rapidly begin to go awry, and the campers and staff alike are soon picked off in increasingly gruesome ways. As the body count steadily climbs, paranoia runs rampant, and the harried camp supervisor Mel (the irreplaceable Mike Kellin) begins to search for the culprit while desperately trying to keep a lid on the rapidly escalating situation.

Sleepaway Camp Insert

So far, so standard. But what makes Sleepaway Camp so brilliant is how courageous the film is. It’s shocking, unashamed stuff, and writer/director Robert Hiltzik fills the film with stupendously unpleasant characters, amongst them a chef/sexual predator named Artie; a Blue Oyster Cult shirt clad bully; and the staunchly unlikeable Meg (“That’s M-E-G. Got it?!”) These aren’t the dumb but harmless teens of Friday the 13th, or the promiscuous but ultimately likeable gang at the centre of Halloween; these are cursing, caustic adolescents. There’s no Hollywood sheen to them; they feel so real exactly because they feel so unpleasant, and anyone who has suffered through the ignominy of being picked on by a bully (i.e.: everyone) will recognise these vandals immediately.

And at the centre of it all there is Angela, one of the most memorable horror characters of all time. Rose injects a genuine pathos and weight into the performance, and her thousand yard stare manages to be both chilling and profoundly affecting. Angela is silent for a good chunk of the film, but rather than treating the lack of dialogue as an impediment, Rose uses it as a gift, and brings a mute charm to the character.

Of course, it is impossible to discuss Sleepaway Camp without mentioning its twist; a genuinely shocking finale that still feels bold and uncompromising almost thirty years later. It’s explicit, it’s unexpected and it’s terrifying. It sears itself into the imagination, and ultimately will stay with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.

Indeed, the finale is indicative of Sleepaway Camp’s bravery. Whereas so many films would – and have – taken a cowardly step back right when they seem to be at the precipice, Hiltzik pushes the proceedings over the very edge, and it topples straight into baroque, brutal territory. It’s taboo-breaking stuff, and one of the most profoundly affecting conclusions around. In short: it’s a perfect way to end a near perfect film.