Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD
Sleepaway Camp relays an enormously descriptive premise with its title and cover art alone: this is another horror movie at camp. Coupled with its release in the early Eighties, Sleepaway Camp belongs to a pool of slasher films known for their generic prolificacy; it must be noted that Sleepaway Camp is one of the first and best.
The theme is established exceptionally by an ominous pan across an empty camp. We see an empty lake, picnic tables, a volleyball sand court — the image is married to the sound of bustling campers. The slow pan arrives on a sign for Camp Arawak, slightly obscured behind a “For Sale” sign. Something happened here, something (in the deep, guttural voice of a trailer narrator) horrible.
A preteen, Angela, is the central character, and at camp she is brutally shy, relenting to speak even a word for nearly an hour into the film. As a child she witnessed the deaths of her father and brother to a boating accident. She was subsequently raised by her aunt and at camp is guarded by her cousin Ricky.
Sleepaway Camp involves teenagers, though in an unexpected thematic turn, they are at the beginning of their pubescence. Save for a mooning and the film’s to-be-discussed ending, there is no nudity. The younger characters in the film are at their expected behavior — perverse and obscene — yet their state is not exploited with gratuitous servings of sex. These kids are at the threshold of their adolescence, and they are made all-the-more vulnerable because this is a horror film.
In the contemporary critical standpoint, after one prolific decade of slasher films and one slightly less prolific, it can be said that Sleepaway Camp is derivative; however, I ignore this criticism. Given the film’s age, it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and few others exampled teenage slasher films in the early Eighties (comparisons to Porky’s only deter interest in this film). Even so, the unique merits of Sleepaway Camp outweigh its close adherence to horror genre.
For one, there is an unnatural emphasis on exposition. Angela, her cousin, and many of the campers are given time to exhibit their characters. Prior to each murder, time is given to detail the victim’s wrongs. In this manner the victims are not merely expendables but people, in spite of their disrespected shortcomings.
Finally, Sleepaway Camp has one of the most impressively horrific endings in horror films. (The revelation of the killer’s identity, to outline the scene’s effectiveness, is its least regarded aspect.) On a personal note, after having devoted a considerable portion of time watching, writing on, and becoming further desensitized by horror films, the ending of Sleepaway Camp encouraged a rare action: it complicated my ease of sleep.