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I never went to camp as a kid. Growing up in Missouri, there was plenty of open space and fresh air right where I lived, and besides that, my folks were never the type to want to ship their kids off for extended periods (also, I was a real sweety pie). After watching Sleepaway Camp, I can’t believe people would have ever sent their children away for the entire summer. Between entrusting your kids’ lives in the hands of counselors barely older than their charges, the geographical isolation most camps are located in, the many dangers that lay wait in nature, and hoping strange adults won’t prey on your kid, the classic idea of a “summer camp” in America is as 20th century an idea as radio and segregation.

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This was the law in America for much of the 20th century. Ah, the Good Old Days!

Released in 1983, Sleepaway Camp came out at the height of the slasher horror movie’s popularity and has since enjoyed cult status among aficionados for its bizarre plotting, gruesome onscreen deaths, and a surprising reveal at the end (major spoiler (*salutes*) right up front: the main character, Angela, is actually a boy). Among my generation (roughly late Gen Y/early Millenial), this movie and its sequels were among the rather colorful VHS box art that horror films would be packaged in. As a little kid, my folks would markedly avoid walking me past this section (because I was a good boy), but as I got older, I would peruse the horror section just to look at the gruesome and artistic cover art. Sleepaway Camp came in one of those VHS boxes that was nearly twice the size of the standard packaging. This was because the bigger VHS boxes would make the titles stick out on the shelf more and take up extra advertising space; horror movie sections were jammed with irregular-sized VHS boxes and great cover art just for this reason, since they would often be impulse rentals on a Friday night or during the Halloween season by young folks looking for a good scare to enjoy with their Zima and acid wash jeans.

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You know: for kids!

To jabber on about a past that the Youth of Today couldn’t care less about: this was also a very popular film (film series, actually; at least two sequels were made after the success of this first film) with the slumber party crowd. Since my folks raised me like veal (I suspect they were planning on eating me eventually), I never really got to enjoy the rite of passage that sleepovers entailed: staying up late with your friends and watching movies that you shouldn’t be watching, wandering around the forbidden nightscape of a friends’ parents’ house, talking sex and trash and building bonds with friends that help make young people somewhat normal adults. The sleepover itself is an example of a heterotopia: closed spaces created for human experiences to occur without the limitations and restrictions of a hegemonic order.

For example, prom night parties and dance clubs could be considered heterotopias; much like the sleepover, these spaces allow for identity performance to occur that are important for social and psychological development and could otherwise not occur without the judgment and rules of behavior that a hegemonic order demands people to self-regulate their performances within. Maybe if I watched more horror movies and were allowed to go to sleepovers as a kid, I wouldn’t be applying concepts like heterotopia to silly horror reviews that I’m writing while unemployed as an adult. Maybe.

So the movie opens with two kids—a boy and a girl—and their hirsute dad hanging out on a sailboat on a lake. An ominous water-skier lurks in the background while the family tips the boat over (he calls them little schemers, but it doesn’t seem like they tipped over the boat intentionally, so yeah) and they all end up in the drink. Meanwhile, Chad the Moterboat Boy lets a 13-year-old girl take the wheel because it was 1983 so who cares who lives or dies in Reagan’s America?

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Reagan certainly didn’t.

As one would expect, the dad and one of the kids gets an outboard motor to the face, and then 8 YEARS LATER (as the movie helpfully lets us know) a woman, who is Acting with a capital A, calls upstairs in her house for her son and niece (hint). They are leaving for camp that day and she seems like she’s having an episode of some sort as she ecstatically reveals that she bought her son, Ricky, a whole bag of potato chips. The young woman, Angela, isn’t the talkative type, in that she seems catatonic. The woman makes a very specific, big deal about giving the kids their PHYSICALS that they HAVE TO take to camp, and not to tell them that she’s the DOCTOR who COMPLETED THEM. It’s a suspiciously specific bit of exposition being dropped here, but we haven’t gotten to the end of the movie yet so as viewers we’re not supposed to know why it’s being mentioned (but we do, because we live in the future).

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“Have I loaded enough bullets in Chekov’s gun? Why, I’m sure I have!”

They get to camp, where we meet some of the ugliest, most foul human beings the early 1980’s could provide, the type where a group of grown men stand around and laugh it up while the pedophile cook leers and comments on the 12-year-old girls walking by. But this is just the beginning of what will become a cornucopia of totally inappropriate situations and dialogue for actual child actors to be involved in. Because American Cinema in 1983 thought to itself, let’s just do anything and see what sticks, producing such varied fare as Scarface, Mr. Mom, A Christmas Story, and Videodrome. Also, The Bad News Bears effect was still in place, meaning that that it was OK for kids to smoke, curse, and hurl ethnic slurs on-screen (2016 update: it’s not). So we move right on to introducing some of the campers, and man is it not enjoyable to listen to prepubescent kids sexually objectifying other kids. Ricky gets the cold shoulder from last year’s crush, Judy, so Ricky calls her a bitch. Kids!

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Pictured: A 12-year old talking about the breast size of a 13-year-old. Sleepaway Camp!

In the girls’ bunk, counselor Meg (“M-E-G”) is in charge of the group, which includes zoned-out Angela, who is immediately the target of Judy and Meg’s cruel taunting. Is this what happens when kids get sent away every summer? They turn into cold, monstrous sociopaths? Anyway, these girls are the worst and will all probably be dead soon, so that’s nice.

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A better four-letter word to put on her shirt comes to mind.

Then it’s mealtime and Angela’s not eating, so a muscly weirdo that looks like a cross between Lou Ferrigno and Gabe Kaplan (40-year-old references are hip!) decides to bring her into the kitchen to introduce her to the camp’s head pedophile, who promptly ushers her into the walk-in freezer. Out in the mess hall, Ricky stands up for his mute cousin to the table full of bitch that taunted her while Angela nearly gets sexually assaulted. Ricky’s doing double-duty because he fortunately saves her before Pedo-Cook gets his apron off, and the first day of camp has quickly become the third most traumatizing day of Angela’s young life.

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What is this I don’t even

Time passes (An hour? A day? A week? Who knows.) and the pedo decides to look into The Biggest Cooking Pot Ever, which requires standing on a chair. The camera decides to murder him at this point by reaching out its hand and pulling the chair out from under him, causing the giant pot of boiling corn to come tumbling down upon him, covering him in hideous 3rd degree burns. While the child molester is wheeled out, able to constantly scream but unable to identify to the police who did this to him, the camp director—who looks like an old catcher’s mitt—decides to sweep this attempted murder under the rug by giving promotions and raises all around to the kitchen staff. He also uses a Jedi mind trick to convince the police that there’s no reason to investigate this further.

To sum up so far: The camp director is crooked, the counselors are a pack of lies, the police are disinterested, and the pedophile cook’s boiled squash at this point. Looks like we’re headed toward a horror movie!

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Horror!

The counselors play a rough game of baseball against the campers and everyone’s Bad News Bears-ing it all over the place. (Here’s a choice exchange from the game: “Eat shit and die, Ricky!” “Eat shit and live, Bill.” It’s like The Bard himself wrote the dialogue.) This baseball game gets a lot of screentime and is as compelling as watching a mixed group of minors play a game of pickup baseball. But the kids win and the counselors swear revenge on the winning team, because that’s what the job is all about.

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The Bad News Bears Go To Fire Island

So in the activities hall, a group of counselors decide to ask Angela (who’s, like, 12) to go skinny dipping so they can mock her naked body to her face. Since I suspect this isn’t a summer camp but a place they send wayward youth after Juvie, Scott Baio literally asks Angela why she’s so fucked up. Ricky jumps in to tell them off; meanwhile, a nice boy named Paul speaks he her like she’s a human being, which leads her to speak for the first time in the movie. But Judy, that twisted bitch, is clocking her from across the room.

Some counselors go skinny dipping while a few others get stoned (because their role in the camp is to goof around and have their own fun), and two guys from The Goon Squad dupe a couple of girls to go on a nighttime canoe ride. Sure enough, one of these buttheads tips over the canoe and both he and the girl fall into the water, and he is happily fucking up his chance to lose his virginity to be a stupid asshole instead. Maybe this is a camp for people that suffered massive head injuries. The girls rightly call the guys schmucks and our mystery cameraman murderer drowns the canoe-tipping goon.

The next morning, Ug from Salute Your Shorts gripes to God about his cleanup duties and comes across the goon’s corpse. The astonishingly useless local police are led by the nose once again by the crooked camp director, and the police officer that’s totally disinterested in the suspicious deaths that have occurred over the past two days at this camp just packs up and leaves, no questions asked.

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“A bunch of unsolved murders at a camp full of kids? Better call it a day.”

Hey! Angela’s talking to Paul, but Judy’s staring daggers and conspiring with the other girls to be goddamn monsters for no specific reason to the pitiful, obviously traumatized girl. While watching this, I wondered aloud why these girls are so against Angela for seemingly no reason.  For such wonderful creatures, there sure is a lot of darkness in the hearts of women toward each other. I’ll light a candle and say a prayer for this sad state of affairs. Anyway, Angela gets a smooch from Paul and Judy gets more and more demented as time goes on.

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Maybe her ponytail is throwing off the balance in her brain.

After a bit of knife-play in the boy’s bunk, we’re back to Paul and Angela’s burgeoning romance, and Alpha Bitch Judy slides by them to throw some shade. Then Meg, the awful female counselor, goes out of her way to taunt—and then physically shake—Angela. What the fuck are these girls’ problems? Back in the bunk, Judy keeps poking at Angela and everyone else in the bunk is loving it! A counselor actually sticks up for the poor girl at this point, and Angela splits this scene…

…only to have water balloons thrown at her by the boys, counselors and campers alike. OK, seriously: Is this a camp exclusively for kids who were too young to face manslaughter charges? Also, there’s a lot of cursing from kids’ mouths in this scene. Just saying, is all. So long story short, in the next scene one of these fuckheads gets murdered on the toilet by bees(!) while trapped in the stall.

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Either that, or he called Candyman.

The camp director and Lou Ferrigno’s younger brother lament the many deaths that have occurred so far that summer, and the camp director thinks something is amiss, but what? If only there were some sort of professional law enforcement outfit that they could call upon to investigate what’s happening.

There’s a fake-out killer cam with Paul and Angela, who run down to the lake for some PG-rated making out. Angela goes into a flashback at this point, reminiscing about the time she and her brother were giggling uncontrollably while watching their dad make out with a dude in bed. Which, OK. Then she dashes off, as would I if that was the go-to memory that cropped up whenever I was kissed.

Cut to a game of capture the flag (Why haven’t they closed the camp down yet?) and it’s as fun as watching kids scramble aimlessly around a field playing grabass can be. Angela tells Paul to amscray and Judy the Jackel cruises by to pick up the leftovers. Soon after, Angela espys Paul & Judy making out and runs off upset. Ricky’s also present, and this bit of Mamet-esque dialogue passes between them:

Ricky: You’re a real scumbag, Judy.

Judy: Fuck you, Ricky, you’re just jealous!

(Again: These characters—and the actors playing them–are, like, 12.)

So Paul tries to apologize to Angela, and during this Judy slithers by and twists the knife further, tormenting Angela like a merciless cunt. Meanwhile, the camp counselor accuses Ricky of being the murderer while Meg goes to throw Angela in the lake because she feeds on pain like a cenobite. Ricky and Angela retreat to the benches by the lake and Ricky ominously threatens to get his revenge as a red herring falls from the sky.

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“Couldn’t we just have bought an Atari and stayed home this summer instead?”

Later that evening, Meg throws herself at the septuagenarian camp director (what?) and goes to take a shower for her Harold and Maude-themed night of romance. She hums a tuneless ditty while exclusively washing her shoulders until a knife in the back cuts her stem to stern. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I think Thing from The Addams Family is the murderer.

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Wrong finger, Thing.

Judy, the totally-not-insecure Skank-o-matic 5000, heads out of the canteen with Some Dude, and Angela tells Paul to meet her after the social that night by the lake. The camp director searches for Meg while Judy gets down with Some Dude in the girls’ bunk. She quickly gets thrown over by him, which is fun to see, and she’s left alone. The camp director finds Meg’s body in the shower, and he’s absolutely positive that Ricky’s the killer now, so he’s gonna stop him. And he just leaves Meg’s body on the ground.

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“Aaaaaaahhhh! I don’t want to clean that up!”

Judy does the old, “Oh, it’s you. What do you want?” to the Murder Cam, who punches her in the face (yes!), and then inserts a hot curling iron into her vagina. Holy potatoes!

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When Judy and her curling iron were on better terms.

At a camp site in the woods (some counselors took some little kids for an overnight camping trip), a bunch of the little kids are found butchered, and at this point the social’s over. Ricky pops back up in the movie looking for a snack at the canteen and is ganked by the camp director, who beats him severely for being the killer. But he’s wrong because he gets an arrow to the throat shortly thereafter.

After a dozen people have died, the police FINALLY show up, and now the counselors are looking for Ricky and Angela, who are missing. Angela’s down by the lake, meeting up with Paul, as promised. She suggests they strip down and go swimming. The cops find Ricky, who’s alive(!), then hear screams from the girls’ bunk (guess they found Judy).

Angela’s found on the beach, naked and humming to herself and cradling a dead Paul. Then FLASHBACK to Angela’s origin, when she was adopted from her cousin’s mom…who always wanted a little girl. So she makes the little boy Peter from the beginning into his sister, Angela, who perished in the boating accident.

Back on the beach, Angela is covered in blood and has decapitated Paul. Also, she has a penis. She emits a high, haunting whine, her mouth locked open, and FREEZE-FRAME! End of movie.

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Not a happy camper.

Conclusions

This movie’s fucking bonkers from start to finish. While produced on a low budget, it really pushes what could be allowed in a horror movie: the wanton slaughter of innocents, including children; grotesque adult characters who behave far worse than the kids they’re in charge of; corrupt police and businessmen covering up horrific crimes for their own gain; minors cursing, encountering sexual situations, and acting like total assholes; and frequent, graphic, bloody murder.

I don’t know if Sleepaway Camp is a good movie so much as it’s something to witness. What that something is, I don’t know. In modern times, this film is looked on favorably as the cult classic that it obviously is, but also as an early precursor to queer cinema. The director was an openly gay man, and that’s obvious from the tight shorts, midriff shirts, and homoerotic situations many of the young male counselors find themselves in. A scene featuring two adult men (one of whom was a father to two children) in a lover’s embrace would have been shocking in any film in 1983, much less a low-rent slasher movie. The fact that the men weren’t depicted as being amoral deviants is also a surprisingly progressive element in this film.

This is also besides the place this film has among the transgender community: Not only is Angela referred to as she throughout the whole film, and is depicted as being a girl, but she also survives to star in two sequels as a trans woman who had successfully completed gender reassignment. In fact, Angela only gets more sympathetic as the series goes on, as she turns to tables on amoral campers and becomes a counselor herself. The pro-trans reading of the original film could be summed up as: almost everyone she murders in this film really are a pack of small-minded, hate-filled assholes and the world is better off without them.

Good or bad, it’s a fun horror movie to watch: the early-80’s aesthetic (dig those hairstyles!), the handmade quality of the film, and the transgressive material and main character (no pun intended) make it a campy (again, not intended)–and often gory—horror flick to put on late at night while you make a pillow fort, eat junk food, and try to recapture the feeling of staying up late as a kid with your friends watching the forbidden–or so I’ve been told.

Stray Notes

  • The “Failure of Parents = Cause of Horror” theory is strong with this one: shipping your young kids off for the summer? Good luck with the pedophiles, bullies, and murderers! Not to mention potty mouth and sex talk.
  • Seriously: 12-year-olds, dude. In no way, shape, or form would this movie have been produced—much less released—in 2016.

Rating

Even though parts of it made me feel icky (I really find kids acting like gross adults in films, at the direction of gross adults, really disturbing), it’s a piece of transgressive film that has a little more going on in it than what the surface reflects. It’s weird, sleazy, violent, and ugly. Sounds good to me! It gets three out of four Angelas.

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