Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Census Bloodbath: The Lady And The Camp

For our Scream 101 episode about this very film, click here.

Year: 1983
Director: Robert Hiltzik
Cast: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1983 was a real weird year for the slasher genre. It was the only year that didn’t feature an appearance from the decade’s three biggest boogeymen. Freddy, Michael, and Jason all gave the year a pass, and not even odd-timing stalwart Leatherface revved his bloody chainsaw. The wholly unrelated Halloween III: Season of the Witch didn’t even land in this year, the most sparsely populated of the slasher golden era. The barest blips of franchise action arrived in the form of Boogeyman II (which is about 50% reconstituted footage from the original, so it hardly counts) and the much-belated homecoming of Norman Bates, Psycho II.

Also, although the year had some truly great moments, only one film earned itself a sequel. The franchise fairy must have been taking a smoke break that year. But let’s take a look at that particular, peculiar entry, which in fact collected two late 80’s DTV sequels, a half-finished fourth entry, and a decades-later resurrection: Sleepaway Camp. While we’re taking a look, let’s ask ourselves one question. Of all the 1983 slasher ventures, did this one above all deserve the sequel hoopla it got?

Short answer: Yes.

Following a boating accident that killed her father and sibling, Angela (Felissa Rose) lives with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and her Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) a sublimely cartoonish dowager. The kids leave to spend the summer at Camp Arawak, where Angela’s habit of never speaking a word and watching activities from the sidelines draws the ire of campground bullies, a wicked counselor, and a sleazy pedophile chef. Her only companions are the fiercely protective Ricky and his friend Paul (Christopher Collet) with whom she develops a sweet infatuation.

When the people who torment Angela wind up dead under increasingly unusual circumstances, even the bad publicity-averse camp owner Mel (Mike Kellin) can see that something truly despicable is going on. But is it Angela offing the bullies or Ricky? Or is it someone else entirely?

Maybe one of the 30-year-old campers, perchance?

The truly surprising thing about Sleepaway Camp (which confounded me on the first viewing as a young Johnny Slasherfan) is that, as much as its title and poster scream that it’s a blatant rip-off of Friday the 13th, it’s patently not that. For one thing, kids’ heads are actually on the chopping block as opposed to merely of-age counselors. But when you boil it down, the only thing Sleepaway Camp has in common with Friday the 13th is its setting, and that’s kind of a given. It’s practically goreless (although with the state of the MPAA in 1983, that was hardly unusual), but it’s also a psychotically sexual journey through the sleazy, queer underbelly of 80’s cinema. If a John Waters film ate a Pedro Almodóvar movie and pooped it out, that would be Sleepaway Camp.

It’s not a well-made motion picture by any stretch of the imagination, but it double dips in 80’s cheese to make up for that fact. Every male character wears cutoffs shorts so tight you can not only see his religion, you can check for tattoos. And when they run out of fabric to chop off the shorts, they move on up to the shirts. The men of this movie make Johnny Depp’s Nightmare on Elm Street crop top look like a dress. And then you have the army of female vamps stalking their way through the film, including Karen Fields’ Judy (who is driven mad by puberty, destroying Godzilla-like anything that obstructs her path to male attention) and Katherine Kamhi’s Meg (a counselor who might be the actual devil).

But even those choice cuts can’t compare to the top shelf prime sirloin of Desiree Gould as Aunt Martha. An electromagnetically compelling screen presence, she perfectly embodies the flat-out insanity of the movie’s best moments. Rapidly alternating between shouting her lines at the stop of her lungs and quietly murmuring to herself, she is thoroughly unpredictable, a nuclear power cell of bad movie magic. She’s like that crazy aunt we all have that shows up for Thanksgiving rolling on molly.

No? Just me?

And to be fair, there are a handful of genuinely good sequences that indicate the presence of a focused, if deranged personality behind the camera. A twirling flashback in an inky void and the razor-sharp sound design of the closing scene are both bone-chilling sequences that boggle the mind, but the single best scene might be the opening credits. As the camera pans over different areas of the empty camp the sound of kids at play blasts over the soundtrack. It creates an exquisitely foreboding atmosphere, reminding you that the lease on Camp Arawak’s summer fun hath all too short a date.

Plus, although the kills are almost entirely offscreen, their use of silhouettes and alternative framing provided a stylized approach that’s, if anything, even more effective. These kills are brutal in practice (drowning, bee stings, curling iron penetration) and they are mercilessly perpetrated on children. By keeping things offscreen, the film avoids being ickier than it already is, and the clawed kabuki hands that indicate death are a startlingly Rashômon-esque touch.

Then there’s the rich vein of queer undertones that powers the film’s every move. People tend to focus on [SPOILERS the reveal that Angela is actually a boy. This is transphobic and sleazy in a way that only the 80’s and early 90’s would allow, but it’s also a nauseatingly surreal moment (accompanied by an inhuman screech) that transcends politics to enter the pantheon of great horror moments).] However, there’s so much more to tap into about parental sexuality, identity formation, and societal pressure that’s present throughout the entire film.

There’s so much there in Sleepaway Camp that a little thing like cinematic ineptitude hardly even factors in. The story might be a loose tangle of spaghetti, a ten minute baseball scene might be shameless padding even by the standards of a genre largely concerned with people standing around in the dark, the acting might remind you of the annual ski at the Law and Order Extras convention, and the keening score might strain so hard to force a mood that it gives itself a hernia, but it’s so devastatingly fun that it leaves an everlasting impression. It’s a demented, entirely idiosyncratic slasher film, and in the context of 1983, that’s an incredibly rare and valuable thing.

Killer: Angela (Felissa Rose)
Final Girl: Not Applicable
Best Kill: As much as I hate to disseminate pro-bee propaganda, the kill where a kid is locked in a bathroom stall with a beehive is just ruthless.
Sign of the Times: It would be easier to list the things that aren't dripping with 80’s cheese.

Scariest Moment: Angela seems to be cradling Paul in her lap, but it’s really his severed head.
Weirdest Moment: A totally acceptable camp activity is playing water balloons on the roof.
Champion Dialogue: “She’s a real carpenter’s dream: Flat as a board and needs a screw!”
Body Count: 8; not including 4 nameless campers dismembered with a hatchet offscreen or a pedophile chef who gets a pot of boiling water dumped on him and survives.
  1. [Angela 1.0 is killed in a boating accident.]
  2. Gay Dad is killed in a boating accident.
  3. Kenny is drowned.
  4. Billy is stung to death by bees.
  5. Meg is stabbed in the back.
  6. Judy is impaled with a curling iron.
  7. Mel is shot in the neck with an arrow.
  8. Paul is decapitated.
TL;DR: Sleepaway Camp is a rollicking, campy good time with a thriving queer undercurrent.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1289
Reviews In This Series
Sleepaway Camp (Hiltzik, 1983)
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (Simpson, 1988)
Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (Simpson, 1989)

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