Typically I am the type of person who doesn’t believe in guilty pleasures. I think that if you enjoy something, and if it isn’t hurting anyone, you have no reason to feel bad about liking what you like. However, I have one exception to my own rule, and that is the out of control 1983 slasher, Sleepaway Camp. Sleepaway Camp is like the junk food of movies. I know that it’s bad for me, but I can’t help that it tastes so good. Before I touch on any of the more junky aspects of this movie, I need to establish my undying love for it. (Photographic evidence below)
At first glance, Sleepaway Camp is nothing too special. It’s a movie about young kids at a summer camp where people get murdered. Sounds familiar. So if we’ve all been there, done that, why is it that so many people, myself included, just can’t get enough of Sleepaway Camp? I watch this movie no less than four times a year, and each time I go back to it, I come away with new questions and a new favorite part.
Right off the bat, we have a downright unhinged opening scene, offering us our first glimpse that this is no ordinary movie. We see a shirtless man in short shorts lounging on his boat. Boys in short shorts quickly become a reoccurring element in this movie, especially when paired with a DIY crop top. One of the countless things that fascinates me about this movie is the complete absence of female nudity. We get full frontal peen and an entire flock of naked boy butts without even a single shot of a boob- something that is practically unheard of in an ’80s slasher movie! I’m not in a position to say if this was an intentional decision made by writer/director Robert Hiltzik but I’m making the intentional decision to appreciate it.
Sleepaway Camp has the unique ability to be simultaneously deeply confusing and wildly entertaining. The way in which you have to strain to hear dialogue over speedboat motors, the outrageously prolonged screaming from our jet-skier after said speedboat cartoonishly plows into the shirtless man and his young children, not to mention the extreme zoom in on the father’s lover’s face; it’s all so quintessentially Sleepaway Camp.
“Sleepaway Camp has the unique ability to be simultaneously deeply confusing and wildly entertaining.”
I would love to go this in-depth about each and every frame of the movie, but I have a word count to consider, so we must press on. The real meat of the movie takes place eight years after that tragic lake incident left 14-year-old Angela (Felissa Rose) the only surviving member of her immediate family. She has n living with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould). I cannot say enough good things about Aunt Martha. Desiree Gould makes such a wide range of choices with such whiplash sudden conviction. After giving the kids a full physical and two whole bags of chips, she wistfully sends them off to Camp Arawak, a place safe for NO child. This is made clear immediately when we are presented with the camp chef who seems to be a known pedophile. Excuse me?!
I hope that by this point my deep love for this movie has been well established so that you will understand where I am coming from when I say that there are parts of Sleepaway Camp that trouble me. One of them being the pedophile chef, Artie (Owen Hughes). Clearly, he is being set up as a bad guy so that it will feel good when he is ultimately murdered. And it does. However, it really seems like nobody but Ricky and Angela have a problem with this behavior, and what’s that about? While watching the kids pour into camp he says “There’s no such thing as being too young,” and his assistant Ben (Robert Earl Jones) just laughs, shaking his head at his silly friend. If the punishment for lusting after children is to have an impractically large pot of boiling corn water dumped on you, why is there no punishment for Ben, or the numerous other camp employees who enable and encourage this pedophile?
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This also brings us to what I refer to as “The Mel Issue”. Mel is the old old man who owns Camp Arawak and for some undetermined reason, seems to be in a relationship of sorts with Meg (Katherine Kamhi), one of the teenage counselors. I mean no disrespect to actor Mike Kellin, but after wracking my brain, I cannot understand what Meg gets out of this arrangement. However, there is not a single person at this camp who bats an eye when Meg goes around bragging about her hot date. Sure, Mel also gets his in the end, but his death seems to be more a consequence of him being a dick to Ricky rather than a consequence of him courting a teenage girl. I’m not saying that movies shouldn’t have bad people doing bad things, because that’s sort of the crux of storytelling, but I start having trouble when I get too in my head about what people take away from the movie. Are they horrified by this, or do they laugh along with these creeps?
Either way, that’s a result that comes along with creating something for people to consume. Once it’s out there, you have no control over how people react to your movie and what they get out of it. The way that I engage with Sleepaway Camp and the things that I love the most about it may not have been on purpose, but the movie still makes me feel that way, so I love it. I love the enormous cowboy hat Ricky wears to a camp social, I love the fact that two boys walk up to Angela and ask her point-blank why she’s “so fucked up”, I love the contrast between Felissa Rose staring those boys down and how sweet she is when she says goodnight to Ricky‘s friend Paul (Christopher Collet). What I love most is that I can feel the earnestness coming from the other side of the screen. That’s the biggest thing missing from B-Movies setting out to make something “so bad it’s good” on purpose because they inevitably end up feeling phony. Sleepaway Camp is as sincere as it gets.
“We get full frontal peen and an entire flock of naked boy butts without even a single shot of a boob- something that is practically unheard of in an ’80s slasher movie!”
That exact sincerity allows for some really fun performances from real kids acting like kids. Kids swearing always make me laugh and Jonathan Tiersten strings together some of the foulest sentences I’ve heard in my life. Come to think of it, I can’t think of a single other movie that uses the word “cocksucker” so many times, and I love it. The dialogue in Sleepaway Camp is truly in a league of its own with some of my favorite movie lines of all time. Of course, there’s Ricky screaming at another camper to “eat shit and live,” which I delight in using in my day to day life. And how could anyone forget mean girl Judy‘s (Karen Fields) takedown of Angela, claiming that “she’s a real carpenter’s dream; flat as a board and needs a screw“. Pure genius.
Speaking of Judy, she is incredible. I could just leave it at that, but I won’t. She is vicious without any provocation, with a sense of confidence that is unparalleled as is evidenced by the shirt she wears with her own name on it. Judy is a very mean girl, but the movie is very mean to her in return. Almost alarmingly so, I have to say. Judy‘s death-by-curling-iron is a fairly infamous scene but for some reason, on my most recent rewatch, it made me feel really bad. Maybe it was because I was already thinking about how many of the adults in the camp don’t receive any punishment for the awful things they do, or maybe it was because I was three beers deep and letting all my feelings flow. Undeniably though, Judy‘s death is incredibly sexually violent, in a way that feels out of place from the tone of the rest of Sleepaway Camp. Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I think Judy deserved better. I think all of us campers can agree though, we’ve never looked at a curling iron the same way.
In addition to Judy, a slew of other people get slaughtered on our final night at camp with such a fun assortment of kills. Meg gets stabbed in the back through the shower wall while she’s in the middle of humming absolute nonsense. Her made-up shower song never fails to make me laugh, and her body is revealed fantastically when she flops onto the floor in front of Mel. I don’t know how her body fell at that exact moment and I don’t care because it allows for an anguished monologue from Mel (a Melologue?) chock full of cartoon Italian chef hand gestures. Similarly to the boat accident from the opening scene, the score is so damn loud that it overpowers what he’s saying. If you’re watching with subtitles though, you can see it’s really good stuff.
Mel swears to enact revenge on Ricky, who he assumes to be the killer. And we can’t really blame him for that because right before Judy‘s death (another favorite moment of mine), we can clearly see that Ricky is the one coming into the cabin. This may have just been a result of the HD restoration of the film, but that misdirection is hysterical. I say misdirection because as everybody who has seen this movie knows, Ricky is very much not the killer. And if you haven’t seen Sleepaway Camp, you better get out of here because we can’t go any further without talking about *that* ending.
“Given that Sleepaway Camp is one of my favorite movies of all time, I want to recommend it to everyone I speak to […but] my recommendation often comes with an apology.”
In the final minutes of the movie, two camp counselors find Angela singing to Paul‘s decapitated head while sitting on the beach. And then, those famous words are spoken: “oh my god… she’s a boy.” There stands Angela, entirely nude, with a fully exposed penis, her face frozen in a horrifying scream and that moment is where Sleepaway Camp ends. It’s completely shocking and so abrupt, and a part of me really loves the way that the movie throws something totally out of left field at you and then immediately ends. It feels like Robert Hiltzik himself leaned out of the screen to smack you in the face and then says “no, I don’t have to explain myself.”
As arguably rock n’ roll as the ending is, I think we can all understand where someone would be very upset by this. And this right here is the complete culmination of the idea of intention vs consequence that we’ve been touching on with this movie. I sincerely do not believe that the intention behind making Sleepaway Camp was to say that someone who looks like a “girl” and has a penis is scary and will murder people. However, regardless of the intention of the movie, if the consequence of someone watching it is that they feel attacked for being who they are as a person, that sucks. What I’m trying to say here is, I think dialogue is important and I think listening is important. I, like most people, am never in the business of hurting anyone’s feelings, and no matter how strong my love for Sleepaway Camp is, it isn’t my place to tell someone they are wrong to be upset or offended by something.
Given that Sleepaway Camp is one of my favorite movies of all time, I want to recommend it to everyone I speak to, but I also feel the need to offer a disclaimer before doing that. I usually say something along the lines of “it’s very dated,” or that it “has its problematic parts” and my recommendation often comes with an apology. While thinking on how to write about this movie, I started to wonder what someone who was much less ingrained in the horror world would have to say about Sleepaway Camp. I recruited one of my dearest friends, Nick, to have a virtual watch party with me. Nick isn’t not a horror fan, and I can’t imagine him ever kicking back and relaxing with a horror movie on his own. Plus, he knew absolutely nothing about Sleepaway Camp so I thought he’d be a perfect case study.
We also have pretty similar views on a lot of things so I knew the horror background would be the only big difference in what we each brought to this movie. I thought this would be a great way to determine what it is about Sleepaway Camp that works so well for us horror folk and why people outside the horror community just don’t get it. But here’s the twist guys, Nick loved the movie. Once I saw how hard he laughed at Aunt Martha packing Ricky and Angela‘s lunches or the way he used his webcam to recreate the tight zooms on Angela‘s face where she only takes up the bottom half of the frame, it hit me. Sleepaway Camp is just magic.
“It’s rare to find a movie that could play on repeat and bring you just as much joy each time, but that’s what Sleepaway Camp is for me.”
This was only further reinforced for me when, about a week later, Nick texted me to let me know he was sitting down with his family to watch Sleepaway Camp, and they loved it too! Sure, it may have taken them about a day to realize that they loved it but that’s even better. Sleepaway Camp is a movie that sticks with you. It plays by absolutely no rules, and I think that’s something everybody can appreciate. All of the moments in the movie that I’ve mentioned here, good or bad, are what make Sleepaway Camp, Sleepaway Camp. It’s rare to find a movie that could play on repeat and bring you just as much joy each time, but that’s what Sleepaway Camp is for me. Maybe I’m way too invested in what is just a silly movie, but isn’t that almost exactly the point of a guilty pleasure? Once again, it’s like junk food; we all ate shit, and we all lived.
What’s your favorite guilty pleasure movie and why is it Sleepaway Camp? Do you have a favorite nonsensical moment not documented here? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!