Sleepaway Camp is The King (spoiler?) of all b-movies is because it is a perfect example of what makes all b-movies great. It is the product of far more passion than skill. It has no real sense of story or character development. It’s premise borders on nonsensical…but it is full of absolutely bonkers fun.
First released on this day in 1983, Sleepaway Camp has officially turned 35 years-old and today (also my birthday!) I have the pleasure of sharing with you some of the finer points that made this low-budget laugh-riot an enduring cult classic.
More Passion Than Talent
One of the things I love about most b-movies is the clear love for movies that permeates through every frame. The spirit that floats to the surface is like that of a child who finds a movie they love. Kids don’t over think it. They probably can’t even explain why they like this movie over that one. All they know is they love it and watch it with an unmatched passion. This is the pure beauty behind how most b-filmmakers approach their films. They don’t quibble over the what’s, how’s and why’s. They just strap in, buckle up, and go.
So many aspects of Sleepaway Camp make this clear. Let’s start with the fact that writer/director Robert Hiltzik was and is a lawyer who had never worked on anything before Sleepaway Camp. Just because you have absolutely no experience doesn’t mean you can’t helm a feature-length production, right? I mean, what could go wrong? And it doesn’t stop there either. Most of the cast and crew didn’t have a lick of production experience. Everyone was fueled by fun and a love for what they were doing. If you have all that, why let a total lack of know-how get in the way?
The first example of this imbalance of Passion vs. Skill is literally in the opening credits. Tributes are common in film, but I can’t think of another example of a tribute that comes at you right out the gate. The opening shot of the credit sequence says “In Fond Memory of Mom, A Doer.” Won’t that snap the viewer out of their reverie? Nobody cares. What does being a doer mean or have anything to do with the movie? Psh, shut up. But, wait, wasn’t his mom still alive then? Yeah, so what?
If you’re already confused, get ready because the confusion just keeps coming. Shots go on way too long, characters are introduced for seemingly no reason, back story sequences are added that contribute nothing to the story. It’s one odd decision after another. Take Hiltzik’s response to a fairly simple question as an example. When asked by Den of Geek what is his favorite memory of production was he answered, “Well the bees sequence was always one of my favorites. I remember the local beekeeper coming in and, you know, I was like, ‘More bees, more bees!’ Many fond memories.” I’m not sure what that even means, but their consequences-be-damned approach is what makes this flick so bonkers and so so fun.
No Story or Character Development
One of the byproducts of having more passion than experience is letting gags, shocks and effects take center stage, with things like story and character falling to the wayside. Here we see that play out in bizarre and hilarious ways with whole characters that make no sense at all. One of the first lines of the film is Artie the cook talking about “how sexy these prepubescents are”. Why in the world would that guy be working at a kid’s camp when he’s so openly predatory?
The main character, Angela, is presumed mute for the first half of the film. She arrives as the very picture of harmlessness. Despite that, mean girls seem to flock from every corner of the camp to bully the ever-loving shit out of her. Her cabin counselor tells her she’s “A “carpenter’s dream. Flat as a board and in desperate need of a screw!” Why? Well, we never know truly, but the only honest answer is these characters are thin plot devices and little else. That would be a big problem if everyone involved wasn’t having a blast and playing each and every character with the conviction of Laurence Olivier in Hamlet. Everyone is totally committed and it makes for some strange characters that are just flat out wonderful.
The Premise is Insane
Ok, folks, SPOILERS AHOY! I know, it’s been out longer than many of you have been alive, but, seriously, the ending is a wild surprise, and you shouldn’t spoil it for yourself if you haven’t yet seen the film.
Alright, only people reading have seen the film? Good. I’ve seen Sleepaway Camp just shy of a billion times and the premise can still only be described as bonkers. Here’s my best crack at it.
Angela and her twin are out swimming/boating with their father. Some man comes to the shore and says “The Doctor is here”. just before a boat hits, and somehow kills the dad and one of the twins. Flash forward several years and for some reason the ‘Doctor’, now referred to as Aunt Martha, is raising Angela, the surviving twin as a sort of Patty Duke style identical twin to her cousin, I think.
Aunt Martha is the weirdest and my personal favorite character in the movie. Her role and her performance make no sense at all. Anyway, she’s sending Angela off with her cousin to a camp on the same lake where Angela’s father and twin were killed. Why? Oh, shut up with your reasonable questions! As you might suspect, someone starts murdering the hell out of everybody and we get this weird flashback that seems to imply the father’s homosexuality may have messed up the children’s sense of gender? Maybe? And the big spoiler of the movie is that Angela not only is the killer but is actually a boy that Aunt Martha has raised as a girl!
Fun as Hell
Sleepaway Camp would be total garbage if it wasn’t so much fun. The decisions made were all so misguided and off-kilter but when you watch the movie, that somehow doesn’t detract from any of it. How is that possible? Well, because the movie is a blast. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and neither should you. Sleepaway Camp is such a perfect gem partially because it really can’t be recreated. They rounded-up a group of friends who all were there for the fun of making a movie and it’s clear they saw it not as high art, but as a roller coaster. You don’t nitpick a roller coaster, you just strap in, throw your hands in the air, and scream your head off.
If you own a copy of Sleepaway Camp, toss that sucker in the dvd player, pour something cold and enjoy every last second of this weird, wonderful trip to Camp Arawak. Will you be rewatching Sleepaway Camp tonight? Are you one of the luck few who haven’t yet seen that surprising ending? Let us know on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook.