Walter’s Top 5 Slashers: #2 Sleepaway Camp
Dir: Robert Hiltzik
Cert: 18 • US: 84 min • United Film Distribution • November 18, 1983
Walter Beck reviews
Welcome back loyal readers. We’re getting down to the wire here on our Halloween slasher countdown, but for now, let’s look at our second place bloodbath. We’re going out to camp for this one, the legendary low-budget summer slasher, Sleepaway Camp.
John and his two kids, Peter and Angela, are out on a boat one summer day, enjoying the warm weather. While they’re horsing around, a couple of teenage counselors from the camp across the lake are waterskiing on a motor boat. Peter and Angela jokingly throw their dad into the water and their boat flips. The counselors don’t see them and run over them with their motor boat. John and one of his kids are shredded.
Fast forward eight years. Angela is now living with her weird aunt Martha and her cousin Ricky. Angela and Ricky are on their way to Camp Arawak for the summer. Ricky’s outgoing nature lets him fit right in, while Angela’s quiet, introverted personality makes her an immediate target for the mean-spirited girls at camp. They begin relentlessly tormenting her as she sits quietly, not eating and not participating in any of the activities.
One of the camp cooks, Artie, gets his eye on Angela and attempts to molest her in the stock room of the camp kitchen. Ricky sees him and stops him before anything happens. Ricky and Angela go bolting out of the kitchen and Artie shrugs off the whole thing as Mel, the camp director, asks what happened.
Artie is in the kitchen, making a giant pot of boiled corn on the cob for dinner. While he’s standing on a chair, a pair of hands shoots out and pulls the chair out from under him, causing the huge pot of water to fall on him, boiling him alive. He’s taken out on a stretcher, still screaming in agony. Mel, wanting to avoid the headache of the press and the parents, writes it off as an accident and promotes Ben, another cook, to head honcho of the kitchen to keep the kitchen staff quiet.
With Artie’s death, the violence begins picking up. Later that night, a fight breaks out in the rec hall between Ricky and Kenny. After the fight, Kenny is out on the lake with Leslie, he flips over the canoe, and Leslie swims out in anger, leaving Kenny to haul the boat back. While he’s under the canoe, someone pops up and drowns him. In the morning, his bloody corpse is found by the waterfront director.
Billy is the next to go. After throwing water balloons at Angela, he is brutally killed in the bathroom when somebody slashes open the window and drops a hornet’s nest into the stall.
The night of the big social is when all hell breaks loose, Meg, one of the cruelest of the girl counselors, is stabbed and gutted while taking a shower. Judy, another one of the bitch queens at camp, has a hot hair iron shoved up her vagina. Mel, the camp director, walks onto the archery range and spots the killer, not believing who it is, and catches an arrow in his throat. A group of little kids, on an overnight lead by counselor Eddie, are chopped up with a hatchet.
Head counselors Ronnie and Susie are on the lookout for Paul and Ricky when they find Angela humming on the beach with Paul and the film’s gory ending is unleashed…
Filmed on a micro budget of $350,000, the film was a surprising hit, grossing $11 million during its theatrical run, even beating out Amityville 3-D in the local New York markets. It’s financial success spawned two sequels during the slasher craze of the 1980s, Unhappy Campers and Teenage Wasteland. Director Hiltzik would produce his own sequel Return to Sleepaway Camp, released in 2008, and another sequel, Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor would finally surface in 2012, after twenty years of delays.
So what makes this film a cut above the rest? Certainly the camp setting has long been a favorite of slasher directors, especially following the runaway success of Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th. The first part that stands out is the directing style of Hiltzik, rather than a sharp colored bloodbath, Sleepaway Camp is filmed in a stark, grainy style, making for a realistic looking film.
The writing is also a key part of the film’s greatness. The script, written by Hiltzik, has strong characters with very realistic dialogue. Viewers empathise with the quiet Angela and her protective cousin Ricky. The bad kids are also portrayed realistically; everybody knows arrogant, cocky little shits like Meg, Judy, Kenny, and Billy.
For serious film buffs, the movie offers some surprising treats. Camp director Mel is portrayed by veteran actor Mike Kellin (in his last film role) and cook Ben is played by Robert Earl Jones, father of film legend James Earl Jones.
What about the blood? This is a slasher countdown; we have to talk about the special effects. This was shot on an ultra-low budget and of course, these were the days before CGI. Working with the grainy style of filming, the blood effects are quite realistic in their own right, particularly in Artie’s death; you see his skin blister and boil. The gore is understated, adding to the film’s realism.
Thirty-years later, Sleepaway Camp remains a legendary film amongst slasher buffs for its gory effects, grainy film style, haunting soundtrack, and one of the most surprising endings in the genre. Hiltzik created a masterpiece and if you haven’t seen it yet, head down to Camp Arawak this Halloween season.