The Guilty Pleasures: “Sleepaway Camp”
Robert Hiltzik’s enduring 1983 slasher curiosity Sleepaway Camp provides what every budding fourth-grade gorehound with a jean jacket and a Huey Lewis tape in his backpack hoped a horror movie that they’d heard about on the playground was going to be and so often wasn’t: a shameless assortment of creatively disgusting kills (death by hornet’s nest dropped on defecating bully; death by boiling corn water dumped on pedophile cook – always replete with lingering shots of the rubbery aftermath); swears galore; some cute girls and funny guys, and a camp that you not only believed, you wondered if you might have actually gone there.
Summer camps are for boy scouts and rich kids with specific interests these days, but at the time of the film’s release, before we all finally caved to the universal desire to lie around and look at screens (the true culprit really being less today’s lazy kids and more yesterday’s limited screens), they were a great way for parents to get their kids the hell out of the house once the semblance of a summer vacation had been fulfilled and Mom and Dad were once again ready to straight up murder everyone they’d worked so hard to create and mold, and Sleepaway Camp (in addition to being kind enough to murder the children for Mom and Dad’s convenience) gets the essence of camp so down that you can almost smell the Off! and the SweeTarts from the canteen.
(All right, so the SweeTarts thing doesn’t cast that wide a nostalgic swath, but whatever, the canteen at my camp sold SweeTarts, and we all loved them. It was a Bible camp, and standing around a mildewed cabin crunching SweeTarts together in stunned silence was our lone respite from playing Old Testament Freeze Tag. That sinking feeling when you realize that somebody already yelled “Habakkuk” earlier in the game and Ronnie Thibodeau’s gonna tag you out and he always punches your arm really hard in the exact same spot and how did that other kid even know “Habakkuk”, he looks Chinese or something, who even is that kid, OW…you know what, that feeling accumulates interest over time, and it’ll fester if you don’t get some SweeTarts in you right quick.)
Camp is enforced fun (and, worse yet, outdoor fun) but prolonged exposure to the great outdoors in all its humidity and lameness eventually inspires a shared survivalist mentality that renders it diverting, whether that translates to actually putting some effort into the next game of How Many Sinners Can You Lead to Christ in the Next Ten Minutes or forging your own unsanctioned amusement via pranking opposing teams, or soliciting HJs from fellow campers (or, failing that, avoiding them from counselors). A pungent cocktail of fatigue, filth, and lack of supervision can lead to surprisingly tight personal bonds, and Hiltzik’s gonzo debut, for all its pervy eccentricity and performances that all seem to come from different, equally ridiculous low-budget productions, goes to great (some might say laxly edited) lengths to convey this by taking time out from the bloodshed to present these inane activities in all their barely-tolerated glory, most famously in a baseball scene lasting nearly one-and-a-half-minutes that furthers the plot not a whit but does contain the following, immortal exchange:
“Eat shit and die, Ricky!”
“Eat shit and live, Bill.”
A few words on Ricky: As played by young Jonathan Tiersten (whom you’ll remember as Kid With Basketball in the early 80’s soap opera “Another World”) in one of the film’s few reasonably natural performances, Ricky epitomizes cool 80’s tween. He knows all the good swears and uses them liberally, has a chip on his shoulder a mile wide, doesn’t let anyone tell him what to wear (he’s not even afraid to rock an oversized cowboy hat, for no provided reason), and has gotten biz-ay with the only girl in camp to have grown boobs over the school year: the infamous Judy, played with alarming zeal by Karen Fields. If Christopher Guest ever makes a mockumentary about 80’s slasher movies – and God knows he needs to get on that immediately – Parker Posey could glean everything she needs to know for her role by studying Fields’ would-be villainess, a mini Joan Collins vamp with a little Judy Garland crazy thrown in, all filtered through the limited experience and perspective of a middle schooler.
During a summer season that money-mad owner Mel (late, hangdog character actor Mike Kellin, whom I’m all but convinced is legitimately killed onscreen in this movie) refuses to cancel prematurely despite an as-yet-nameless lunatic carving up camper and counselor alike on a daily basis, Ricky and Judy are protector and tormentor, respectively, of Angela, a shy bully magnet played by convention mainstay Felissa Rose. She figures into an ending that even viewers with zero intention of touching Sleepaway Camp with a ten-foot pole understand to be, at best, unexpected. It’s ludicrous, and it shouldn’t be scary (and if there’s an intended message, to the extent that it can be parsed it seems a troubling one), but it IS. Between the makeshift FX, the performer’s facial expression, composer Edward Bilous repeatedly elbow dropping a Casiotone in the background, and the fact that it was all filmed through a dirty tube sock, it WORKS.
That’s true of Sleepaway Camp in general. Aunt Martha (“I believe there’s a whooooooole bag!”). Mozart. “Baldies”. The disgruntled lifeguard. The Well-Meaning Counselor with Enormous Pecs. Mel’s pants. The Daisy Dukes-bejorted tough guy. Through sheer moxie alone, Sleepaway Camp delivers more entertainment than is even possible to process in one sitting. It doesn’t have any money, and it’s not shy about slaughtering children, but it wants you to have a good time. It’s a good time I try to have two or three times a year. If you can’t watch it on VHS as God intended, go the distance and get the Scream Factory Blu-ray.
Then meet me at the waterfront after the social. Got a little surprise for ya.