DIRECTED BY: Robert Hiltzik
FEATURING: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields
PLOT: Eight years after her father and fraternal twin were killed there in a boating accident, introverted teen Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) returns to Camp Arawak alongside her protective cousin and adopted brother, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Children and counselors alike bully the girl for her shyness, but those tormenters soon begin dying under bizarre circumstances. Meanwhile, Angela’s budding romance with a fellow camper awakens her dormant sexuality, and with it troubling memories of what truly happened eight years ago.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: By incorporating a wistful portrayal of summer camp into the sleazy slasher mold, Sleepaway Camp offers a uniquely schizophrenic experience of a horror film. Furthermore, its plot ultimately explodes in an extremely violent and sexual metaphor of an ending, which remains controversial to this day.
COMMENTS: Riding on the coattails of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp neither invented the slasher genre nor the idea of the summer camp as a killing ground. Furthermore, Hiltzik’s film falls short of its predecessors through amateurish performances, disjointed storytelling, and deaths that are slightly more goofy than frightful. In the annals of ‘80s horror, Sleepaway Camp therefore seems less an original than a misbegotten child.
However, by combining the juvenility of his setting and main characters with the adult themes of a slasher, Hiltzik still produces a memorably off-kilter film. As visceral moments like the disfiguring of a pedophile crudely segue into mirthful scenes of camp life—such as Ricky pranking a nerd named Mozart—Sleepaway Camp embraces rather than hides its incoherence. In turn, Camp Arawak becomes an unreal place where the vulgar and innocent both exist, not in conflict, but as mismatched companions to each other. Sleepaway Camp’s lack of style thereby becomes its signature style, creating an unwieldy and dissonant tone that, in the end, perfectly reflects the troubled, divided mind of its killer.
That killer’s identity is now the stuff of legend, in a final twist that makes an already fractured story snap. Through that one last disturbing image, the film transcends its low budget and even lower quality to become a classic oddity among slasher fans. While Sleepaway Camp is not one of the best horror films out there, it continues to be one of the weirdest.
Shout! Factory’s recent “Sleepaway Camp Collector’s Edition” comes with an array of extras, two of which could qualify for a list of 366 Weird Special Features. The first is a short made by sleepawaycampmovies.com’s webmaster Jeffy Hayes starring Sleepaway Camp supporting actor Karen Fields, who murders a deadbeat dad and his girlfriend using, among other weapons, a turkey baster. The second is an uncomfortably earnest music video featuring the vocal talents of Jonathan Tiersten, the now middle-aged actor who played Ricky. As Tiersten somberly croons in an empty theater, and Fields wields a deadly curling iron in a nod to her famous role, one wonders if the two still haven’t gotten over their roles in Sleepaway Camp.
Joining those shorts are several bonuses that more directly relate to Sleepaway Camp, including an album of on-set photographs, multiple commentaries, and a 45-minute documentary about the making of the movie. Each of those extras show the person who loves Sleepaway Camp most may be its star; Felissa Rose beams nostalgically while recounting the friendships, drama, and fun she experienced during filming. Despite the presence of cameras and microphones, production stills of the teenage cast smiling in those idyllic woods and cabins suggest a summer to remember for decades to come.