Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sleepaway Camp

Sleepaway Camp
Directed by:  Robert Hiltzik
USA, 1983
Horror, 88min

Oh they don’t make them like this any more... or do they? Well actually yes, they do and nothing much has happened since this infamous last minute shock, shocker hit the horror scene, and no. Not really, because this movie has a hidden agenda and an important commentary that is just as important today as it was back when this movie was released… a commentary on sexuality!

Basic recap goes like this: A family are out on the lake boating at what obviously is some kind of generic summer camp for kids. Some of the older kids, most likely counsellors are water-skiing, when the decent chap at the wheel during a weak moment gives in to the seductive chick who want’s to give the boat a spin. Guess what happens next, yeah, she takes the wheel and the boat runs out of control speeding right at the family of two kids and father who just happened to over turn their boat. The disaster is a fact; the father floats by lifeless, as does a bloody mangled child’s life vest.  This is the set up for Sleepaway Camp which takes it stomping safely down secure conventional path.
Years later two cousins, Angela [Felissa Rose] and Ricky [Jonathan Tiersten], are sent to camp Arawak by their insanely, over the top acted, Aunt Martha [Desiree Gould]. Ricky is cool and suave as he’s looking forward to spending summer with last years flame, Judy [Karen Fields], but seen as a year has passed she’s matured past him and laughs at his feeble attempts to get his fingers sticky. Angela is silent, shy and almost reclusive which within seconds rubs Judy and cabin counsellor Meg [Katherine Kamhi] the wrong way, making it their mission to make Angela’s summer as miserable as possible!
So with all that set up, let's get to the kills. I was somewhat surprised at the low death toll of this film, but at the same time, at least the first few kills where pretty decent when it comes to the effects department. Creepy paedophile camp chef Artie [Owen Hughes] tries to whip his dick out in front of Angela and ends up being shoved into a pot of boiling water. Oh, who can the killer be? Effect wise the blistering creep is rather effective and still looks cool… Make it last as the effects get shoddier and shoddier as the film goes – apart from a great water snake and a deadhead scene, and the suggestive shadow play of the killer shoving a hot hair curler up a female victims privates, which probably is a more effective way to pull off the effect as it would never stayed in the movie if it had been done with dodgy looking prosthetics. True to formula, every time someone offends, taunts or harasses Angela, that same person snuffs it in a freak accident! Oh, who can the killer be? Which is what we keep asking (or do we?) all the way up to the shocking reveal at the last moment of the film!
There’s a small subplot concerning the elderly camp manager Mel [Mike Kellin] and young counsellor Meg – which ends in another rather creepy paedophile outing. But this subplot leads to some serious child bashing and force-feeding a red herring onto the audience. Mel is convinced that Ricky is responsible for the killings, and the killings directly tie into what at first seems to be a stupid reaction to the camp murders – as in none, the ambulance leaves with “another corpse” and the campers just go back to life as normal – what we have here is the threat of going out of business, and some whacko killing off campers and staff is really bad business for a summer camp!
All in all, Sleepaway Camp is a fun and campy little piece of slasher fluff. Considering the time it was made and released, it checks all the right boxes as far as convention goes. But perhaps first and foremost Sleepaway Camp is most know for it’s shock ending! With the ending spoiled over and over again in so many various forums – it’s genre folklore and the “surprise” at the end is obviously something that everyone exposes as soon as the name Sleepaway Camp is mentioned… you would think that there’s all there is to it.

But wait! I can’t really understand why I’ve never EVER heard/or read about the gay love scene in Sleepaway Camp! Yes, if there’s one thing that makes this film stand out it has to be the two male lovers! This is where I move into spoilerville as I need to break certain things to explain this correctly.
So from now on, people shouldn’t looking at this film as the slasher with the transsexual killer, they should actually be looking at it as an important part of gay themed horror cinema!  One could choose to read it as Pro-Gay as it actually has two male men enjoying the company of each other, and the anti-hero character is transsexual! Exiting and provocative, right?

Or you could read it as a criticism against homosexuality! First off, the death of Angela’s father John [Dan Tursi]: he dies in the opening scene, the unfortunate victim of that tragic accident (which only happened because of sexual tension between the boy and girl!) where a boat smashes into the man and his two children. Make note that the man who shouts lines of dialogue from the beach may seem a random dude, but he returns later to tie it all together!
The subplot concerning Angela’s love interest – hormone fuelled Paul [Christopher Collet] who will do everything he can to get in her pants – or Judy’s, Hell, raging hormones wait for nobody  - may seem to be nothing but budding and fumbled teenage love leading up to the climax, but it goes deeper and it ties into the surreal shock ending in more than one way. The very first time that Paul manages to get Angela down on the beach and starts to unbutton her blouse to get to second base leads to a very surreal flashback! In this flashback Angela and her brother are seen standing in the doorway of a bedroom giggling at something that they find odd. Now you could easily have cut to a mom and dad kissing and the scene would have made perfect sense… but instead we get a scene of Angela’s father John in bed with the dude from the beach, daddy’s lover! So if we look at the traumatizing death of John, it’s blatantly obvious that this scarred Angela in such a way that she knows that homosexual love is punished by death! Her father was killed; for the sake of the argument let us say by the hand of God, due to his homosexuality. Angela has been forced to live life as a little girl, all due to the weird and wacky aunt wanting to have a little girl! So in some way you have to look at the killings in Sleepaway Camp in two different ways, one being the vengeance killings – Angela murders her oppressors as a metaphorical revenge on Aunt Martha. The final murder, perhaps the most uncalled for and horrendous of them all, is committed because Paul reveals Angela’s secret, and with the budding feelings for Paul returned, the punishment is served, all though unfortunately for Paul, it’s he who is punished for the unbeknownst homosexuality, (or the risk of homosexual activity), not Angela.
But this also opens an opportunity to read the film as pro-gay, where the oppressed and repressed homosexuality finally gets a chance to take its revenge on the “normal” society. Where Angela has been forced into an alternative sexuality, she now no longer has a sexual identity – if we can talk about a teenage transgender person in those terms – and for that she finally get’s to release all that confusion, frustration and anger, taking it out on the Male person who trigger’s all that repressed rage and emotion! In other words, don't oppress sexuality, hetro or homo, because even if you are a God it will come back to kill you! 

Most likely Robert Hiltzik had none of this in mind at all when he scripted Sleepaway Camp, but it’s food for thought and as I’m from now on going to refer to Sleepaway Camp as the Gay Dad film first and the one with the transsexual killer second, because that’s the way the importance of those two scenes should be sorted not in any other way. From now on, Sleepaway Camp goes from generic slasher to important gender role thought-provoker, intentional or not.

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