I’ve covered several gimmicks in reviewing horror flicks, but one I have yet to discuss is the Shock Ending. Going far beyond the twist ending, the Shock Ending goes so outrageously over the top to close a film that you’ll never forget it, no matter how lousy or boring the 85 minutes preceding it was. And trust me, as much as I hate generalities, it is impossible for you to forget a Shock Ending. As far as 80s slashers go, SLEEPAWAY CAMP has the greatest of them all. Three decades later, horror fans still discuss it. Unfortunately, without it nobody would talk about SLEEPAWAY CAMP five minutes after seeing it, because it’s about as overwrought and lousy as a slasher can get.
The film starts off with the silliest boat accident in the history of film, and never stops the tomfoolery from there. As his boyfriend watches on, a father of two is killed. Flash forward several years later, and Ricky and his cousin Angela are off to summer camp. Listen closely to what Aunt Martha says; trust me on this one. Once the kids get to the camp, we’re introduced to Mel, the much older camp owner who has no problem dating his nubile, young campers; Artie, the fat, sleazy cook who refers to the incoming girls as “baldies” and would have been on a sex offender registry list if one existed in 1983; Ronnie, the muscle bound athletic director who wears shorts that are way too tight; Meg and Judy, two stuck up bitches who have an instant vendetta against Angela, for no particular reason; and Paul, who has a puppy love crush on Angela. Most of these people will die. Hey, this is a slasher made in 1983, so I’m not giving away anything. Those who stick around and are breathing at the end, will be witness to that ending.
Along the way is where the problems arise. Though competently filmed, it is awful. The acting on all ends is campy at best, histrionic at worst. Even Mike Kellin, once nominated for a Tony award, does a ridiculous job as Mel.
Not that Robert Hiltzik’s script or direction do the actors any favors. The dialogue is atrocious, character’s ludicrous motivations are inconceivable (why would Judy want to date Mel? Why the hatred for Angela, even if she is mute?). There’s a baseball game that runs way too long, and some camp pranks that drag the already glacial pacing to a halt. The makeup effects work isn’t up to snuff with the better slashers of the time either. It’s like a much lesser version of FRIDAY THE 13TH, which isn’t exactly a great film itself, no matter that it started the slasher boom of the early 1980s.
Mimicking FRIDAY was obviously what Hiltzik had in mind when he conceived SLEEPAWAY CAMP. Both are set in a summer camp, have creative kills, and are whodunnits. On that last note, CAMP actually surpasses FRIDAY, as its killer is a character that’s appeared in the film (FRIDAY’s killer comes straight out of the blue). Hiltzik cashed in on a craze, using Sean Cunningham’s blueprint, but in making a copy of a copy, his film is inferior in almost every way when compared to the source. There is that Shock Ending, though, which is wilder than the last jump scare in FRIDAY by miles.
The only way to enjoy SLEEPAWAY CAMP for me is to view it as X laid it out. After seeing it, X said that it was a gay flick. And he’s right. This is one gay flick. To call all the homosexuality “subtext” would be to understate it, as it bleeds out into the text itself. From the father’s boyfriend through all the tight shorts on the boys to that ending, gayness pervades every aspect of the film. 1980’s FLASH GORDON is the only other gay film I can think of that may rival this one. I don’t know why Hiltzik chose to include it, but it makes the film an enjoyable oddity given all its faults.
If you listen to the commentary on the DVD, you would think the film had no faults, and was the CITIZEN KANE of 80s slashers. Hiltzik and Felissa Rose, who played Angela, find an abundance of brilliance in the flick that I sure don’t. Clearly they cherish the film, which I also don’t. It’s tawdry, cheaply made, and if it hadn’t been for that ending, totally forgettable.
And yet, SLEEPAWAY CAMP has its many fans. They’re willing to overlook the cop with the phony, awful moustache late in the film (the commentary tells us the actor shaved before being called back later in the filming) and all its other blunders, out of love. They’ve been drawn in by that Shock Ending, which means it did its job. And if you’re one of them and you tell me it’s a great film even before the ending, I’ll kindly ask you to guess how big the cult is for 1981’s slasher, FINAL EXAM.