The golden glow of autumn has dulled to a final gasp at the closed-down Camp Arawak, the desolation of the empty cabins, tranquil lake and fall foliage haunted by memories of its campers and staffand, by an awful tragedy that followed them there. The grounds, it turns out, have not merely shut down for the season, but possibly for good. The opening of "Sleepaway Camp" is overcome by Benjamin Davis' lonesome lensing and composer Edward Bilous' booming instrumental portent, an attention-grabbing start to a quirky 1980s slasher entry notorious for its batshit bonkers, startlingly macabre twist ending. The modestly budgeted film went on to spawn three and a half sequels to datetwo cleverly acerbic satires starring Pamela Springsteen (Bruce's little sister), 1988's "Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers" and 1989's "Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland," the unfinished, cobbled-together "Sleepway Camp IV: The Survivor" (its filming shut down before completion in 1992), and 2008's direct continuation "Return to Sleepaway Camp"but the picture remembered best in the series is the one that started it all.
Following a terrible boating accident that claimed the lives of her father and sibling, Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) was adopted by her doting, off-kilter Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and raised alongside cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Now 13, she and Ricky are headed to summer camp at the same time a mystery killer has begun stalking the grounds. Quiet and shy, Angela is faced with mounting bullying from malicious fellow female camper Judy (Karen Fields) and head counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi), but finds acceptance (and her first potential boyfriend) when Ricky's sweet-natured friend, Paul (Christopher Collet), shows interest in her. Camp Arawak isn't the safest place to be even before the attacks beginthe cook, Artie (Owen Hughes), tries to molest Angela in the walk-in pantry before Ricky catches him in the act; 60-year-old camp owner Mel Kostic (Mike Kellin) is having an affair with Megbut it is about to get a whole lot worse.
The writing-directing debut of Robert Hiltzik, "Sleepaway Camp" has carved out a cult following that has only widened in the decades since its release. From afar, it might look like a "Friday the 13th
" hanger-on, but there are key differences that give the film its own, at times, transgressive identity. The campgoers and counselors are played by actual kids rather than twenty-something actors, their conversations speckled with four-letter words. Hiltzik does not shy away from the darkness of adult exploitation enveloping his adolescent characters, and he depicts this without feeling the need to personally exploit them himself. Indeed, there isn't a bare breast in sight, and the one instance of nudity is jolting in its forthrightness and critical to the narrative. Maturely treated themes of gender identity and homosexuality (Angela's dad is briefly seen in a normal, healthy relationship with another man) are additionally progressive, adding layers to a story that traverses then-taboo subject matter.
Performed at a theatrical level, the cast of "Sleepaway Camp" are a mix of veterans, stage and soap actors, and novice newcomers who often play to the back rows of the balcony. The results are less stilted than disarming, giving each scene equal helpings of sincerity and unintended camp. Future scream queen Felissa Rose kicked off her career in a splashy way as Angela Baker; hers in the most subtle and sympathetic turn in the film, crucial characteristics leading toward a final sequence of go-for-broke power. As love interest Paul and protective cousin Ricky, the latter never having met a curse word he didn't like, Christopher Collet and Jonathan Tiersten are key figures in bringing Angela out of her introverted, put-upon shell. Mike Kellin, who passed away from lung cancer less than two months before the film's theatrical bow, is full of personality and character as lecherous camp owner Mel Kostic, even when given awkward dialogue to recite (upon discovering a corpse, he exclaims in dramatic anguish, "Oh, that's too bad!"). Popping up for only five minutes of screen time but unforgettable from the first second, Desiree Gould is bizarrely funny as the daffy Aunt Martha, her unsettling motivations revealed late in the film standing at intriguing contrast to her eternally cheerful, ribbon-fingered persona.
And then there's Judy, who might be one of the most lovably spiteful non-homicidal antagonists in horror's hallowed legacy. As uninhibitedly embodied by Karen Fields, Judy is a stuck-up piece of work, so supremely joyous in her cruelty that she often has to take time out to throw her head back and cackle. Is she something of a caricature? Oh, yes, but in this case that is exactly what makes her so special. When she describes Angela as "a real carpenter's dreamflat as a board and needs a screw," it is pure bliss. Her ghastly comeuppance at the hands of a killer wielding a hot curling iron is nasty stuff, but long overdue for a vain girl who cares about nothing but her looks and hurting others.
Production on "Sleepaway Camp" took place in upstate New York during the late-summer days of 1982 and, if the very, very short shorts and very, very high tank tops worn by the male actors are any indication, the picture is clearly a fashionable product of its era. It also is a testament to its own whodunit innovation that it is not just another uninspired throwaway among the early-'80s teen slice-and-dice boom. Observational glimpses into camp life might run a little long, but they help to create a feel for the setting and characters before lives are put in harm's way. As for who the culprit is, and how it is revealed, the creepy, feral final minute is certain to not be forgotten once seen. It is brave, it is chilling, and it is capped by a perfectly complementary original song called "Angela's Theme (You're Just What I've Been Looking For)," written and performed by Frankie Vinci. Like the shower scene less than halfway through Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho
," the ending is what everybody remembers when they think about "Sleepaway Camp." The tag is a humdinger, all right, but what comes before it is rugged, charmingly perverse and ahead of its time.