[SLEEPAWAY CAMP screens Saturday June 4th at 11:59pm at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]
Review by Bob Ignizio
Eight years have passed since the tragic boating accident that injured Angela (Felissa Rose) and killed her father and sibling. Since then, she's lived with her Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Now for the first time Angela is going to summer camp, but the socially awkward adolescent soon becomes a target for teasing by some of the other campers, notably counseler Meg (Katherine Kamhi) and her protege Judy (Karen Fields). Ricky tries to defend her, but when Angela's tormenters start turning up dead, head counselor Mel (Mike Kellin) suspects the boy may be going too far in his efforts to protect his cousin. But are Mel's suspicions founded, or could the killer be a less obvious suspect? On its surface, SLEEPAWAY CAMP sounds like just another forgettable, formulaic eighties slasher flick. But as anyone who has witnessed its jaw-dropping conclusion can attest, it's anything but forgettable.
Much about SLEEPAWAY CAMP falls into the territory of “so bad it's good” filmmaking: the poorly staged boating accident, Gould's loopy performance as Aunt Martha, a cop whose mustache alternates between real and blatantly phony. And yet, writer/director Robert Hitzick isn't a complete hack. He seems to have a handle on the technical aspects of production (outside of that vanishing stache), and gets decent performances from most of his cast. He's no John Carpenter, but he does at times manage to generate some real tension and suspense. As for the kills, although horror fans have certainly seen gorier, there's a streak of sadism to the murders here that gives them a little extra zing. For example, the death by curling iron.
Giving SLEEPAWAY CAMP a little extra effectiveness is the fact that this is a rare teen slasher film where the kids are actually played by kids instead of twenty-somethings. Most of the young actors are pretty good, and it looks like Hitzick had them wear their own clothes to save money: The BOC and Asia concert shirts, iron-on “Tequilla Sunrise” tees and disturbingly short cut-offs look too authentically faded and tacky to be costumes.
Having real teens and adolescents in the cast also adds an undercurrent of creepiness that I'm not entirely sure was intended. The film puts forth Judy, who is apparently supposed to be 13 or 14, as its primary sexpot. Eww. And considering how things turn out for Angela, the fact that Rose was only 13 when she played the part just seems wrong, especially after reading an interview with the actress where she recounts seeing the movie for the first time with her eighth grade class. That had to result in some teasing. To drive the point home, the camp cook calls the young girls “baldies” and openly expresses his pedophiliac tendencies, which the rest of the camp workers just laugh off. If the movie were better made, this would probably be a lot more offensive.
Whenever filmmakers set out to intentionally make a “cult classic” horror film like this, they invariably fail. The only way you get a movie like SLEEPAWAY CAMP is by trying to make a good one, and either lacking the awareness to realize your shortcomings (Ed Wood), or simply not caring (H.G. Lewis). I'm not sure which camp Hitzik falls into, but either way he has succeeded. Although only a modest success on its initial theatrical run, SLEEPAWAY CAMP has gone on to attract a rabid following of fans thanks to cable and home video who can't believe what they're seeing.
Now that mainstream Hollywood has taken the horror film over from independent filmmakers like Hitzik, you may still see movies just as bad, but you won't see many with the kind of oddball idiosyncrasies that make SLEEPAWAY CAMP so fascinating. And trust me, the final frames of this movie will sear themselves into your brain in a way few scenes in modern horror films, even good ones, can ever hope to. 3 out of 4 stars for entertainment value, 2 out of 4 stars for quality.