Thursday, May 29, 2014

SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) Blu-ray Review

Sleepaway Camp (1983) d. Robert Hiltzik (USA)

The phrase “You can never watch the same movie twice” is one that I’ve used many a time to describe my shifting cinematic perceptions from one viewing to the next. The films don’t change, but as I continue to grow (I wouldn’t go so far as to say “mature”) and consume greater varieties of the wild and woolly, my entertainment palate waxes and wanes like the October moon. Pieces of celluloid gold turn to muck monsters upon revisit while crapfests become craptastic as familiarity breeds contentment. Case in point, when I first got around to seeing Robert Hiltzik’s late-phase slasher on video in 2004, I pretty much tore it to pieces, naming the WTF ending its only redeeming feature.

Behold the Foolish capsule review of yore:


Every once in a while, a horror movie delivers a moment so unusual and startling, the viewer is compelled to recommend it, if only to have someone with whom to share the experience. Call it the “Dude, you gotta see this!” factor. Such is the case with this staggeringly inept Friday the 13th knockoff, which developed its cult status due to “The Scene” that closes the flick. The rest of the running time, however, is an excruciating slog, unless listening to prepubescent campers swear like sailors is your idea of a good time. What plot there is concerns introverted teen Angela’s (Felissa Rose) persecution at the hands of the “cool” chicks at Camp Arawak. Soon enough, her tormentors begin to meet laughably unsavory ends.

Scarier by far than the spree of outlandish slayings (murder by curling iron, anyone?), though, is the Salvation Army-reject ’80s clothing with which the errant costume designer saw fit to punish cast and audience. Death by pots of boiling corn? Killer hornet nests in outhouses? Counselor Ronnie’s orange muscle shirts and short-shorts? Who could make up this drivel? Why, none other than writer/director Robert Hiltzik, who opens his movie with a dedication: “To Mom, a doer.” (Touching stuff, Bobby. Now go sit in that corner and think about what you’ve done.) While this cinematic burned marshmallow elicits neither goose-pimpling nor gore-induced gagging, the notorious ending lives up to its reputation as one of the most memorably bizarre...ever. (Dude, you gotta see this.)


Based on the above rant, it will come to no surprise that I never bothered to revisit the source of my misery in the decade that followed (although I did eventually check out the Pamela Springsteen-starring sequels and found them vastly more entertaining than their predecessor).

"Three commentary tracks????  Noooooooooooooo...."
As such, the shrieks of hysterical joy that rang out across the land when Shout! Factory announced that they would be releasing Sleepaway Camp to Blu-ray at the end of the month were neither endorsed nor echoed by yours truly. In fact, I was more than a little depressed that I would be subjected to a repeat viewing (or viewings, thanks to the wealth of commentary tracks) in the line of duty, but I straightened my shoulders, popped the popcorn, and settled in to take my medicine.

And darned if I didn’t have a good time.

“Staggeringly inept?” “Excruciating slog?” With all apologies to my younger, far more mainstream mid-millennial mindset, far from it. Granted, a decade ago, I had barely worked my way through the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises that I had previously abandoned, much less started paying any serious mind to the independent slasher scene, so I can hopefully be forgiven for not realizing that our film du jour represents one of the more polished and genuinely intriguing entries of the dead kids cycle. Does it have its flaws? Absolutely. But as I’ve evolved (again, no claims to maturity), I find I’m more appreciative of the charms yielded by scenery-chewing amateurs, ridiculously fake mustaches, slightly creepy counselor/camp owner relationships, and bizarro narrative suckerpunches, all of which Sleepaway Camp has in spades.

Sure, the murders are still occasionally loopy, but it’s hard not to appreciate Ed French’s cleverly crafted macabre set-pieces of arrows through necks and scalding blisters rising off a would-be pedophile’s face. Not to mention the mind-blowing visual feast that concludes the proceedings, and even though everyone reading this probably already knows the punchline to which I’m referring, I’m dead set on preserving the surprise for the uninitiated. No one spoiled it for me, and I’m going to extend the courtesy.

However, once viewers have experienced “The Moment” in all its glory, there is a virtual treasure chest of supplemental materials to satisfy the overwhelming desire to know WHO THE HELL CAME UP WITH THIS AND WHY ARE THEY STILL RUNNING AROUND FREE? Hiltzik appears on two of the three commentaries, the first ported over from Anchor Bay’s 2002 release where he shares the microphone with amiable star Rose and extremely knowledgeable moderator Jeff Hayes of Unfortunately, on the recently recorded 2014 track, the writer/director sounds perfectly uninterested in revisiting his 30-year-old baby, often leaving Hayes – doing his utmost to keep the renewed conversation going – awkwardly hung out to dry.

Rose also returns for a new commentary, this time with co-star Jonathan Tiersten-not-Tierston and genre journalist Justin Beahm, carrying the day with her sunny demeanor and keen memory. (By contrast, Tiersten spends the entire 84 minutes whining and wisecracking, often to the detriment of Rose’s stories and Beahm’s queries. In hindsight, it would have been preferable to send our resident wet blanket out for donuts.)

"I'm not talking to you, Jonathan."

Happily, Beahm keeps Tiersten on a shorter leash for the new documentary “At the Waterfront After the Social,” the unqualified jewel in the BR’s crown which reunites the actor with Rose, Hiltzik, French, Karen Fields (bitchy Judy), Paul DeAngelo (musclehead Ronnie), Frank Saladino (counselor Gene), Desiree Gould (Aunt Martha)...and Rose’s real-life mom, Joan Esposito! With so many lovely stories and reminiscences (with considerable attention given to Tiersten and Rose’s on-set crushes), the 45 all-too-brief minutes fly by; when Felissa gets visibly misty toward the end, it’s impossible not to get a lump in your throat and want to give her a hug. Making a doc richer in content and emotion than 4+ hours of commentaries is no small feat, and all praise to Beahm for his achievement.

There are also a few curiosities included in the vast buffet of extras, such as Hayes’ bizarre short film Judy, which resurrects Fields’ character as a vengeful killer of deadbeat dads. The movie isn’t terrible in and of itself, with some fun DIY gore effects and lusty overacting, but there’s no reason given for Judy’s change of heart – it would have worked better had Fields just played a different/new character if Hayes wanted to give his star a vehicle. Equally puzzling is the inclusion of Tiersten’s perfectly meh music video for his perfectly meh song “Princess,” unless you’ve been dying to see all-grown-up Ricky badly lip-synching while a random aerialist climbs the silks and spins.

Also included are French’s original makeup tests, a number of theatrical/TV trailers, a “Camp Arawak Scrapbook” of production stills, and a surprisingly unedifying featurette of the film undergoing the 2K digital scan process. (Pressing buttons and clicking computer mice is hard to make interesting, kids.)

Sleepaway Camp is now available from Shout! Factory in a Blu-ray/DVD combo (with terrific original cover art by Nathan Thomas Milliner) and can be ordered HERE.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


  1. This is a film that positively enrages me for reasons you can probably guess. Worse, "The Moment," as you call it, is just plain lazy. It's not the first horror film of the 1980s to employ that trope, or even the fifth. (Others include Deadly Blessing, Stripped to Kill, Dressed to Kill, and the slasher parody, Pandemonium). I think your younger self was more on the mark, truth to tell. The film is a slog--one that I think is completely unredeemed by its ending. Indeed, I think the ending is damning.

    1. I'm hardly one to defend the film for having any outright merit, and yes, its politics might be questionable and/or irresponsible. That said, I think the shock ending is indeed shocking, which earns it points in my book. I also don't think I could call it lazy, since it is supported throughout the film on multiple occasions. I can see why you might be offended by it, however, and I can respect that.

  2. I love this movie and his fiirst sequel ! But the third one is really bad and I didn't see the IV...

    1. I'm a very big fan of the first Sleepaway sequel - I'd even say Iike it more than the original. The third is definitely less inspired, to be sure. Might have to revisit those as well.