It's the ending to beat all. Sleepaway Camp wraps up with a deliciously unexpected final shot. Writer/director Robert Hiltzik explained, "Since it's a horror film, my thinking was, you need a good beginning so you grab the audience right away, and then you need a really good ending, so when they leave, they remember."
Welcome to delightful Camp Arawak, where Angela (Felissa Rose) and her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) are spending the Summer. Unfortunately, that's the same Cap Arawak on whose banks young Angela's brother and father were killed in a terrible boating accident. And when the bodies start piling up again (as always happens in 1980s summer camps), suspicion soon falls on rebellious Ricky. After all, it couldn't be silent, mild Angela, with her soulful eyes, causing this bloodshed, could it?
There was little doubt people were going to remember the ending. It's one of the most bizarre, brilliant, shocking and subversive reveals in horror cinema, and it was almost the film's undoing. Hiltzik said, "I was concerned that I was going to get an X rating, especially because of the ending. The film board contacted me after I had submitted everything, and said, we have some bad news. I went, 'Uh-oh, here comes the X rating,' and they said, 'We're going to have to give you an R.' 'Gee, OK.' Well that was exactly what I wanted." He'd thought through workarounds for that final scene, an alternate safe R cut that would safe the meaning of the moment, but instead his weird, warped vision survived in full. "It scares the crap out of people, so I guess mission accomplished."
Released in 1983, Sleepaway Camp was part of the golden age of summer camp horrors, like The Burning and Friday the 13th. But where it differed from its contemporaries was that it didn't pull a Luke Perry in Beverly Hills 90210. Hiltzik said, "What struck me about those films is that they use adults, 19, 20 year olds playing 14, 15 year olds. I've been to camp, and it's more Lord of the Flies than anything else. All of a sudden, you have teens, pre-teens, and nobody's supervising them. The counselors are themselves are juniors and sophomores in college. They're kids themselves, so effectively you're putting them in an environment where they rule the roost."
He needed kids in the cast because he knew that kids were the ones watching and judging, and that's why the X rating would have been the commercial kiss of death. "That's my audience."
That Lords of the Flies vibe is why, for much of the movie, the villain isn't the murderous maniac on the lose: It's mean spirited Meg the counselor (Katherine Kamhi) and the legendarily awful raven-haired Judy (Karen Fields), whose one-teen war on harmless Angela makes the Mean Girls look like Betty and Veronica. Hiltzik said, "One of my favorite parts of acting is auditioning actors, and what I was originally going for was a blonde. Angela was going to be dark eyes, brunette, from the beginning, and to counter that I wanted the nasty blonde. But (Fields) was just so good in the auditions. ... She really delivered, as it worked out, perfectly."
And then there's the other piece of unhinged genius casting: Desiree Gould as Angela's wild-eyed and hare-brained Aunt Martha, whose disconnected opening monologue sets an off-kilter mood for the rest of the film. Casting Gould "was an easy decision," said Hiltzik. He explained, "My audition process is improvization. I don't hand out pages and do this, do that. I give them the scenario, and it may or may not be a variation of the script, but there's certain characteristics I'm looking to see if they can play, and Desiree was Aunt Martha."
Sleepaway Camp has become an undoubted cult success, spawning three official sequels (including one, Return to Sleepaway Camp, directed by Hiltzik) and even fan films. It success still surprises its creator: Two years ago he attended a convention in Chicago. "It was a gigantic movie theater, one of the biggest I've ever been in. I said, 'This is going to be a disaster, because there's going to be a lot of people disguised as chairs." That night, I show up, and the place is amazingly three quarters full. When the film ended, I was talking to people and signing autographs for three or four hours."
Part of the film's three decade long appeal is undoubtedly that it revels in its unconventionality. "I didn't just want it to go from point A to point B," said Hiltzik. "The issue of sexuality had to be introduced at some point. Otherwise, it's just conventional slasher with a knife, killing everybody." While its subversive message and whiplash twist reveal have become talking points for years, he's still just glad that new audiences are finding it. "I want people to sit there for 90 minutes and be entertained."
Sleepaway Camp (Scream! Factory) is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.
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