by JIM MACKENZIE and SARAH GIAVEDONI
What kind of a summer camp lacks so much supervision that its campers skinny dip and smoke weed and get murdered? What kind of camp also has open pedophiles on staff? The answer is Camp Arawak, the setting for 1983’s SLEEPAWAY CAMP, a relatively bloodless horror film from the golden era of slasher flicks.
Oh, and did we mention the DVD set for this film violates the Geneva Convention?
When we were considering SLEEPAWAY CAMP, our friend said, “Hey, I’ve got a copy you could borrow. You have to be careful with it, though. It’s a collectible.”
She wasn’t kidding. Apparently, the first design for the box set of SLEEPAWAY CAMP DVDs (yes, there are 3 1/2 original movies — the fourth was so bad, the entire crew dropped out of the production halfway through) had to be recalled. The box cover was designed to look like a first aid kit, complete with the crimson plus sign, bloody gauze, scissors, and smeared handprint. After its release, the Red Cross sent Anchor Bay Entertainment a “cease and desist” letter, demanding the box set be taken off the shelves. According to them, an impersonation of the Red Cross symbol was a violation of the Geneva Convention.
It’s a good thing they recalled the box set. Wouldn’t want anyone to think a masterpiece such as SLEEPAWAY CAMP was officially sanctioned by the Red Cross.
We had such high hopes in watching the illicitly issued DVD copy we borrowed. But through most of the movie, we were left wondering what all the fuss was about. Then came the final scene of the film. The scene that changed the whole tone and made SLEEPAWAY CAMP a cult classic.
The film opens on a summer day in 1975. Two children, Angela and Peter, are boating with their father on a serene lake. The boat capsizes, and an amateur speed boater runs straight over the floating family. There are screams and shots of shocked faces, then the father’s body is seen floating atop the lake in a puzzlingly bloodless manner. We always thought getting diced in a rotor blade would create more of a splatter spectacle.
Flash forward eight years. Little Angela has grown up and now lives with her crazy aunt and cousin, Ricky. Surviving the boat accident has apparently left her near-catatonic. And guess what — she’s being sent off to summer camp to live near a lake. Who decided sending a girl with PTSD to live near a body of water was a good idea? Oh. It’s also the same lake where she watched her father die eight years earlier? Just brilliant.
While at camp, people ask Angela direct questions, and she stares, wide-eyed at them. This kid probably shouldn’t be away for the summer. She should be somewhere supervised by people with PhDs.
You can guess what happens next. Campers and counselors start dying off, one by one. Some of the death scenes are novel. It is fun when the pedophile gets dipped in a giant, boiling vat of corn cobs. Another person is killed instantly by honey bees. Yes. Instantly. Honey bees. Improbable? Of course. But the hilarity factor was off the charts.
Then, Angela meets Paul, the one boy who gets through to her. His voice brings her out of her near coma. There is even some pleasant interactions between them, including light kissing, but Paul eventually meets his untimely end as well, so don’t start planning to hear any wedding bells in their future.
If you think guessing the movie killer is part of the fun, here’s a hint: go really obvious. The film should feature a flashing, red arrow that says, “This is the killer.” But even though you know who it is, you can’t figure out a logical reason why the killer would do it. Then you remember how illogical the rest of the movie is, and making sense of the killer’s motivation doesn’t matter.
This flick ignores the technique of enshrouding anything in mystery. Somehow, it holds all its cards until the last five seconds. If a twist ending right before the credits is your kind of thing regardless of the previous 87 minutes, this film is for you.
This movie did bring us back to a more innocent time, when food cooks could smoke cigars in kitchens, and it was okay for muscular men to wear shorts so diminutive, you can almost tell if they’ve been circumcised.
One kitchen scene took us back even further, to a time before the Civil Rights movement. After the head chef/resident pedophile is practically boiled alive, the camp’s owner, Mel, takes Ben and the rest of the camp’s cooks aside - the only people of color in the entire film - to offer them money for their silence and threaten their jobs if they open their mouths.
Innocent conversation about covering up a brutal attempted murder? Or most racist dialogue we’ve ever heard in a movie not about race relations? We couldn’t come to a consensus, and you’ll have to hear it to make your own judgement. But Sarah sure thought Ben had a nice, mellifluous voice that sounded very familiar.
Quick! To IMDb!
Ben was played by Robert Earl Jones, father to the famous James Earl Jones and patriarch of the Earl Jones acting family. Robert Earl Jones may be the only actor in the film you recognize, if only for his family resemblance and that deep, baritone voice.
However, the scene did bring us the second biggest question of the movie (after, “What did we just watch?”.) Mr. Earl Jones, how does your son — who did STAR WARS six years earlier — let his father sign up for this movie? We thought his son should’ve pulled some strings with George Lucas and gotten his dad at least a cameo in RETURN OF THE JEDI.
In one of the movie’s more improbable subplots, Mel, the 60-something-year-old camp manager is seduced by a beautiful, young counselor gal who is probably around the age of 19. When Mel finds her lifeless body in a shower, he chooses not to stoop and examine her, seeing if she is alright. Instead, he decides to stand over her, waving his fist in false umbrage, declaring out loud to seek vengeance upon her killers. Perfectly improbable.
Horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s had a peculiar element we don’t see very often in contemporary horror. Many movies of that era, including SLEEPAWAY CAMP, featured their own theme songs, written specifically for the movie, complete with moderately-relevant lyrics and bad hair.
1981’s MY BLOODY VALENTINE features a theme song that sounds eerily like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.
Who could forget “Ben” by Michael Jackson?
1985’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD had the totally rad tune “Tonight, We’ll Make Love Until We Die.” Very fitting for the zombie movie that started the whole “Braaaaaaains” craze.
One of the highlights of horror rock is The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” for the movie of the same name. They are one of Stephen King’s favorite bands and they totally nailed this horror theme. We hope the master of horror was pleased.
Of course, even some of the greatest rockers succumbed to the awful side of the ‘80s. Most notable was Alice Cooper’s song “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask.)” It was for the 1986 film FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES. Lots of bad acting in the video and lots of bad synth in the song. We’re sure Alice doesn’t pull out this tune too often when his fans scream for the hits.
In some ways, this musical tangent brings us back around to the cult classic, SLEEPAWAY CAMP, a low-budget ripoff of FRIDAY THE 13TH. From the bloodless killings to the screaming, scheming counselors, it took a while for the film to come into its own definition and set itself apart from the films that came before it.
You literally have to wait until the last scene for the entire movie to pay off. It’s not until the final seconds, when the credits roll, that you understand why your friends have been telling you for years to watch this movie.
This column is among those featured in
BRIDE OF MONSTER SERIAL, a collection of
horror essays written by contributors to
THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY.
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The major problem with “splatter” films like SLEEPAWAY CAMP is they are only possible in universes where the smartest people have the IQs of chimpanzees. The dialogue is hard to swallow and the performances are amateurish at best. It’s as if the casting director put up some “Actors Wanted” flyers at a local New York all-night diner and gave jobs to whomever showed up. He certainly didn’t censor anyone for their heavy accents.
But that amateur quality and accidental hilarity is also why movies like this are so memorable. And that’s also why the film’s ending takes its audience completely by surprise.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP has secured its place among the best cult films, and rightly so. It’s a sleeper movie in the best sense — stringing viewers along as it traipses through the woods, spooking campers and counselors alike. Then, out of nowhere — seriously, where did this plot line come from? - the film throws you a curve ball and hits you right in the jugular vein.
If you haven’t made a drinking game out of SLEEPAWAY CAMP by the time Angela’s crazy aunt sends her and Ricky off to camp in the second scene, then you’ve missed a prime opportunity to earn a first-class hangover. And that’s probably the best way to enjoy this film. In a group of friends, drinking and laughing. If horror can’t bring us together and help us enjoy life, then what’s the point?
JIM MACKENZIE and SARAH GIAVEDONI are the creators of StuffMonstersLike.com and two self-proclaimed movie lovers and hijinks creators extraordinaire. Stuff Monsters Like (SML) is the most comprehensive, satirical anthology of stuff monsters like on the web, highlighting the various themes common in many horror flicks. The blog is also the proud sponsor of Intergalactic Hug A Monster Day and the prestigious annual Monstey Awards. When they are not writing about monsters, Jim and Sarah are devoted to watching horror films, running a completely unrelated nonprofit, and making money at their respective full-time jobs. Connect with SML on Facebook and Twitter.