Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983) – Some cult classics emerge because they are brilliant works of art that were unfairly ignored upon their initial release, while some attract loyal followings because they aren’t so much good as they are batshit insane. They transcend “bad movie” status. Sleepaway Camp falls into the latter category. Robert Hiltzik’s opus might have been an indie success sorry that came out of nowhere to top the box office on its opening weekend back in 1983, but this isn’t the case of ingenious filmmaking topping limited resources to become a runaway hit like John Carpenter’s Halloween or The Blair Witch Project. Nope, Sleepaway Camp is total crap. It just happens to be magnificent crap. It’s a movie to be watched in slack-jawed disbelief as every scene plays out with the unconventional rhythms of Ed Wood-esque prodigy whose deep misunderstanding of how movies and the world work translates into magically misconceived filmmaking. Hiltzik never made another movie until his ill advised Return To Sleepaway Camp direct-to-DVD feature in 2008, and in a weird way that’s as it should be. The chances of Hiltzik making lightening strike twice were impossible, but the beauty of movies that all you need to be remembered is one indelible mark on pop culture. Just ask Tommy Wisseau.
The plot starts stock before turning almost unfathomably strange. It opens at a summer camp where a girl who doesn’t want to water ski is dragged behind a boat by two uncaring camp counselors who are too preoccupied with arguing over who gets to drive to notice the terrified camper on skis behind them, let alone the father, son, and daughter in a capsized boat in front of them. There’s a crash and only one of the children of the unfortunately doomed family unit survives. Then we cut ahead a few years rather than dealing with that bizarre tragedy and meet a mother giving one of the most insane speeches/performances in the history of film. She sends her son and his mute girl cousin off to camp. When they arrive at camp they split up, leaving the sad mute girl to fend for herself. Immediately, she’s almost raped by the chef. But soon she starts to blend in, even attracting the attention of a boy. From there silly camp movie clichés play out in even sillier costumes (there are many direct nods to and parodies of Sleepaway Camp in Wet Hot American Summer and deservingly so). Then people start dying in gruesome, elaborate, and stupid ways (boiling water, bees). The head counselor/owner covers up every murder to avoid losing business and somehow no one else in the camp notices the body count. It eventually all builds to an absolutely stunning and unforgettable twist ending that’s deeply disturbing thanks to an implied history of insane child abuse, a magically wrong mask, and one of the most unexpected lingering final shots in film history.
Released at the peak of the 80s slasher craze, Sleepaway Camp is both a strict product of its time and an unrepeatable one-off. Reduced its most basic plot beats and gory set pieces, it’s a conventional slasher. However, Hiltzik’s complete disregard for structure and realism coupled with the cast’s questionable talents (at least in a conventional sense) turn it into an accidental dark comedy with an almost nightmarish sense of logic. Had Hiltzik been more of a skilled stylist and cast better actors, he might even have been considered a David Lynch type.
The gore effects are pretty solid and the set pieces are fairly well shot, so that made the movie passable for 80s horror fans sniffing out the latest gore show. The movie would have always made money for those elements alone, but what made it a cult classic that eventually earned this deserved Shout Factory Blu-Ray release is the magical camp value coupled with deeply disturbing undertones. Much of Sleepaway Camp is laughable and hysterically so. It’s a movie that could never properly be parodied because it would be impossible to match the ridiculousness of the original. Even when people make jokes about it, they’re often word for word portings of things that actually happen in the film. But then whenever the kill scenes or unsettling plot twists appear, the movie becomes genuinely unnerving. You can’t really say that Sleepaway Camp works in the way that the filmmakers intended. However, its mixture of hilarity, sex, violence, and a shock value offer a near perfect escapist horror movie experience. It may have been somewhat accidental, but Hiltzik made a genuine 80s horror classic that’s far more fun and endearing to watch now than most of the conventional genre hits from that decade.
The video and audio transfers are splendid. The colors pop, the sound is clear and layered. There’s no way the movie ever looked or sounded this good theatrically and it’s deeply amusing to think of all the time and effort that Shout Factory put into to making Sleepaway Camp perfect in HD when you consider all of the canonical film classics that have yet to make the Blu-Ray cut. Yet, as good as the movie looks, the real selling point of the disc is the overflowing special features section. The biggest new feature is a 45-minute documentary about the making of Sleepaway Camp featuring Hiltzik and most of the cast. They share hilarious anecdotes like how the actress who gives a horrendous performance as the main mother was well aware what she was doing was wrong, but Hiltzik insisted she continue anyways (it shows the man has a certain genius). It’s a charming doc because everyone involved seems genuinely thrilled by the cult status of the little movie they made decades ago.
Next up are a horrible short film and music video loosely connected to cast members that add to the disc’s overwhelming kitsch value, multiple photo montages, a series of trailers, and a restoration presentation. Finally, the disc includes three audio commentary tracks (one with the two lead actors, one with the director, and one with the director and star from the original DVD). There’s obviously a fair amount of overlap between the doc and commentary tracks, but for fans of Sleepaway Camp it won’t matter.
Not only don’t they make em’ like these anymore, but no one else made em’ like this in the first place. (Phil Brown)