Throughout my life, I’ve seen some pretty bad horror films. The Mangler, Sorority Row, Boogeyman, Maniac. But nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to the depraved stupidity of Sleepaway Camp. Released in 1983, not only is it completely unscary it exists beyond all sense of logic & reason. Put simply, it cannot be taken seriously at all.
It begins with an unfortunate accident. A camp counsellor is talked into letting his gal pal take over the reigns of a motorboat while their terrified friend is tailing behind reluctantly on water skis. At the same time, a father on a tiny sailboat is playfully pushed into the lake by his young, bickering daughter & son. While the family is clowning around in the water, the father notices the motorboat approaching from a short distance. The teen girl on the water skis tries to warn her friends to turn the boat in time but they can’t hear her because of all the noise.
Next thing you know, the body of the dad is floating by on the water while only one of the kids appears to have survived. The girl on the water skis, however, is so hysterical she won’t stop screaming at the top of her lungs. Considering how poorly constructed this whole sequence is, her reaction feels just a tad overwrought. She’s clearly overcompensating. As it turns out, she’s not the only one.
Eight years later, we meet the peculiar, annoyingly melodramatic Dr. Martha. (Imagine Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford as interpreted by C3PO.) Overacting at every possible turn for no good reason, she’s eager to send off Angela, a shy young teen with a big secret, and Ricky, her prank addicted, protective cousin, to summer camp. Inexplicably, Dr. Martha has handed them each papers revealing the results of their physicals. (Is she even a real doctor?) She tells them to not reveal where she got them from as if anyone at the camp would give a rat’s ass. (Is this really necessary?)
Once at Camp Atawak, Angela pulls a full-on Koothrappali and refuses to talk to anyone, especially girls, for several days. This greatly annoys Ricky’s ex, Meg, who wants nothing to do with him any more, and Judy, one of the bossy counsellors. (Considering how snotty Meg is, one wonders what Ricky ever saw in her in the first place. Was she ever bearable?)
Meg & Judy spend much of the movie tormenting, insulting & yelling at her while she does nothing but stare blankly at them almost the entire time. Meanwhile, Ricky’s handsy pal, Paul, takes a liking to Angela and she finally opens up. It would be nice if he respected her boundaries, though, and resisted the aggressive Meg. (If only his kisses were too wet. Big turn-off for her.)
Besides doing the selective mutism routine, Angela also refuses to chow down in the rec hall. So, one day, the muscular counsellor in the short shorts introduces her to the head chef hoping he can make something special just for her. Unfortunately, the chef’s a sex offender with very little self-control. (It’s not exactly a secret in the kitchen. Was there no background check performed on this guy?)
After the chef corners her in the supply closet, a little too eager to take off his pants, she’s spared when Ricky catches him just before he does anything. Despite threatening him to never say a word, it’s not long before the fat creep gets up close and personal with a large pot of boiling water. I laughed very hard at his reaction. It just goes on forever, especially after he’s all wrapped up like a mummy. You can still hear him screaming after he’s wheeled out of the kitchen.
Mel, the hilariously inept owner of Camp Atawak (Mike Kellin’s enormously overdone facial expressions are consistently uproarious), is insistent that no one be informed of what happened. Burned up pedophilic chefs are bad for business, you see. And besides, it was an accident. Yeah, that’s the ticket. An accident. Hey, kitchen guys. Want a raise? Done.
Meanwhile, Angela, the selectively mute starer, continues to get picked on by Meg (who apparently has a thing for the ancient Mel & vice versa) & Judy who at one point throw her in the lake. (Why does it bother them so much that she doesn’t talk to them or participate in any camp activities? Why do they care so much, anyway? They have plenty of other people to hang out with. They’re such busy bodies.) At another point, Judy ridicules her body. An older boy hits her with a water balloon. Other boys bluntly ask her what’s wrong with her. They should’ve asked Robert Hiltzik, the guy who made this awful trash.
In between the usual camp activities like standing around listening to shitty 80s music, making childish rec hall chants, pranking (really bullying) the nerdy guy, eating, swimming & playing volleyball, softball and capture the flag, dickish one-dimensional characters are suddenly offed and instantly forgotten about. Every time a body is wheeled away by the authorities, good ol’ Mel insists nothing untoward has taken place. It’s always an accident, he claims. Deep down, however, when no one else is around, he blames Ricky. Bad assumption, Mel, but to be fair, thanks to some bad cinematography & creative decisions, completely understandable.
The laughable Sleepaway Camp has one major problem after another. The often old-fashioned musical score feels hopelessly out of date and completely fails to set the proper mood. The minimally gruesome kill scenes lack any kind of tension or believability. Plus, the movie cheats regarding the killer’s identity. It’s more than obvious on at least two occasions that different actors are being used for these particular scenes. (In one shot, you can clearly see their face, and in another, a very different body, two huge blunders.) We don’t care about any of the characters. (Almost all of them are horrible people, including the so-called heroes.) And that ending. By God, what the hell were they thinking? It’s not exactly credible.
Instead of shrieking or recoiling in absolute terror, Sleepaway Camp inspires a great deal of unintentional laughter, from Mike Tellin’s increasingly silly facial expressions to the cop’s suddenly fake moustache to the impromptu brawl during a social event and especially during that final scene which probably shouldn’t have ended in a freeze frame. (Why permanently remind the audience of the moment your movie completely falls apart? And what’s with the cheesy snarling?) Honestly, how can you take any of this mess seriously?
Beyond the remarkable silliness, though, is a sinister homophobia that feels deeply irresponsible and insulting, even more so 32 years after the film’s initial theatrical run. I mean to unsubtly suggest that seeing two men in bed would cause someone to giggle incessantly, then ultimately go insane and therefore kill anyone for even the slightest provocation is absolute garbage, a hateful, nonsensical sentiment that has no business being in an otherwise ridiculous horror film.
And then to offer a cockamamie explanation for the killer’s secret identity in a preposterous flashback, well, for me it was the final straw. Already terrible, the ending makes things that much worse.
With far more unintended laughs than thrills, Sleepaway Camp is a textbook case of how not to make a horror film. It’s a shame Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is off the air. The robots would’ve had a field day with this one.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, September 17, 2015