“You won’t be coming home.”
A.k.a. Nightmare Vacation (original UK release)
Director/Writer: Robert Hiltzik / Cast: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Christopher Collet, Paul DeAngelo, Mike Kellin, Karen Fields, Katherine Kamhi, John E. Dunn, Desiree Gould, Susan Glaze, Owen Hughes, Robert Earl Jones.
Body Count: 11
Laughter Lines: “She’s a carpenter’s dream – flat as a board and needs a good screw!”
Queer goings-on abound in this strange little cult classic with an ending so iconically deranged it completely overshadows the shortcomings of the preceding 82 minutes. Spoilers follow.
A man and his two kids are sailing on a lake when an out of control ski-boat plows into them, killing father and child. This scene sets up a few of Sleepaway Camp‘s weirdnesses: Overlong shots, Noo-Yawk accents, and over-acting. Check out the waterskier girl’s caterwauling moment.
Eight years later (yay! not five or ten!) the surviving sibling Angela and her cousin Ricky are sent off to Camp Arawak for the summer by Ricky’s kooky mother. She, like ski-girl, is something to behold, but a classic character nonetheless. Ricky has been before and happily reintegrates with old friends – bar sour-faced camp bitch Judy – but Angela barely says a word (in fact she doesn’t speak until 31 minutes in) and finds it hard to fit in.
It doesn’t help that the campers of Arawak are about 23% assholes who rejoice in mocking Angela one way or another. She’s almost raped by the pedophiley cook, waterbombed by the macho-swagger boys, thrown in the lake by her nasty dorm counsellor, and generally tormented verbally by most of the others.
So who is behind the series of bizarre accidents that begin to plague the camp? Said cook is scalded by a huge vat of boiling water; a boy is drowned beneath a canoe; another has his bathroom break interrupted by a wasp’s nest being thrown through the window… Later there’s death by curling-tongs amidst the more standard knife-in-the-back and arrow-in-the-neck.
The camp owner wants to keep it all under wraps and writes the first few fatalities off as accidents, much to the chagrin of his staff, but begins to suspect Ricky as the deaths continue. Why the whole place wasn’t closed after the first death is a real mystery.
Anyway, things culminate with a bit of a spree and the killer’s identity is revealed in the unforgettable final few frames, partnered nicely with a flashback to fill in the blanks. Most review books give it away and if you, like me, happened to see the sequels first, well then all is ruined.
Sleepaway Camp is a bit of a one-trick pony in this sense. It’s a bit of a chore of a film to reach the famed ending, peppered with some really strange elements and moments that don’t make a whole lot of sense, giving the impression that Hiltzik was so focused on his reveal that he back-pedalled a bit to fatten up his picture with a few extra bodies (when and why are the kids who go on the camping trip hacked up?), the strange flashback of two men embracing in bed together, which is a strange thing to be crowbarred in, especially in the less-than-tolerant early 80s.
Is Sleepaway Camp a gay movie? -shrug- I honestly don’t know where I stand with it. There’s nothing particularly pro or anti-gay going on. That the killer turns out to be a reluctant transgender teenager and possibly had a gay dad seems a bit of a lazy ‘queer things are deadly’ resolve, but the fact the film ends as soon as we’re informed what’s been going on, there’s thankfully nobody around to go “Well, yes, all non-cisgender people are homicidal killers, aren’t they?” Add to this the errant homoeroticism of many-a-boy in short-shorts that leave little to the imagination, crop-tops, and going skinny dipping together and, well, hmmm…
The scattergun effect of Sleepaway Camp is its biggest foe. Who is the main character here? The crowded supporting cast are largely indistinguishable from one another, though that may accurately reflect life at camp with so many groups and cliques. Victims are sorted pretty much by who is nasty to Angela, so the nice counsellors and campers are (mostly) spared.
There’s still mucho 80s goodness (read: badness) to lap up, from the horrific fashion outings, Judy’s t-shirt with her own name on it, Meg spelling out her monosyllabic name in case anyone was in doubt, and Ricky’s unrelenting stream of profanities: Cocksucker, fucking pussies, chickenshit, asshole etc. The kid could work at any branch of Sports Direct.
And also the many stares of Angela*:
I can’t ever seem to settle on an opinion on this film, whereas the 1988 sequels are a much easier pill to gulp down. It has enough decent content to entertain, with some ambitious photography here and there, and a good idea at its core. Were the world not so politically correct now, I’d nominate this as a prime candidate for a remake… but you know that final shot would never be permitted!
*Yes, I asked Stacie Ponder’s permission to re-use this term.
Blurbs-of-interest: Rose, Tiersten, and DeAngelo all came back twenty years later for Return to Sleepaway Camp; Rose was later in fellow summer camp slasher Camp Dread; Katherine Kamhi was a sub-final girl in Silent Madness; Mike Kellin was also in Just Before Dawn.