Teenage Wasteland: The Sleepaway Camp Films

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The summer camp slasher is an American repurposing of Italian giallo tropes (think: Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve) with a texture all its own. You can feel the rough grain of the cabin’s wood beneath your palms. An aroma of wet pine drifts just under your nostrils. Kids chant and play with one another during the day, while the nights are still voids, punctuated by the crackling of an open fire. There’s a distinct New York/New Jersey aura that this particular subgenre owns outright, repurposing local legends (like the “Cropsey” myth) that fictitiously define the dread hiding between the trees. The sins of the past are never forgotten in places like Camp Blood; eyes peer out, ready to punish those who violate the puritan codes that govern these sun soaked saplings.

Friday the 13th is the most obvious jumping off point when talking sleeping bag slaughter. From Harry Manfredini’s “ki-ki-kill!” score, to the bluntly atmospheric cinematography by Barry Abrams, it’s an amalgamation of exploitation and legitimate artfulness that adds up to clearly cemented iconography. There’s also the absolute rejection of what passed for a horror picture for decades. Sean S. Cunningham’s movie embraces the essence of youth culture and rites of passage that come with disappearing into a lake-flanked wilderness, while also damning the would-be counselors for exploring each other’s physiques. Sex and death become intertwined in a fresh way; re-packaging old morals in log cabins, all while Tom Savini pumps karo syrup from fresh gashes.

Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp takes the sexuality of Friday the 13th and positions it front and center, resulting in a shrill interpretation of adolescent hyper-suppressed carnal urges. From the moment the kids are bussed in to the idyllic Camp Arawak (which comes equipped with yet another unreal body of water), we’re confronted with them as sensual beings. An obese, sweaty cook licks his lips and comments on how appealing they are to his diseased libido; unbeknownst to the teen flesh pods being sized up, who simultaneously shout to one another about how the opposite sex has blossomed during their time away from this land of canoes and pranks and dining hall chants.

Sex, of course, leads to social divides and, eventually, murder – with the doe-eyed Angela (portrayed by Felissa Rose during pageant kid pubescence) caught in the middle. From the start, the director isolates the girl in the frame, signaling that something’s not quite right with her. But then again, something’s not quite right with this whole damn place.

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Sleepaway Camp [1983] (d. & w. Robert Hiltzik)

Hiltzik himself cops to the fact that Sleepaway Camp was conceived as a cheap slasher knock-off. But what sets his movie apart from other bargain-basement F13 imitators of its time is the fact that the still-enrolled NYU writer/director wanted kids to be played by actual children. By 1983, Hiltzik was already tired of a bunch of twenty-something “fresh faces” playing juveniles, all destined to get offed out in the woods. He wanted to replicate the chaotic Lord of the Flies environment summer camp naturally lent itself to. The filmmaker knew that locales like Camp Arawak were comprised of pure hormones, unleashed without any semblance of true adult supervision. Tossing water balloons at one another from cabin roofs they disperse only in order to make out at the graffiti-laden social hall. In this way, Hiltzik’s picture plays like a memory painting for anyone whose mother and father carted them off to that collection of shoddily constructed cabins for two weeks.

The film’s elephant in the room has always been Felissa Rose’s gender-bending serial killer, Angela. The villainess’ sex crisis is obviously the picture’s central concern, and though it may have arisen thanks to Hiltzik’s exploitation-minded want to spin the slasher formula on its head*, her “shocking reveal” feels like a natural byproduct of trying to create a filmic encapsulation of youthful lust. Outside of horrific murder, much of the movie’s running time is devoted to watching kids pine after one another (which, in itself, is “problematic”, to say the least). Having the central character turn out to be a possible trans* individual (it’s still questionable as to whether or not Angela self-identifies as a woman any more than simply adhering to forced transvestitism, as so little of the movie is actually told from her perspective) only emphasizes the picture’s phantasmagorical devotion to ever changing youths in heat. It’s a quite literal “late-bloomer”; summer camp taking the place of the usual spring metaphor.

But to whom is Angela attracted? Equally unclear – thanks to Hiltzik utilizing the reveal of her “equipment” as nothing more than a clever and (even after five-plus viewings), equally shocking twist finale. Following a boating accident that begins the film, young Peter involuntarily becomes “Angela” after his gay father dies and he’s shipped off to live with his eccentric Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould, in one of the most affected screen performances of all time). Aunt Martha decides to raise Peter as a girl, giving him the name of his dead sister and forcing him to wear women’s clothing.

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Sleepaway Camp implies that Angela is also haunted by memories of seeing her father making love to his partner (in the movie’s vaguest moment). When cute camper, Paul (Christopher Collet), attempts to make out with the girl on the lake’s shore, she pushes him away after flashing back to her father’s homosexual tryst. Does this mean Angela is repulsed by her father’s sexual orientation because she still sees herself as a boy? Maybe. Or perhaps she’s simply a girl who is naturally afraid to engage in sexual activity at such a young age. To call this movie’s erotic politics confusing seems like the mother of all understatements.

What’s not uncertain is that Angela knows she’s different from the other kids, and is killing not only to punish those who attempt to sexually violate her (in the case of the aforementioned pederast camp chef, whom she agonizingly boils alive), but also those who unknowingly attempt to expose her secret. Whether it be a jerk who spikes a water balloon against her flat chest or a bullying queen bee (Karen Fields) who tosses Angela into the lake against her will, they all get theirs without really even knowing why until the very end. The sexualized acts of violence (i.e. a curling iron being shoved into one adversary’s vagina) only adds another layer to this unsettling miasma of carnality, with Angela’s final murder (the brutal beheading of Paul) almost standing in for the girl’s initial orgasm. All the while, Angela’s cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), impotently threatens to fight anyone questioning her honor, as we wonder if he’s actually in on the secret, or as clueless as the audience is by the picture’s final, emerald freeze frame. Perhaps the doubt is purposeful, as Hiltzik wants us to be just as baffled by this budding sexuality as these little rage munchkins are.


Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers [1988] (d. Michael A. Simpson, w. Fritz Gordon)

Unhappy Campers steals another page from the Friday the 13th playbook; opening around a campfire as a gaggle of Camp Rolling Hills counselors recite urban legends (directly echoing an early scene in Steve Miner’s Part II). Inevitably, the story of Camp Arawak caps the tale-telling, as one girl relays how she “heard” that Angela was locked away in a mental institution, enjoying the luxuries of a sex change operation their parents’ tax dollars no doubt paid for.

It’s an utterly bizarre, seemingly transphobic cold intro that points a finger at this generation’s inability to process the very concept of gender identity (the butchering of identifying pronouns will make one’s head spin), while demonizing the girl as being some kind of homosexual devil. Lo and behold, who else appears from the trees but our favorite hack and slash princess (now played by Bruce’s younger sister, Pamela Springsteen), ready to cut the tongue out of this hateful little shit’s head. It’s actually a sly teaser that comments on the confusing sexual politics of the original, while doubling as a great cinematic car crash into the Anvil-scored blood red credits.

Jumping out almost immediately is how Unhappy Campers embraces a more conventional approach to slasher nudity than the original (the amount of bare breasts is overwhelming even by the subgenre’s standards). Gone are the New Yawk male midriffs, parading around in crop tops and short shorts, replaced by the relentless flashing of silicone. Michael A. Simpson’s DTV gem seems to be in dialogue with Hiltzik’s original (despite the director’s 1986 sequel script being rejected by the producers), embracing and subverting slasher standards as a means to further expound upon the series’ psychosexual themes. Angela is now a puritanical punisher – not too unlike her Crystal Lake counterpart – but her victims all seem to be the heteronormative teens who secretly ponder whether or not the top counselor at Rolling Hills is a “dyke.” All the while, Angela’s acts of vengeance are greeted with a blind eye by her Uncle John (Walter Gotell), who sees nothing but a “good girl” in the singing, chainsaw-wielding altruist.


There’s a heavy dose of spoof in Unhappy Campers, as kids don burn makeup, razor gloves, hockey masks, and machetes whilst lurking about the woods attempting to scare each other. Simpson also drenches Fritz Gordon’s already cheeky script in a healthy coating of strawberry syrup, dispatching these twenty something-playing-teen terrors in over the top, cartoonish ways. More Saturday the 14th than proto-Scream, the omnipresent dread the original owned is jettisoned completely in favor of out and out jokiness. Sleepaway Camp was already a notorious item amongst genre fans five years after gracing the screens of drive-ins and dive theaters, and Simpson knew there was no way to make Angela scary again. Instead, he stages goofy bathroom stall sex scenes in-between Tom & Jerry murder sequences. The tonal shift between the two pictures is jarring, but still completely works.

Unhappy Campers comes closer to defining Angela as a sexual being, but again shies away from fully taking a stance one way or another. Her fascination with good girl camper, Molly (Renée Estevez), feels erotically charged by the way Springsteen plays with body language whenever the two actresses share the frame. But you could also argue that Angela is merely drawn to the lone good egg in a camp painted with rotten hand grenades. However, the most troubling developments come in the movie’s final act, as Angela confesses to being “cured” of her insanity via “…electroshock therapy and an operation.” Suddenly, what seemed progressive (at least by trash cinema standards) backslides into an Old World view of homosexual and trans* people: psychotic, diseased monsters who aren’t allowed to experience gender in any fluid sense, and are instead seeking out remedies for their “ailment.” It’s a subtextual bummer of a climax to what is still one of the better slasher sequels of all time. 


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