Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Directed by Robert Hiltzik
Starring Felissa Rose, Jonathan Teirsten, Karen Fields
Rated R

"She's a real carpenter's dream: flat as a board and easy to screw!" 

Summer camp is horrible. Six weeks of barely controlled chaos lorded over by teenage “counselors” that are barely older than the brats they’re sheparding, and as about as mature. The food is awful, the weather is miserable, there’s bugs, you’re homesick,  and even if you do get laid, it’s probably in an outhouse or in a filthy sleeping bag surrounded by whiny 13 year olds. And yet, this bizarre (and if movies have taught us anything, lethal) practice still goes on, summer after summer, all over America. And, amazingly enough, Hollywood continues to exploit this barbaric ritual for laffs and/or chills. There’s been a long history of genre movies that utilize summer camps as a backdrop. Generally, they fall into two distinct categories: sex comedies and slasher flicks. Sleepaway Camp, however, offers both at once. And also a bonus (?)homo-erotic subtext. Does it deliver? Well, let’s find out.

The film opens with a confusing speedboat accident where everybody has weird Brooklyn accents.

Cut to: eight years later. Angela (Felissa Rose) and her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Teirsten) are getting ready for summer camp. Ricky's crazy mom (Desiree Gold) sees them off. First, though, she gives them copies of their physical exams, which she apparently conducted, because she's “a doctor”. The whole thing is very fishy. By the way, it is impossible to tell if auntie is a boy or a girl, and Gold’s acting is like something out of a 50’s melodrama. It’s one of the most memorable cameos I’ve ever seen. It's amazing.

So, camp begins. From the beginning, the place looks like trouble. The kitchen staff is a hive of pervy scum.

Also, after a year of “maturing”, Ricky's old camp-girlfriend Judy (Karen Fields) no longer wants anything to do with him. Bummer.

Angela ends up in the same cabin with Judy and stares, unblinking, at her while she unpacks.

Judy's unnerved, as is everyone who comes across Angela. She won't speak to anyone, and after three days at the camp, she still hasn't eaten. Concerned, camp counselor Meg asks Ronnie – who I'm assuming is some kind of activities director, and who wears inappropriately tight shorts – to try and coax her out of this blank-eyed stupor.

He takes her into the kitchen and asks head-chef Artie to fix her something she'll really like. Here's the problem, though: Artie's a pedo! He's gonna fix her something, alright, but she's not gonna like it.

Luckily, Ricky finds out what's going on and swoops in to save her before Marty deflowers her in the pantry.

Not long after, Marty is involved in a nasty corn-on-the-cob accident in the kitchen, where he is nearly boiled alive. Some unseen assailant pulls a chair leg out from under him, and he tumbles headfirst into the pot. According to the doctor who bandages him up, Marty's pretty fucked. Says there isn't a medicine strong enough to dull his pain. Who knew boiling corn could be so dangerous?

Mel (Mike Kellin, who died a few months after Sleepaway Camp wrapped), the camp director, promotes the rest of the kitchen staff and tells them not to mention anything about the par-boiled chef. And thusly life goes on at summer camp.

There's boyish pranks, baseball games, dudes in half-shirts and tiny cut-off shorts (!) and, of course, bullying. Angela takes a lot of abuse from the guys, but luckily, cousin Ricky always shows up to defend her.

At one point, he takes on a kid in a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt who accused Angela of only playing with “Half a deck”, and it turns into a pigpile of feathered hair and designer jeans. Seriously, this movie is looks like a gay porn set-up for most of its running time.

And then, suddenly, a breakthrough! Ricky's best-bud Paul talks to Angela like a human, for once, and she actually speaks. She says “Goodnight”! Young, weird love begins to bloom.

Meanwhile, the guys try to convince the girls to go skinny-dipping. They refuse, so the guys all stand around half-naked, I guess waiting for something to happen?

Who knows. Blue Oyster Cult guy takes Leslie out on a canoe, and then purposely tips it over, to be funny. Guys are dicks. She swims back to shore and he's stuck under the canoe.

Suddenly somebody's head pops up under there, too. Who is it? Who knows? All we know for sure is that he's dead. One of the counselors discovers him with snakes crawling over his water-logged corpse. Instead of a bus, Blue Oyster Cult guy goes home in a body-bag.

This would be a good time to close the camp down, but Mel won't hear of it. He declares the death an accident, and the summahtime frolicking resumes. Paul evens makes a date with Angela to the movies.
The date goes pretty good, too. Paul even sneaks in a goodnight peck or two.

And then, while he's still basking in the afterglow and walking back to his cabin, Judy shows up to wreck his good mood. What sort of evil tricks does she have up her sleeve?

Paul gets back to the cabin, excited to tell the fellas about his date, but there's no time for that, because they're busy tormenting the fat kid, Mozart, with their childish prankery. PS: one of the kids is wearing a sweet Asia baseball jersey. What kind of weird kid likes Asia?

The next day, Meg tries to make Angela go swimming, but she refuses, so Meg shakes her like a rag doll. She still won't go swimming, though. Back at the cabin, Judy starts to wonder out loud why Angela refuses to do anything water-related. Turns out she doesn't shower with the other girls, either. Judy assumes it's a puberty thing, and torments Angela about it until Susie, the nice counselor, makes her stop.

Angela splits to go see Ricky, but on her way, one of the older guys hits her with a water balloon. A couple hours later, he's sitting on the toilet when somebody drops a beehive into the stall! It would be remarkably easy to escape this sticky situation, since there is nothing but a torn window screen between the guy and a bee-free environment. Sadly, he does not think of that, and so he is stung to death.

With yet another death on his hands, Mel is finally ready to throw in the towel. He's also pretty sure he knows who is behind all this murder and mayhem. Ronnie encourages him to keep the camp open, though. After all, there's still 25 campers left! Meanwhile, Paul and Angela make out at the lake, which is what you do at camp when a serial killer is afoot.

Paul almost gets his hand down Angela's blouse when she has a childhood flashback to two dudes caressing each other gently in a bed, and she freaks out and bails on blue-balled Paul. So that was weird.

The remaining campers play Capture the Flag, and  Ricky schemes with Angela to cut through the woods and steal the flag. I don't understand the game, but that's what Ricky says. Here's the thing, though: Paul, feeling jilted by Angela's sudden frigidity, decides to give in to Judy's relentless advances and locks lips with her in those very same woods. If Angela sees this flagrant betrayal, she is not going to be happy.

Whoops. She sees it.  Paul tries his best to patch things up later on at the ol' swimming hole, but there's no way Judy's going to let that happen.

Things take a Lord of the Flies sorta turn when Meg just picks Angela up and throws her into the lake. Ricky tries to stop her but he's busy with Mel, who's twisting his arm and accusing him of killing everybody. Ricky finally wrenches free and fishes his cousin out of the water, and as they walk away, the rest of the campers throw sand at them. It's getting ugly at Camp Arawak.

Also, as if to further prove that this is the gayest summer camp movie of all time, Ronnie or somebody asks Ricky why he looks so glum, and he says, “I wish there were more guys around.”

That night, Meg makes a dinner date with Mel(!). However, she never gets to bone the grizzled old bastard, because somebody knifes her to death in the shower.

And then Judy finally gets it. All you really see is a shadow on the wall, but it appears that she is killed with a curling iron. How? However you kill people with curling irons, man. I'm not an expert on such matters. Looks like some kind of vagina-related mayhem, though.

So at this point, almost everybody's dead, including a whole troop of young campers who were roughing it in sleeping bags down by the lake. Ricky is calmly taking a late-night stroll, gorging on candy bars, when he is yanked into the woods and assaulted by Mel – still in shock from finding Meg murdered – who is convinced that Ricky is behind it all. So Mel beats Ricky either senseless or to death, and then stumbles away. But he doesn't get very far!

A mustache cop (he looks like he got said mustache at Jack's Joke Shop) shows up, and the remaining counselors pair up to find the rest of the campers.

 It as at this point when Angela decides to go skinny-dipping with Paul. She instructs him to take his clothes off. He is happy to oblige.

And then...the slasher shock-twist of the century!


The end.

Sleepaway Camp is missing many of the essential elements of a summer-slasher – boobs, most glaringly, as well as gory kills and a decent Final Girl (unless we’re counting Ricky, and we might be, given the gender-bending finale), and yet, it still manages to be a wildly entertaining no-budget 80’s trashfilm romp. Part of it’s appeal is that it’s so off-kilter: there’s a palpable homo-eroticism that runs though the film, and the scene-stealing bookend bits by the androgynous, over-the-top Crazy Aunt Martha only add to the sexual confusion. The film constantly shoots for cutting-edge kills, only to let itself down with backyard splatter gags and wonky edits, and the acting wobbles drunkenly from amateur to insane. Half the time it’s a G-rated teen rom-com, and the rest veers rapidly between nudity-free raunchfest and bloodfree slice n’ dice. It’s a difficult trick, being lame and awesome at the same time, but Sleepaway Camp somehow nails it. The final shot has made it a legend, but everything that comes before that is just as weird. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, and you’ll think differently about that one strange kid in summer camp who refused to go swimming or to shower with everybody else.

PS Sleepaway Camp is survived by three sequels, with a fourth on the way.

PPS I want to make out with Crazy Aunt Martha. Hard. Is that weird?

- Ken McIntyre

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