There’s nothing remotely subtle about 1983 slasher “Sleepaway Camp” – from the moment the first images of the empty Camp Arawak site to the accompaniment of shrieking horns and ominous chords, this film is working hard to let you know this is going to be a horror movie. And a good job too, because it swiftly moves on to the world’s most unlikely and surprisingly bloodless boating accident which sees young Angela survive a boating crash which apparently kills her father and brother.
Many years later, Angela has been taken in and raised by her Aunt Martha and is about to go off to summer camp with her cousin Ricky. But the camp is not a nice place and before too long the bullying and nastiness are overshadowed by a series of grisly murders.
One of the most shocking things about Camp Arawak in “Sleepaway Camp” is that it hasn’t been shut down for its out of control culture of intimidation, bullying and sexual abuse. In fact, the early victims are more than welcome as the mysterious killer first targets the ludicrously overt paedophile chef who, we must assume, has raped his way through previous summer camp seasons with brazen impunity.
The whole film is so clumsily, offhandedly dark that it almost defies belief. It fumbles around with edgy and dark concepts the way a toddler would with a loaded gun but there’s an overall ineptness to the whole thing that somehow makes it work. If you can believe that a summer camp as corrupt, abusive and unsafe as Camp Arawak exists outside of the silly satire of “Wet Hot American Summer” then this’ll play just fine.
The kills, it has to be said, are pretty good and worth the price of admission and even the hidden price of the terrible script and almost universally atrocious acting, especially from the older cast members. Desiree Gould’s Aunt Martha is so mannered and over-the-top she almost delivers the required Camp of the title single-handedly and if she doesn’t start ringing your alarm bells from the very beginning then I don’t know what to tell you.
Chock full of unpleasant acts and more unpleasant acting, it works thanks to its focus on the kids and their remarkably blasé attitude to the increasing pile of corpses as they continue to indulge the petty politics and polyamorous petting of pubescent camp life. There are few, if any, victims who don’t deserve their fate – especially obnoxious and unlikable camp queen bee Meg who may very well have inspired the naming of Peter Griffin’s daughter.
Most famous for its twist reveal than for being set in a Camp before background checks were a thing, I guess, that twist certainly plays differently in today’s culture than it would have done some thirty-five years ago but then and now it’s done more for shock value than adding anything substantial to the movie’s attempted subtext of adolescent sexuality.