I wouldn’t normally review a movie chosen for Bad Horror Movie Night, for hopefully obvious reasons. But this year’s winner, Sleepaway Camp…. is a horse of a different color. It’s such a bizarre piece of slasher movie history, I just have to put down a few words on the subject.
There are many different types of “bad” a movie can embody. There’s bad in the traditional sense – bad story, bad writing, bad acting, bad special effects, etc.. Battlefield Earth bad. There’s shlocky bad, like Basket Case, the bad that’s got a grimy, sloppy, extraordinarily weird tone that’s usually one of the “good” kinds of bad. And there are many, many other varieties.
So which “bad” is Sleepaway Camp? Well, for the most part I’d say it’s traditionally bad. The plot, the dialogue, and the directing are all pretty terrible. The acting is supremely awful, ranging from B-movie slasher level (appropriately) all the way down to – no exaggeration – high school theater, playing-to-the-back-row hammy. There’s a specificity to that kind of bad acting. Take a look at the “eccentric” mother character, all overblown hand gestures and stage projection:
At the script level, there’s rarely been so obvious a case of a writer settling on major story beats (and kill scenes) without ever stopping to consider whether they make a lick of sense in a world bound by physics and logic. It’s so ludicrous I am having a hard time thinking of a single moment in the film that reflects the way actual humans would behave. Where do you even begin?
The majority of the kills in this movie would be either impossible to pull off as portrayed, or totally non-fatal in the real world. If you drop a softball-sized beehive onto someone in a locked bathroom stall, I can’t imagine that person would look like they were devoured by pirahnas in 30 seconds. If you’re somehow strong enough to stab someone in the back through a wall, and drag the knife down, how does that person remained pinned to your knife? And as gruesome an idea as being sexually violated by a hot curling iron is, it wouldn’t kill you.
The story is framed as a Friday the 13th knock-off whodunit slasher, set (obviously) at a camp. In the cold open, a father and two children are involved in a spectacularly unlikely boating accident in which only one child survives. Years later, that child, Angela, is off for her first Summer at camp with her cousin. Angela is clearly not right – completely mute for the first 3rd of the film, lonely and withdrawn, all creepy blank stares. When the killings start, and the victims all happen to be people who tormented or assaulted Angela in the previous scene, and the killer is never shown beyond some very youthful-looking hands, it’s clear that the movie is teeing up the audience to assume Angela is the killer. In Friday the 13th they used the same red herring of Jason Vorhees, the boy who “drowned” in the lake, and the killer of course turns out to be his mother. Any viewer of Sleepaway Camp has no choice but to expect a similar switcharoo.
Yet, at certain points the film seems to be lackadaisically casting suspicion on Angela’s protective cousin Ricky, or on the sour-faced owner of the camp who repeatedly tries to sweep the killings under the rug as accidents. But these are wasted attempts to expand the mystery, since prior scenes establish that A) the killer is a child, and B) likely female. So as an audience we simply take it for granted: Angela is the killer, but we’re expecting a twist ending.
And what an ending it is. I’m dancing around it, because the ending alone is completely worth sitting through the entire movie, and that fact makes Sleepaway Camp its own special flavor of bad. Everything before the final 5 minutes of the movie is sloppy, poorly written, poorly acted slasher fare, but it’s also necessary to see in order for the ending to pay off. I can’t recommend you simply watch the last 5 minutes by itself, because it won’t have the necessary context. Don’t even do a Google image search.
So it comes down to this: I recommend Sleepaway Camp. It’s worth investing 80 minutes of your time in a terrible movie in order to be rewarded with 5 minutes of the most ridiculous ending imaginable, including an image so disturbing I’m still haunted by it. The entire movie is available to watch free on YouTube, so have at it. I watched it twice, once half-drunk with a big group of friends, laughing all the way, and once sober and alone. If you can, do it the first way.