Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Director: Robert Hiltzik

Starring: Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Karen Fields

Also known as: Nightmare Vacation (UK VHS)

BILL: “Eat shit and die, Ricky!”
RICKY: “Eat shit and live, Bill.”

My first encounter with Sleepaway Camp was an unassuming purchase at a second-hand DVD shop in a Glasgow market. I was a member of a horror forum at the time and I vaguely remembered it being a part of someone’s list of horror films that were worth checking out. I had slight recollections that there was a reason it was such essential viewing but for the life of me I couldn’t remember why.

This (wo)man is guilty of the worst acting ever committed to celluloid

I took it home and there it sat for a few weeks, until eventually I watched it with my brother late one night. We were used to watching cheesy ’80s camp slashers and for the first 80 minutes of its 84-minute duration Sleepaway Camp is a prime example of this, with its hilariously bad acting and inventive, gruesome deaths. And then the ending came, with an image that will forever be burnt into the minds of my brother and I for the rest of our lives.

Angela and her cousin Ricky… but who’s the killer?

The general plot seems fairly run-of-the-mill. After a man and one of his children die in a horrible boat accident, the man’s sister takes in the other, orphaned child and raises it as one of her own. Fast-forward to ten years later and the child, Angela, heads off to summer camp with her cousin Ricky. As you’d expect, shit starts to go down at the camp and people start dropping off in gruesome ways, but who’s behind the killings?

The new series of Bullseye had started horribly wrong

Sleepaway Camp feels like a real labour of love. Despite the sub-standard acting which ranges from wooden (most of the counsellors are as one-dimensional as an x-axis) to ridiculously over-the-top (the actress – at least, I think it’s a woman – playing Angela’s aunt really has to be seen to be believed), it’s clear that everyone’s having a ball making this film and this comes across in the relationships with the children. Sure, they can’t act, but you find yourself not really caring.

Without even taking the ending into account (I’ll get to that later… no spoilers though, of course), Sleepaway Camp is littered with scenes that are surprisingly dark and grisly for a standard slasher film, especially considering most of the victims aren’t the older teen camp counsellors we’re used to in this sort of film, but actually the children attending the camp.

You’ll squirm as one of the girls gets hair curlers thrust into an unmentionable area, wince as a young lad is stung to death by bees, cheer as the paedophile chef (yes, really) gets what’s coming to him and gasp as you see a brief glimpse of a group of mutilated eight-year-olds. Yes, it might be cheesy and low-budget, but Sleepaway Camp isn’t fucking around.

Genuine dialogue: “She’s a real carpenter’s dream… flat as a board and needs a screw”

And then there’s the ending (which I refuse to even hint at). It’s a true shock becomes it comes completely out of nowhere, yet still makes sense in the context of the story. The film lulls you into a false sense of superiority as you’re more or less certain to guess the killer within the film’s first 25 minutes. It’s so obvious it’s almost laughable, and you sit patiently waiting for the ‘shock’ reveal when they’re exposed as the perpetrator. But then it throws a curveball at the last minute by revealing that the killer’s identity was never supposed to be the big twist, it was always meant to be something entirely different and far more shocking.

I urge you to track down Sleepaway Camp. It’s 80 minutes of fun, cheesy camp slasher gold, topped off with what’s genuinely one of the most memorable endings in cinematic history. You will not get that final image out of your head, I guarantee it.

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