It is the year 1983 and Horror flicks are all the rage. A year after the release of such big genre films including Poltergeist and The Thing, it also was after a bunch of sequels, such as Amityville II: The Possession, Friday the 13th Part III and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Throwing these titles out there… 1983 had some big shoes to fill. One of those films stepping forward alongside three Stephen King adaptations (Cujo, Christine, and The Dead Zone) was Sleepaway Camp. Released on November 18th of that year, Sleepaway Camp (made on a moderate, estimated $350,000budget) would go on to be decent numbers during its box office run leading into the summer of 1984. Now forty years later, it is compelling to look back on this beloved favorite Horror film.
Looking back a bit, by 1983 the Horror genre had gone mainstream. As a result some of the more big studio Horror films such as Friday the 13th Part III naturally surpassed others like Sleepaway Camp in a big way. However, Sleepaway Camp would sustain itself as the Horror cult’s best kept secret. In fact, Writer/Director Robert Hiltzik, who did not make another film until 2008’s Return to Sleepaway Camp, had little idea that the original Sleepaway Camp was so beloved for nearly two decades after it premiered. Oddly enough, Hiltzik only discovered this when he was contacted for a commentary for the film’s Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD release in August of 2000. Subsequently Scream Factory released the film as a collector’s set Blu-ray back in 2014. This is noteworthy because this edition contains a 2K scan of the original camera negative, and this also has Sleepaway Camp in its original uncut version.
A pleasant surprise to any filmmaker to find out years later that people really enjoy their work, in truth, Sleepaway Camp came out at a perfect time. Why? Because it came before Horror’s biggest mainstream peak and during a time where practical effects were still the forefront. And boy, does this one have some great practical effects!
Recapping Sleepaway Camp, it opens with a peculiar woman, Martha Thomas (Desiree Gould: Under Surveillance 2006, Tales of Poe 2014), sending her son Ricky Thomas (Jonathan Tiersten: Return to Sleepaway Camp 2008, The Perfect House 2013) and adopted niece Angela Baker (Felissa Rose: Return to Sleepaway Camp 2008, Camp Dread 2014) off to summer camp. The cousins are sent to Camp Arawak; a summer camp for all ages with all kinds of fun and games for everyone. However, what transpires during their stay is more than anyone viewing could ever imagine.
There is a lot to unpack during your first watch of Sleepaway Camp; and you may need a second viewing to catch all the contextual clues and peculiar things you could not quite put your finger on. Like many, if not most Horror movies, there are rules, and the obvious one here is – do not wrong the killer, or you will be subject to one of the many brutal deaths portrayed in Sleepaway Camp. Although, unlike many other Horror movies… kids are not off limits when it comes to the wrath.
That in mind, the conclusion of Sleepaway Camp could be one of the most shocking aspects of the entire film. An ending that rivals anything M. Night Shyamalan unfurrowed, Sleepaway Camp’s twist is retrospectively considered one of the most surprising in Horror cinema history. With a twirl of its comically fake mustache, this flick will have you pondering what you have just seen for days, weeks, or even years after viewing… especially given how the film reveals the killer.
But despite its well-loved cult following, Sleepaway Camp garnered its fair share of criticism from some because of the context in which it plays out on screen. In spite of any controversies, nothing has been taken away from Sleepaway Camp’s cache. If anything, they enhanced it by making it infamous, and in turn, scarier in a realer sense. This raised the stakes, and has kept people talking about Sleepaway Camp even forty years later. Even back in the ’80s, it also kept interest afoot for the return of Angela Baker in 1988’s Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and 1989’s Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland; who is interestingly was portrayed in these instances by Pamela Springsteen (sister of Rock icon Bruce Springsteen). Beyond this, the series lived on when Robert Hiltzik came back to write/direct 2008’s Return to Sleepaway Camp, before a less appreciated sequel followed in 2012 called Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor.
For the gore hounds, Sleepaway Camp boasts a total of eleven kills and one presumably unknown fate of the very unlikeable Artie the Head Chef. As a viewer, you are subjected to grizzly collateral damage such as an arrow to the neck, injury via hatchet, and a hot curling iron burn fest. Beyond this, anyone who is more fascinated in more of the development of it all, Sleepaway Camp was filmed in Argyle, New York at space formerly known as Camp Algonquin, and one Robert Hiltzik attended as a child. Interesting facts, Sleepaway Camp is also said to have paved the way for future films with similar characters; such as Buffalo Bill from 1991’s Silence of the Lambs and Parker Crane from 2013’s Insidious Chapter 2… whose story harbors a close resemblance to Angela Baker’s.
Overall, it is safe to say that over the last forty years Sleepaway Camp sustained its legacy. It also forged a path for others; be it the movies as mentioned above, or other modern television series such as American Horror Story: 1984 or They/Them. Even still though, fans of ’80s Horror, and most particularly the original Sleepaway Camp, are pining for a reboot… but one where Felissa Rose herself returns to her role as Angela Baker. That is why Sleepaway Camp should be respectfully considered right alongside the Friday the 13th series as a pioneer all these decades later.