If there's a slasher flick that came out during the slasher fever that took place in the 80s, that succeeded in not becoming another carbon copy of "Friday the 13th", that would be "Sleepaway Camp". The movie offers all the elements featured in the average slasher formula... and then some. We have the campsite, the oblivious adults, the group of stereotyped kids, the mysterious killer lurking around the place, an opening flashback showing a horrible tragedy and a lot of dead bodies piling up.
In "Sleepaway Camp", the story begins with a family that is struck by a horrible accident, in which the father and one of the children die. Little Angela, the sole survivor of the gruesome event, is sent to live with her bizarre aunt Martha and her protective and loving (albeit cranky) cousin, Ricky, who is about her age.
Many years later, we see Angela and Ricky as teenagers, heading up to a campsite during the summer, much to the girl's dismay, whose (almost pathological) shyness makes it really difficult for her to socialize. As soon as they arrive, Angela becomes the target of all the cruel jokes and pranks one could imagine, which is something that doesn't sit too well with her hotheaded cousin, Ricky. As one may be able to assume, the mean adults and kids begin to suffer and die one by one, at the hands of a mysterious figure that lurks around the place (well, that's original). Could the small and frail Angela have something to do with all this? Is her cousin, Ricky, more protective than it appears to be? While the owner of the campsite tries to find out what the heck is going on (while endangering the kids, of course), the meanies continue to suffer gruesome deaths, until a final revelation leaves everyone shocked beyond belief. Yes, Angela was the one who murdered everyone, except... Angela is actually Peter, who was forced to live as a girl, because her Aunt Martha didn't want another boy in the family. Yikes!
Yes, the plot twist is genius and it left me completely stunned when I first saw this movie as a teenager, so I won't play down the final revelation because it was, in fact, one of the most iconic endings in a horror flick and for a good reason. Now, another reason why I found "Sleepaway Camp" to be so disturbing is because it provides a subtext in which the youngsters are hopeless victims in a world ran by miserable adults. Most of the adults in this movie appear to be sick, lascivious, greedy and even plain evil, always taking advantage of children and teenagers in order to achieve personal satisfaction or gains. The kids are seen as objects used by these corrupt and perverted adults, who are only interested in their own satisfaction. Intentionally or not, Robert Hiltzik, who both wrote and directed the film, gives us a really dark take on reality, by showing the way adults relate to children and teenagers, since the adult characters combined are probably more terrifying than the deranged individual behind the killings. As a matter of fact, this aspect of the film is somewhat depressing, as it is closer to reality than one would think and probably not something one expects to see in a slasher flick that, presumably, doesn't intend to give a message. This aspect of the story is plain sickening and it's one of the main reasons why "Sleepaway Camp" sort of stayed with me over the years and I find it so revolting. First of all, we have Aunt Martha (played by Desiree Gould), a woman who forces a young boy, who has recently lost his family, to change gender, just because... she already has a boy in the family and doesn't want another one! That's right, my friends, crazy Aunt Martha didn't hesitate to ruin a child's life, just because she thought it would be fun to have a girl in the family (perfectly normal, huh?).
Then, we have Artie, the cook... ugh, this is perhaps one of the most disgusting supporting characters I have seen in a horror flick. Artie is a perverted man, presumably in his thirties, who lusts after kids and who doesn't even bother hiding his sickening proclivities among his peers. As a matter of fact, as soon as the kids arrive to the campsite, god-awful Artie reveals how he wants to get his hands on the poor and helpless kids and, when one of his co-workers try to talk some sense into him, by explaining him that the kids are too young to even understand about sex, Artie claims that “There is no such thing as being too young". As if this wasn't disgusting enough, this revelation doesn't cause any outrage among the other adults who work at the campsite, who, as a matter of fact, laugh at what Artie says. As it is foreshadowed by Artie himself, he later tries to take advantage of our poor innocent Angela and when he is caught in the act before anything happens, he threatens Ricky. Of course, none of this would have been possible if it wasn't for the complicity of his co-workers who remain silent and even find him humorous.
Another character that is nominated in the category of "Rotten adults who deserve to be eaten alive by pigeons" is Mel (played by Mike Kellin), the owner of the campsite. Mel is a greedy old bastard who, even though he soon realizes that the kids are in danger because there's a killer on the lose, refuses to send them home, because he doesn't want to lose money. This results in the death of many more kids, obviously (bullies, yes, but they didn't deserve such a gruesome fate, that's for sure). Of course, Mel not only gets people killed as a result of his own greediness; he also beats up a teenage boy, simply because he assumes that he is behind all the killings. Oh, he also smokes cigars next to the kids (but it was the 80s, so that may not be entirely his fault). Last, but not least, we have Meg... okay, Meg appears to be around 18, so she doesn't qualify as an adult entirely, but she's, in fact, one of the camp counselors, who abuses her so-called power to bully our poor Angie (oh, and she also sleeps with Mel, the previously mentioned greedy old bastard... yikes!).
So, yes, "Sleepaway Camp" is a disturbing film, but the way I see it, Angela is one of the many elements that contribute to make it this way. In the end, one could argue that Angela is, to a certain extent, a victim as well (don't crap your pants, I'm not justifying her actions!).
Of course, this is a slasher from the 80s that was filmed with a very limited budget, so, even though the film mostly manages to stay on the "serious" side, the unintended hilarity finds a way to make an entrance. The campiness (no pun intended, but I love it, anyway) mostly comes from the over the top acting that, from time to time, feels more like a John Waters flick, rather than a serious horror flick. Besides this, some of the characters are so ridiculous and bizarre that, even during a serious and disturbing film, I found myself laughing. The scene where old Mel finds his teenage sweetheart's dead body is comedy gold... seriously, I dare you not to laugh at this ridiculous acting.
Over the last years, "Sleepaway Camp" has gotten some negative attention from certain people who accused the script of being trans-phobic, because it depicts an allegedly transgender individual as deranged, which is something that I strongly disagree with. First of all, Angela is not transsexual, because she is actually forced to live as a girl by her crazy aunt Martha, and it is not established that Peter ever showed signs of being a transgender child, so we could actually argue if Angela should be called Peter and treated as a male, instead. But, assuming for a second that Angela was, in fact, a male-to-female transgender individual, and her gender wasn't arbitrarily imposed by her aunt... why should we assume that her sexual condition had anything to do with the fact that she ended up being a deranged killer? Why can't we simply assume that she turns out to be a killer as a result of a very traumatic childhood and the fact that she was bullied during her entire life?
Controversy aside, "Sleepaway Camp" is a film that became a cult classic for valid reasons and gave us one of the most memorable endings.