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Tuesday, March 2

Nightmare Vacation at Sleepaway Camp

A Youtube viewer named Christopher Randolph wrote me a while back and asked if I’d ever seen the Sleepaway Camp films, and if I’d do a review of them. It took me a while to get around to it, but I guess late is better than never (sorry Chris!). I thought I’d take a look at them here, rather than on Youtube, so I can go a bit more in depth with it.

Now, I have to admit, I had previously never seen any of these movies. I do recall seeing the box art for the first Sleepaway Camp in video stores, but for whatever reason never got around to renting it. Which really makes me realize just how much I miss mom and pop video stores, by the way – there is a real charm to those places that is missing from the major chains and rental kiosks.

Anyway, I borrowed the original movie, Sleepaway Camp (a.k.a Nightmare Vacation), from my friend Troy Guinn so I could do this review. It was the DVD version from Anchor Bay released in 2002. Over the years this movie has become a real cult favorite, and after watching it I see why.

This movie was made in 1983. It was written and directed by Robert Hiltzik, and this is his debut directing job. There have been 5 Sleepaway Camp films made to date, and a 6th is in pre-production. Robert let other writers and directors take over the movies after the first, but in 2008 he returned to the helm for “Return to Sleepaway Camp” and has plans to write and direct the upcoming one, entitled “Sleepaway Camp Reunion.”

The film opens in an abandoned summer camp, panning slowly over dilapidated buildings and playgrounds. Voices of playful kids from the past are superimposed over them, along with music and credits, giving us the impression this was once a thriving place. We finally come to rest on a sign that reads: Camp Arawak for sale. Fade to black.

The remainder of the film tells the story of Camp Arawak and how it ended up in such a sorry state. But we never return to the present - so the entire movie is actually one big flashback, when you think about it. This is kind of an interesting technique, but unnecessary, as you could take away the intro section and it doesn’t affect the story in the least.

When we fade back up we see a brother and sister on a canoe with their father. In the background at the far side of the lake is Camp Arawak in all its glory, kids frolicking and having a good time. Unbeknownst to the family, trouble is headed their way - a pair of troublesome teenagers is recklessly driving a ski-boat toward them. They are speeding and aren’t paying attention and accidentally run over the family. Fade to black.

One thing about this movie I found a bit off-putting is the occasional TV-style fade to blacks that are interspersed throughout the movie. I don’t know if this was the director’s idea or if maybe the producers planned for this to be licensed for TV later, or if maybe it was a late editing decision – but it is a bit odd to see in a movie, as opposed to something made for TV.

We fade back up to a shot of a house and text that reads “8 years later.” Inside are two kids saying goodbye as they get ready to go to summer camp at - you guessed it - Camp Arawack. This is Ricky and Angela, and they’re cousins. Turns out Angela was the only surviving member of that boating accident 8 years prior, and she was so traumatized by the event she has been left near catatonic and barely speaks.

Here we are introduced to a character that is a cult favorite – Aunt Martha. She’s Ricky’s mom and took in Angela after that horrific accident.

 She is also one of the most amazingly annoying characters of all time. I think they were going for a quirky, off-kilter character, but her performance is so over the top it’s laughable - it's no wonder Angela is catatonic if she was raised by this dimwit! This character is truly wonderfully awful!

We finally get to Camp Arawack and the real fun begins. 

Right off the bat we are treated to some amazing examples of 80s fashion and hairstyles, especially with camp counselor Gene-o who wears shorts so tight they’d make Richard Simmons proud – and probably a very happy man!

 Muscle shirts, high-waisted pants, big hair, short-shorts – this is a real 80s fashion extravaganza. All the classic camp stereotypes are present – the hottie, the prankster, the bully, the nerd. It becomes obvious very quickly that Angela isn’t going to fit in as her silent routine rubs several of the girls and female counselors the wrong way, making quick enemies for Angela. Ricky winds up being her protector throughout the picture, stepping in to defend her from other campers picking on her.

 We’re quickly introduced to one thing that every kid’s camp needs; a good old fashioned child molester. Camp Arawack’s resident perv is a cook named Artie, and upon seeing all the new kids get off the bus Artie replies, “Just look at all them young fresh chickens. Makes your mouth water don't it? Where I come from we call 'em baldies."

The actor who plays Artie is actually one of the better actors of the bunch. I actually buy this dude as a greasy pervert.

It's not long before Artie has our main actress, Angela, cornered alone in a walk in storage area and tries to have his way with her. Fortunately he's interrupted by Ricky looking for his cousin. They run off and not long afterwards Artie finds himself the first victim of the Sleepaway camp killer as he’s boiled alive with a three foot tall pot of scalding water.

He's left screaming with boiling pustules over his body, some terrific makeup effects.

Neat fact here – one of the other kitchen staff in this picture is Robert Earl Jones. When I saw the name on-screen I wondered if there was any relation to James Earl Jones and sure enough, that is James’ daddy! How about that – I never expected a Star Wars tie-in with Sleepaway Camp!

Most of the actors in this movie were unknowns, but the part of camp owner Mel is played by veteran actor Mike Kellin. This was actually his last role, as he passed away later that year from cancer. He had mostly done television work before this, appearing in such well known series as The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, One Step Beyond, Lost in Space, The Rifleman, etc.

Mel wants to keep this event quiet, so as not to upset the rest of the campers or their parents. They chalk it up to an accident and camp life continues as normal.

 One by one the bodies start to mount up. The murderer’s identity is kept a secret until the end of the film. We don’t ever see who is doing the killing, but instead get a killer’s eye view of most of the murders. There are some pretty creative killings along the way here - A bully who is mean to Angela is drowned, another has a bee’s nest dropped on him while in the john taking “a wicked dump.” One of the girls is killed with a curling iron – I kid you not! A curling iron! Now just how, you ask, can one be killed with a curling iron? Let’s just say it is in a manner that would be most invasive, to say the least.

The special effects are really a stand out in this film. My favorite are the throbbing pustules on pervie Artie when he’s scalded with hot water, the bloated body of the bully who drowns (a snake actually slithers out of his dead mouth), and most spectacular effect of all, an arrow through Mel’s neck on the archery range.

There is also an amazingly fake mustache in this movie, probably the worst fake mustache ever in the history of cinema. It is on the policeman who shows up after each murder to take statements. Apparently the actor shaved his moustache before filming his final scene, so they just slapped a fake mustache on him and shot the scene anyway. Awesome! And best of all, they even filmed a nice close-up so you can see the fake stash in all its glory!

As we get toward the end of the film we finally start to unravel the mystery behind the killings of Camp Arawack, a.k.a. Sleepaway Camp.

Now if you haven’t seen this film you should stop reading here.  
You will want to see it unspoiled the first time through. This movie has an amazing finale that has to be seen to truly enjoy it and get the maximum effect. Suffice it to say this is a true cult classic and definitely worth watching, a real 80s gem despite its low budget.

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However, for those of you who have seen this movie or who don’t particularly care if the ending is revealed, we’ll continue.

We now discover Angela has even more deep-rooted reasons for her disturbed personality than we previously knew (the fact her family was killed in a horrific accident).
One evening a boy from camp (Paul, Ricky’s best friend) kisses Angela and she freezes up. We see a flashback to when she was younger and Angela and her brother found her father in bed with another man. I think this was meant to be a serious moment, but the way it was shot it comes across unintentionally hilarious. The two men are lying in bed caressing one another as the children peek in, and the camera lingers as they just sort of rub each other about the head and shoulders repeatedly.

I think they’d have liked to show them making out, but sexual standards were a bit more uptight in the 80s, so they probably felt this was as far as they could go or felt comfortable going with it. The fact this mentally unhinges Angela really speaks to the attitude of the time toward homosexuality. However, this was still a relatively taboo topic in movies at this point, so it was a bit risqué to even deal with the topic at all.

There is also a section in this flashback sequence that came across to me as an implied sexual relationship between Angela and her brother. They are sitting cross-legged face to face on a spinning bed, reaching out gingerly toward one another. If I read that scene correctly that is another touchy topic, and adds another interesting layer to Angela’s mental makeup.

We finally come to the end of the film, and Angela is alone on the beach with Paul. She tells him to take off his clothes, to which he eagerly replies. We cut away to a pair of camp counselors who are out looking for Angela, and as they finally stumble upon her on the beach they discover the shocking truth about Angela. She is sitting naked caressing the severed head of Paul, whom she has murdered. As they get closer Angela stands and we see the naked truth (pun intended) about her in full frontal fashion – Angela is a dude!

In trademark fashion we have yet another flashback, this time to creepy Aunt Martha addressing a young child whose head is wrapped with bandages. This is the surviving child from the boating accident. Turns out Angela actually died and this is her brother. However, Martha tells her it just won’t do to have two boys in the house, and he is going to have to become a girl.

So let’s see here, we have in this movie: an insane step-mother, a child molester, a homosexual couple, incest, cross dressing, and full-frontal male nudity, not to mention multiple gruesome murders (including one by curling iron in the koochie). Wow! They didn’t miss much, did they? I can imagine that in 1983 quite a few folks had trouble with this picture and its insensitive treatment of sensitive subject matter. This is definitely one of the most memorable endings you'll ever see and the final shot is a creepy image that will stay with you. Over the years this film has achieved a huge cult following. There are two separate tribute websites to the Sleepaway films – I think (perhaps someone will correct me if I’m wrong) one focuses on the films by director Hiltzik (the first and most recent), the other on the middle films.

I actually really enjoyed this movie and watched it several times, both with and without the commentary track. The print was great, as you would expect from Anchor Bay, but this commentary track was one of the worst and lest informative commentaries I’ve ever listened to. It featured director Robert Hiltzik and Felissa Rose, the actress who played Angela, along with moderator Jeff Hayes. Jeff runs the fansite dedicated to the original movie. He tries repeatedly to drag technical details out of Robert, especially concerning the special effects, to no avail.  I would definitely love to see this at a midnight showing in a crowded theater – perhaps I’ll suggest it to our local arthouse theater, the Belcourt, and see what happens!

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