Teenage Nightmare: Love and Death at Sleepaway Camp
By Preston Fassel
At their heart, the best horror movies aren’t really horror movies at all. It may sound like an odd assessment, but even a cursory glance of the classics of the genre will turn up films that are, both literally and figuratively, about child abuse and neglect (A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th), infidelity and betrayal (Les Diaboliques), post-traumatic stress disorder (Peeping Tom), the urban/rural culture clash (Deliverance), and the role of violent media in modern society (Videodrome). Horror is merely the medium in which these unsavory topics can be openly addressed and discussed; there’s only so much that polite society wants to acknowledge about itself, at least within the confines of normal, everyday human interactions. Rare is the mainstream film that can honestly, brutally acknowledge the worst that the human experience has to offer without flinching or tacking on an uplifting ending to give audiences the false hope that they too can ride off into the celluloid sunset. Dramas, romances, comedy, and even the majority of science-fiction films demand a dollop of optimism when discussing even the most pessimistic of concepts; and, more often than not, there’s no honesty to that. Horror, though… audiences expect a downbeat ending with a horror film. They embrace it. Horror is the one genre where there are no pretensions, only the cold, brutal truth — unfiltered, undiluted.
If certain topics can be said to have a definitive film — one that represents as thorough an exploration of the associated themes as possible — then, certainly, Carrie is recognized as the film dealing with female adolescent angst. There is, however, another, lesser known horror treatise on much the same subject, and it’s no less thorough or less compelling a look at the experience of growing up but not really growing up, of reaching an ostensible age of possibility and discovering that every road is already closed: Sleepaway Camp. As a horror film, it belongs no less to the pantheon than its more famous forebearer; yet it provides an alternate take on the topic of an isolated, vengeance-minded adolescent, and it also succeeds in being something Carrie never did: a coming-of-age story.
After surviving the accident that claimed the life of her brother and father, Angela grows up an introverted, isolated, socially awkward girl whose only friend is her cousin, Ricky, and whose only nurturing comes from her aunt, Martha Thomas, who dresses like a vaudeville reject and seems constantly on the verge of a psychotic break herself. Deciding one summer that it’s time Angela broke out of her shell, Martha sends the children off to camp, in the hopes that the experience will prove therapeutic. Of course, anyone who’s spent a good deal of time around adolescents knows that someone has to be at the bottom of the pecking order, and with her underdeveloped body, refusal to speak and thousand-yard-stares, Angela’s the perfect target for the other girls at Camp Arawak to establish dominance and assuage their own awkward feelings. In short order, Angela’s tormentors start turning up dead in grisly ways, and while the filmmakers halfheartedly try to point the finger in Ricky’s direction, it comes as no surprise to the audience when Angela’s revealed to be the culprit. Then again, the identity of the killer isn’t the film’s real surprise, anyway…
While Sleepaway Camp could have been standard genre fare, Robert Hiltzik chose to infuse it with equal parts heart and surrealism; if David Lynch ever made a slasher film, this would be it. Rather than establish a tone of dread and foreboding, Hiltzik instead opts for one of quiet insanity. Consider the film’s opening sequence, which juxtaposes the high camp of two men lounging around lakeside in short-shorts with the all-too-realistic screams of a child who’s just witnessed a gruesome accident, or the casual sexual dynamics that keep recurring between the campers and their much older counselors. Perhaps most indicative of the film’s mordant-meets-madcap tone, though, is Angela’s Aunt Martha. Although she only appears in two brief sequences at the start and climax of the film, Martha’s presence is felt throughout; simultaneously nurturing and terrifying, it’s clear from her initial appearance that she genuinely loves Ricky and Angela, and Ricky’s relatively average behaviour indicates that at least something was going right in the Thomas household. Yet the film’s late reveal of Martha’s unorthodox parenting techniques speaks to a damaged psyche of her own that not even her warped demeanour could indicate. It’s the perfect summation of the film’s tone: a veneer of sociability hiding a layer of madness that itself is covering something even darker.
Yet for all of the mordancy of the film’s denouement, there is a genuine bittersweetness to the picture, and it’s through this core of humanity that Sleepaway Camp achieves its greatest success. Indeed, while the film is stylistically a slasher, a great deal of its running time is focused on the courtship of Angela by Paul, one of her fellow campers, with the result being one of the most accurate portrayals of budding teenage romance ever committed to celluloid. The script never ceases to treat Angela as a real, traumatized girl, infusing her with all of the emotional conflict and frustration to be found in someone being forced to make a passage she isn’t ready for, and likely never will be; similarly, it never ceases to treat Paul as a real boy, depicting him as an essentially nice guy torn between his libido and his desire for a genuine emotional connection with another person. The tragedy here is twofold: first, the audience is well aware the entire time that Angela is the real killer, and that happiness will eventually slip through her fingers. Compounding that is the revelation that, even if she weren’t a psycho killer, Angela’s chances for a happy life would be zilch to none anyway. Even discounting her other little secret, Angela is simply too traumatized, too broken a person to ever integrate successfully into society; the accumulation of tragedies in her life up to this point is too severe and has damaged her too much. As Angela’s body count rises, the audience is also watching another extended death, one years in the making: that of Angela herself. While Carrie White is handed an illusion of happiness that’s yanked away from her at the last minute without her consent, it’s Angela’s own warped mind that ensures that she’ll never get her own happy ending. When the camera freezes on her face at film’s end, it’s as if to say that this is how she’ll remain forever more — locked in a perpetual state of bewilderment and rage, trapped forever between multiple worlds. It’s a perfect valediction for anyone whose adolescence hasn’t been the fairy tale promised by mainstream teen films.
Reissues are often a tricky business, and distributors can easily conduct a haphazard transfer of an old film, stick it on a disc, and be done with it. Thankfully, Scream Factory has yet again proved itself to be a friend of horror by giving Sleepaway Camp a Blu-ray worthy of its legacy. In addition to a beautiful transfer of the film, they’ve also outfitted the disc with a plethora of extras, which include a brand new audio commentary with Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tierston, plus an older commentary recorded years ago with Rose, Hiltzik and Jeff Hayes, who created the first Sleepaway Camp website in the Wild West that was the late-’90s internet, repopularizing the film among younger members of the MTV Generation who missed it the first go round. Add in cast and crew interviews, a short film directed by Hayes, and a Camp Arawak Scrapbook, and Scream Factory’s Blu-ray represents the ultimate experience in heartbreak and horror.