Twist endings can make or break a film. Just ask M. Night Shyamalan. The best surprise endings elevate a film and will cross over into popular culture. (“I see dead people.”) The worst ones will ruin even the most enjoyable viewing experience and become a joke. (It was all a dream!)
Shock endings have become such a staple of the horror genre that the most surprising conclusion would be a straightforward one. Audiences expect the killer to jump out of nowhere in the last scene or a seemingly dead villain to suddenly open his eyes right before the credits roll. Sleepaway Camp from 1983 has one of the most shocking and talked about endings in horror movie history.
The plot to Sleepaway Camp is nothing groundbreaking. In fact, it may be a little too familiar. Angela and her cousin Ricky attend a summer camp. Shortly after their arrival, an unknown killer begins violently murdering others at the camp. The kills are gory and creative and the sexual tension runs high.
At first, Sleepaway Camp not only fails to impress, it is pretty bad. The majority of the cast are children expected to exude a range of emotions that range from flirtatious to fear. It is a task that is too much and ends up impacting the movie. For example, there is scene that requires the children to do nothing but play softball and have fun. Unfortunately, the poor kids sound like they were forced to say their lines.
This leads to Sleepaway Camp’s other main issue. Some of the scenes run way too long. The aforementioned softball scene drags on with the point seeming to be that some kids pick on others. Whether it is the silly pranks being pulled on resident victim Mozart or the childish flirting, much of the movie comes off as filler.
Despite its many noticeable flaws, Sleepaway Camp is a success. The movie is incredibly funny. There may be downtime between the action, but the humor never lets up. This is due to the movie letting the audience hear what teenagers say when adults are not around. The delivery may not always be great, but the dialogue itself is perfect. Sure, we are not getting great wit (these are kids, after all) but the comedy we do get is hilarious. (I don’t care how juvenile it is, but it will never not be funny to hear someone say they have to take a “sick dump.”)
There is a stabbing and of course there has to be a drowning, but the other killings in Sleepaway Camp are creative. Along with the two more traditional murders we have killings via speedboat, a cartoonishly large pot filled with boiling water. and a beehive stick. Enhancing the kills are great make up effects that are perfectly disgusting.
While it would be a stretch to call Sleepaway Camp revolutionary, it was definitely ahead of its time. Typical of most slashers of the early 1980s, the movie has high sexual tension. So how do you convey sexual tension in a camp filled with pre teens to teens? Even in the 1980s there was only so much you could get away with.
Sleepaway Camp deals with this in a number of ways. The first one is rather obvious. A cook at the camp is an adult who likes children. It is not played for laughs and is very creepy. Another stomach churning if obvious choice is to have the head of the camp have an affair with one the camp’s counselors. There is nothing out of the ordinary about a young impressionable girl falling in love with an older gentleman. But when that gentleman looks like he should be doing stand up acts for bar mitzvahs in the Catskills, it does catch the audience off guard.
The movie deals with the sexual tension in an ingenious manner. It handles it in a realistic way. These are children so the talk focuses on going to movies. There are the guys who always talk about making out and there are the girls who a kiss a lot of boys. If you take away the gore, Sleepaway Camp is a very innocent slasher.
Where Sleepaway Camp’s forward thinking really stands out is how it deals with homosexuality. Late in the movie there is a scene in which Angela and her brother Peter sneak in on their father in bed with another man. Keep in mind this is in the early 80s. Sexual slurs were thrown about freely without anyone batting an eye.
The scene is treated differently than would be expected. The children find it amusing. But it is not the fact two men are kissing. They are laughing at seeing two adults together in bed. It is not uncommon in movies to see children gag when they see adults kiss. This is what is going on here as this scene is not played for us to make fun of. While Sleepaway Camp is certainly not groundbreaking, it is a bold decision.
Maybe I’m looking too much into Sleepaway Camp. Perhaps it is nothing more than a low-budget copycat slasher film with a nonsensical premise. However, watching the film in 2019 shows is filled with creativity. Everyone has heard of the ending, but the rest of the film is just as good.
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