Directed by Robert Hiltzik
Distributed by Scream Factory
If you were to poll horror fans worldwide and ask what film has the most shocking ending of all time, chances are very good Sleepaway Camp (1983) would be in the top three, if not at the very top. What could have been just another enjoyable, if not wholly conventional, summer camp slasher became something of a legend when the final shot pulls back to reveal… well, you know. But even without that lasting, disturbing image there’s a lot going on with writer/director Robert Hiltzik’s script to elevate it above its brethren.
The film touches upon a number of taboo subjects – pedophilia, homosexuality, and gender confusion, to name a few – that would be heavy enough on their own for any single film; yet, Hiltzik piles on the controversy. It helps that he peppers his writing with a heaping dose of witty, albeit puerile, dialogue to offset the seriousness of the film’s core focus points. And, of course, none of this would work without a competent cast to inhabit these roles. Camp Arawak is home to a host of characters that range from surly to creepy to roided-out and everywhere in between. One thing is for sure, if you’re a first time viewer who has managed to steer clear of the film’s big spoilers (and if you have, how’s life been under that rock?), by the time the end credits finish rolling your mind will still be reeling.
An idyllic day on the lake for a family – John (Dan Tursi) and his two young kids, Angela (Colette Lee Corcoran) and her brother Peter (Frank Sorrentino) – turns deadly when a boating accident (caused by the world’s worst driver ever) leaves John and Peter dead. Eight years have passed, and Angela (Felissa Rose) now lives with her peculiar Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Martha is sending the two kids off the Camp Arawak for the summer. Ricky has no problem fitting in, quickly picking up friendships and asserting himself as a mini alpha male of the younger boys.
Angela, however, is as introverted as they come, preferring to sit and stare off in silence. This behavior doesn’t sit well with the other girls, who make it their mission to turn her trip to camp into a hellacious nightmare. Not only is she not talking, but she won’t eat. Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo), the camp guido with the highest, tightest pair of red shorts you could ever see on a man, figures a trip back to the kitchen and a visit with Artie (Owen Hughes), the head chef, might get her to eat something. Artie’s got something for her to chew on alright, but before he can “unwrap the package” Ricky interrupts his advances and flees with Angela.
From this point forward, anyone who harasses, teases, or attempts to harm Angela meets a gruesome fate that camp owner Mel (Mike Kellin) repeatedly tries to write off as accidents. But it couldn’t be sweet little Angela doing all of this killing. Besides, she’s finally starting to come out of her shell when Paul (Christopher Collet) manages to win her over and get her talking. They even share a kiss! So romantic – young love. After more than a couple of aggressive run-ins with fellow campers, Ricky begins to look like prime suspect #1 to Mel, only he doesn’t have the proof necessary to know it. Bodies keep piling up, and it isn’t until the film’s final shot that we learn the truth. The horrifying, you-will-not-forget-this-shit truth.
Sleepaway Camp does a great job of building up to the killer’s reveal without tipping its hat too early on. If you don’t already know who’s responsible for everything, the denouement comes as a major shock. Even if you do, horror fans have been coming back to this film year after year because it succeeds in so many respects. This isn’t your typical slasher flick where we’ve got a killer using the same tool ad nauseum to significantly reduce the cast size. Nope, here viewers are treated to characters meeting their end in more creative ways – a raging bee hive, impromptu spinal surgery, drowning, scalded by boiling water, and an arrow through the throat, because no summer camp horror movie is complete unless someone gets an arrow through the throat.
Even if you’ve got a solid selection of death on display, a film can only be as good as the characters inhabiting your cinematic universe. Sleepaway Camp has ‘em in spades. Angela is ostensibly the focus of the film, but she’s surrounded by a cast of true characters, all of whom are vying for attention. Aunt Martha wins the “It’s Pat” award for looking like such an overdone representation of an eccentric woman that you’re forgiven if you thought it was a guy in drag. Honestly, I did the first couple times I saw the film back in my days of youth. She’s like an exaggerated version of a warm, caring mother, which makes her sort of unsettling. Mel makes you wonder how this guy ever got into the summer camp business. I like to think he’s some old time mafioso type who absconded to the boonies, because he clearly doesn’t have the temperament for adolescents. With cigar firmly planted in mouth, he barks orders at counselors, paramedics, and cops alike while trying to cover up any trace of camp-related accidents while also trying to score with Meg (Katherine Kamhi), his summer side action.
Ronnie would have been The Situation (I’m deeply sorry for that reference) had MTV existed 30 years ago. Even the peripheral characters get some shining moments, like Mozart’s unintentional face full of man ass via a well-played prank. The cast is massive, with hundreds of kids employed at any given time, but anyone who gets a screen credit likely has at least one shining moment. Ricky delivers my favorite exchange of dialogue in the film (and there are plenty to choose from) when Bill, an opposing softball player says “Eat shit and die, Ricky”, he pops right back with “Eat shit and live, Bill.” Not the most Shakespearean of lines, but one that’s stuck with me for ages.
Fans of the film got gypped back in 2000 when Anchor Bay finally released it on DVD, only to find it was an edited version missing a few key moments and featuring some wonky dialogue placement. Scream Factory mentioned this in their press release, but it bears repeating here that this is, finally, the full uncut version of Sleepaway Camp. Snakes fully slither from mouths, corpses are shown in their full glory, bad line dubbing has been restored, and every extra tidbit of bare ass and foul language has been reinserted. Unless you’re familiar with AB’s cut DVD – because the original VHS was uncut – you won’t even notice where these excised bits have been replaced thanks to a brand-spanking new 2K transfer.
Speaking of that new 2K transfer, the film’s 1.78:1 1080p image looks far better than anything fans have been watching over the years. The most evident improvement right off the bat is that colors looks outstanding, far richer and more saturated than ever before. Close-up and medium shots benefit from a big boost in clarity, allowing fine details to shine through like never before. Grain is a bit thick though never noisy, allowing the image to retain a filmic aesthetic. Contrast is strong enough to keep the image from disappearing under the cloak of night. There have been complains popping up regarding some compression issues, especially during night time scenes, and, yes, it’s there but considering how good the film looks most should let it slide. With many films being mastered in 4K, and even 8K, nowadays one could assume a higher resolution master might have produced stronger results. Given the vintage of the film and its low-budget roots, it’s unlikely it this picture could be significantly improved upon.
An English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track presents the film’s original audio mix with high fidelity. Composer Edward Bilous’ score – his first – is shrill & powerful, reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s dark sonorities. It’s a tad overwhelming at times – that main stinger cue is relentlessly oppressive – but it certainly sets an ominous tone that carries throughout. Dialogue is strong and centered. There are a couple of minor audio hiccups, though nothing distracting. Subtitles are included in English.
Sleepaway Camp arrives on Blu-ray via Scream Factory as one of their signature collector’s editions, which translates to lots of extras and other goodies for fans to ravenously devour. The disc includes three audio commentary tracks, featurettes, a short film, music video, image galleries, trailers, reversible cover art, and more.
The latest audio commentary track features stars Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten, as moderated by Justin Beahm. Tiersten starts off joking about how the opening credits spelled his last name wrong (as “Tierston”), an error which was, amusingly enough, carried over to this Blu-ray’s packaging. Rose was only 13 years old when she made the film, and she and Tiersten reminisce about all the fun they had on set. It’s a candid, loose track. The second commentary is vintage, featuring writer/director Robert Hiltzik and Sleepaway Camp fansite webmaster Jeff Hayes. This track is the least engaging of all three, with Hiltzik seeming a bit standoffish at times. Hayes does the best he can to keep the pace moving. Interesting, and sad, fact: the camp seen in the film was razed to make room for condominiums that were never built. The third and final audio commentary features writer/director Robert Hiltzik, star Felissa Rose, and webmaster Jeff Hayes. With both Hiltzik and Rose present, this track has a lot more life to it. Hiltzik recalls how they were behind schedule from day one, constantly fighting to keep up with the daily shooting, while Rose can remember there were flies everywhere – on everything – all the time.
At the Waterfront After the Social: The Legacy of Sleepaway Camp is a comprehensive look at the film and its lasting legacy features new interviews with nearly all the available principal cast & crew, all of whom have more than a few tales to tell about their time on set. Judy – A Short Film by Jeff Hayes stars actress Karen Fields. The best thing I can say about it is at least it’s short. Princess – A Music Video by Jonathan Tiersten shows what the actor has been up to since his days at camp. Camp Arawak Scrapbook is an image gallery featuring a ton of old production and publicity photos. Theatrical Trailer & TV Spots contains one of the former and two of the latter. Rare Images from Make-Up Effects Artist Ed French showcases some sketches he did to visualize the film’s kills. A Demo of the 2K Film Scan Process is a very informative, very interesting piece provides a step-by-step account of how the film’s original negative was scanned in and restored via current technology.
4 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5