This month’s Dread Central theme keeps summer vibes afloat with “Camps & Cabins,” which – if you’re like me – brings a sigh of relief. Last month I asked you, faithful readers, to select whatever slasher flick you thought required my drinking rules treatment. Y’all offered so many killer suggestions, but Hatchet eventually claimed victory. One specific favorite regrettably lost a last-minute decision: Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp. So tempting a selection, now given a second chance thanks to the “Camps” portion of “Camps & Cabins.” Quite frankly, this 1983 slasher is too outlandish not to be canonized in Drinking With The Dread infamy. Here’s to you, Angela!
Sleepaway Camp is best known for genre veteran Felissa Rose’s breakout role, where she plays Camp Arawak’s discouragingly shy and awkward Angela. She’s in attendance with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), who displays protective sibling qualities after a years-prior traumatic boating incident left his relative brotherless. Maybe that’s why Angela closes herself off from other children, except Ricky’s friend Paul (Christopher Collet). In any case, it’s another Camp Arawak vacation filled with all the signatures: predatory cafeteria cooks, counselors hot for old man Mel (Mike Kellin), and a killer on the loose axing campers and caretakers alike.
There is SO much to unpack between Hiltzik’s perverse fixations and commentary on gender confinement. From gay coding to outright homosexuality depicted on camera, Hiltzik approaches ’80s slasher cinema from an unexpectedly queer lens despite setting his popcorn horror in a setting where heteronormative sexuality blossoms. Sleepaway Camp is fascinating in the same way A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge teases ignored representations of the time. Something Hiltzik’s notoriously stated wasn’t even an intention, not playing up the thematic importance of what’s put forth given the film’s era of release.
Outside the “campiness” of it all, Hiltzik’s execution makes for a wild-enough ride looking past thematic ambiguity. Watch for all the long-takes he employs, as – for example – the camera lingers on screaming victims covered in third-degree burns for what seems like hours. Hiltzik never knows when to pull away from a shot, and it becomes an ongoing joke as the film elongates the strangest sequences. A certain boat crash reminds of the Austin Powers steamroller gag. It’s all so curious because deaths go from zero to sixty in terms of gore, but take ages to unfold. Pacing of the oddest speed.
We don’t give Sleepaway Camp costume designer Eileen Sieff enough credit for testing the lengths of “short shorts” without ever spilling Paul DeAngelo’s junk. A cut-from-cloth miracle, frankly. You couldn’t take in even a millimeter more, nor could you crop tops higher or squeeze campers into tighter denim cutoffs. Nudity and gazes are majority male-oriented, again lashing back against the countless naked females slain by other slasher icons. Hiltzik’s unconventional means make for a such a distinct horror time capsule, completed by thick Long Islander accents and directed character actions one might describe as removed from reality (drink whenever Angela’s aunt talks to herself, averting sightlines like a lunatic).
Highlight moments include but are not limited to:
- The baseball game.
- “Eat shit and die, Ricky!” “Eat shit and live, Bill.”
- Ronnie’s inappropriate mooseknuckle around small children.
- Mel’s focus on his camp being ruined, not dead kids.
- How nasty practical effects get when prosthetic corpses are used.
- The Act III camping trip.
- Mr. Lifeguard.
- An out-of-nowhere flashback to a twirling bed.
- Any scene involving Angela’s aunt.
- Forever and ever the film’s final frame.
Alright, campers. Time to ditch curfew and stay out of the chef’s walk-in freezer for mercy’s sake to play along with this month’s Drinking With The Dread rules: Sleepaway Camp edition.
- Drink whenever someone says “Rick” or “Ricky.”
- Drink whenever someone harasses or makes fun of Angela.
- Drink whenever someone dies.
- Drink whenever Mel does something shady (covering up murders, attacks Ricky).
- Drink TWICE whenever we see Ronnie in his epic shorts.
- Drink TWICE whenever the camera goes into first-person mode.
- Take a shot when Artie gets scalded by a humorously large pot of boiling corn water because…wow, what a creepazoid.
A toast, my sunburnt friends, to Robert Hiltzik’s unintentional but very real blurring of gender politics in this ode to hack-n-slash cinema. Sleepaway Camp may not be the scariest or performatively skillful subgenre example, but it’s a campfire story you’ll never forget. From beehives to skinny-dips to archery arrow deaths, this Friday The 13th alternative has all the makings of a horrific New Jersey summer. Even more terrifying than that over-a-year-later shot insert of “Cop #2” with a mustache that’s *clearly* electric tape. I’d say blink and you’ll miss, but it’s pretty damn obvious. Oh Mr. Hiltzik, what have you done (besides craft a perfect midnight drinking movie).