There is nothing more satisfying for a horror fan than a surprise ending. From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Saw, twist endings have been keeping horror audiences guessing for decades. Whether it’s a simple last second jump scare or a jaw-dropping revelation, the shock of the unexpected is something that makes a movie really memorable. In 1983, a movie was released that had the mother of all shock endings. That movie is Sleepaway Camp.
Sleepaway Camp begins with a boating accident that kills the entire family of a little girl named Angela (Felissa Rose, who has gone on to become quite the genre actress, with credits that include movies like Satan’s Playground, Slaughter Party, and Zombiegeddon). The newly orphaned Angela is sent to live with her protective cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten from The Perfect House), and her quirky Aunt Martha (Tales of Poe’s Desiree Gold). Every summer, Ricky goes away to Camp Arawak, and this year, Aunt Martha thinks it would be fun if Angela joined him. When the kids get to the camp, Angela meets all of the kids, and they immediately start picking on her. Coincidentally, Angela’s tormentors begin to have strange and unexplainable “accidents,” which leave them either dead or severely injured. Head counselor Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo from Silent Madness) takes it upon himself to figure out the killer’s identity, but what he discovers is something that no one would have ever suspected.
Although it came out only a few years after the original Friday the 13th, that franchise’s sequels coupled with imitators like The Burning and Madman paved the way for Sleepaway Camp. The film was written and directed by Robert Hiltzik (whose credits include pretty much only the Sleepaway Camp movies), and it was made with a group of inexperienced actors and crew for a very small amount of money. Sleepaway Camp started out as an exploitation of a trend that was already hot in the horror world, but it turned into a huge cult phenomenon in the years since its release. In short, horror fans love this movie.
The ending to Sleepaway Camp is nothing short of legendary. As a mystery, the movie is pretty easy to figure out. But there’s one aspect of the equation that no one expects. To say more would spoil the surprise, but it is the kind of ending that makes those who have seen it wish that they could watch it again for the first time – it’s that good. The final scene – actually, the final frame – is permanently burned into the memory of every viewer that has ever watched it. Sleepaway Camp is, truth be told, a very mediocre slasher, but the climax makes it all worthwhile.
Because it was made in the eighties, Sleepaway Camp looks incredibly dated. Add in the fact that most of the cast were complete amateurs, and there is a ton of humor in the film, both intentional and unintentional. The costuming is hilarious, with the camp uniforms seeming to be shrunken t-shirts tucked into tight shorts pulled up high over the waist of the wearer. The acting is awkwardly stiff in some places and over-the-top in others. The dialogue is hysterical as well; in one exchange, a camper tells Ricky to “eat shit and die,” to which Ricky replies ”eat shit and live.” The character of Aunt Martha is a parody in and of itself, with Desiree Gold delivering a performance that is both campy and straight, constantly making the viewer wonder if she’s serious or not. All slasher movies involve some level of humor, but Sleepaway Camp never tips its hand as to whether or not it means to be funny, which makes it all the more awesome.
Another interesting thing about Sleepaway Camp is the violence, or lack thereof, in the film. Possibly due to budgetary constraints, most of the killings and assaults are not actually shown onscreen. In some cases, the audience is given the aftermath of the attack, being shown the carnage without being shown the cause. In other scenes, the camera will be focused on something else in the room while the violence is taking place, leaving the sound design and music to paint the picture. Either way, the actual killings are left largely to the viewer’s imagination, making Sleepaway Camp a great example of implied violence in a horror film.
Although camp killer movies saturated the horror world to the extant where they became a huge slasher stereotype, Sleepaway Camp is still remembered fondly by most fans of scary movies, mostly because of its “holy cow” conclusion. Everyone who has seen it recalls exactly where they were when they first experienced that crazy ending to Sleepaway Camp.