Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

by Jimmy "Salute Your Shorts" Callaway

Ah, camp. Three months off from the grueling daily summer grind of watching game shows all day and chasing the ice cream truck. Fortunately, I never got shipped off to the woods to get eaten by mosquitoes and tortured by college students named Brad, my parents opting instead to home-torture me. And being a mere slip of a lad in the early ‘80s, I also missed out on the sub-sub-genre of slasher/summer camp films, beginning, of course, with Friday the 13th in 1980, and including such enduring favorites as The Burning, Blood Lake, and Cheerleader Camp. It’s my guess that this little niche was easily exploited, since not only is camping generally dark and scary (especially, I would imagine, to the east coast city dwelling Fundie-types, to whom the summer camp experience seems to be unanimous), but also the innocence associated with this youthful experience (a side played for laughs in flicks like Meatballs, et al) can be turned on its head to explore a darker side, though not much is as terrifying as the sight of twenty-year-old boys in those teeny-tiny shorts that seemed to be all the rage back then (and seriously, those half-shirts? Man, that part of the decade has got a lot of explaining to do).

The flick centers around two cousins, all-American Ricky and cripplingly shy Angela, and their summer at Camp Arawak. Angela’s unnaturally inverted personality soon invites the scorn and abuse of her fellow campers. Yet nobody seems to suspect the creepy, bug-eyed girl when death begins to settle on Camp Arawak (fun fact: “Arawak” is an old Mohawk term for “Paleface with feathered hair”). First, the oily perv of a head chef gets boiled alive in his own soup pot. The camp mourns the loss of his Apple Brown Betty. Then, a scrawny creep in a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt mysteriously drowns (insert your own “Don’t Fear the Reaper” joke here). And so on. The camp owner wants these “accidents” kept strictly hush-hush, and the local sheriff is too busy having a fake mustache to argue with him. No one’s blow comb is safe.

However, despite the aggressively bad acting of most of the cast, there are some genuinely tense, if not downright scary, moments in Sleepaway Camp. Before watching this flick, I was expecting not much more than blood by the bucketful. And while there’s enough gore here to paint a bunkhouse, a surprising amount of the violence is either really quick or totally off-camera, adding a nice touch of subtlety. And believe me, it’s not easy to add subtlety to a curling iron being used as a murder weapon. God knows how many times I’ve tried.

No discussion, however, of Sleepaway Camp is complete without talking about the big reveal. Without getting into details, I will go so far as to say that the concluding scene is no less than jaw-dropping, not just for what actually happens, but for how it affects your entire movie-going experience thus far. It’s like this: during the whole picture, you’re giggling at the acting and the tan lines and scoffing at the utter stupidity of the characters. Therefore, it’s standard slasher-flick fare. And since you’re such a smarty-pants know-it-all, you’ve already figured out who the killer is, tossing aside the lame red herring as though it were...well, a dead fish. The movie’s coming into the home stretch and the bodies are piling up, and then...wha’ huh?! A big, fat water balloon of a twist ending smacks you upside the back of your head, soaking you right down to your underwear, so you have to go back to your bunk and change before arts and crafts. Not so smart now, are ya, smartie?

So what I want to know is: just how much of this judo move did the filmmakers really plan? Were they going through the motions of a dumb teen gorefest and then fell ass-backwards into an ending Kreskin couldn’t have seen coming? Or were they purposefully leading you out to the old abandoned cabin to hunt snipes, only to suddenly yank down your shorts and run them up the flagpole before giggling uproariously as they flee off into the woods?

The world may never know.

Did I make all my analogies clear? Because they all related to summer camp, y’see.