Chances are, if you’re reading this, you know how Sleepaway Camp ends regardless of whether you’ve seen it or not. But if you are still somehow blissfully unaware I urge you to stop reading and return when you’ve had it spoiled one way or another.
Back? Okay. Good. So: Sleepaway Camp is one of those 80s slasher movies that has gone on to live way past it’s sell-by date simply because of it’s shocking and, frankly, quite original twist ending. In the film’s final moments, it is revealed that the young heroine Angela (Felissa Rose) is not only responsible for all of the grisly murders but is actually a boy who has adopted the role of her dead sister thanks to some sick conditioning on behalf of her twisted Aunt. Having only encountered this reveal through print or forum chitter chatter I always thought the twist sounded pretty ridiculous and sensationalist, as if the filmmaker was trying to throw in a last-minute rug pull to instil his formulaic slasher with more sting. Maybe in the 80s using transgender as the base for a shock finale was more acceptable but now it feels in poor taste. I put off watching Sleepaway Camp for a long time. Not out of discomfort, but because I guessed that having known the ending for years, it would be a bit of a pointless endeavour.
As I found with Society last year, sometimes a good twist is as much about delivery as it is discovery. Knowing the twist of Society made that film’s plodding two and a half-act set-up bearable because I knew I was in for a crazy pay-off. On top of that, the total whacked-out, extreme what-the-fuckness mixed with an orgy of sticky special effects made that finale incredibly satisfying despite years of seeing images and reading articles about it.
Similarly, Sleepaway Camp‘s conclusion isn’t necessarily effective in relation to plot but it is in terms of execution. Angela is found by two camp counsellors completely naked, cradling the severed head of a boy she has been romantically involved with throughout the film. She stands up and confronts them with a contorted face while making heavily, animalistic snarling noises. Edward Bilous’s score builds to it’s clashing crescendo and the scene cuts between the horrified, confused faces of the counsellors (“She’s…she’s a boy!”) and various takes of Angela: one of the young actress in close up, the other an artificial replica of Angela showing her exposed body and male genitalia. There’s something infinitely disturbing about the special effect. It is clearly a latex waxwork, yet the frozen grimace and sense of it being inhuman make it work in the scene’s favour.
Rose’s physical contribution to the scene is, understandably given the subject matter, minimal, yet her growling close-up is chilling. Even more so because, up to this point, Angela has been a very passive and sweet character who’s emotion has been mostly limited to innocent smiles and concerned forlornness. To see her so wild-eyed, psychotic and distressed really packs a punch. It’s no surprise then that this image has become the most iconic in Sleepaway Camp lore. The acting on the counsellor’s part is probably the strongest in the whole film too. They really sell the reveal with the sheer terror and confusion in their faces and all goofiness has suddenly been erased.
For most of it’s running time Sleepaway Camp feels like a dopey slasher movie with lots of attempts at dumb humour that undermine everything. There’s never a real sense of threat to the murders, it’s all fun and games and is enjoyable as such. The hammy acting is competent and the film gets bonus points for actually casting young teens in the main roles. It lends the whole camp setting an authenticity that soul-mate pictures The Burning and Friday the 13th lack. The entire film is directed plainly. Most compositions are flat and unremarkable in the way that most 80s slasher films feel anonymously directed. It’s got to the point now where the non-aesthetic of 80s horror movies has become an aesthetic in itself, fetishised over as much as the fashion, physical effects and the static on worn videotape copies. Yet as goofy as much as the film feels the ending plays as serious as a heart attack. For the first time in the entire film, writer/director Robert Hiltzik seems determined to scare the shit out of his audience and deliver something truly nightmarish. He pulls it off.
We can talk about the ramifications or the intent behind that ending all day, though I prefer to enjoy the reveal on it’s own terms. It’s suggestions about transgender identity are definitely sinister and the handling somewhat troublesome yet despite Hiltzik’s simplistic and insidious vision of transgender trauma, within the genre framework of Sleepaway Camp it turns a potentially stupid film into something quite serious.
As the film fades to green over Angela’s snarling face, she is simultaneously presented as victim and murderer. We see sudden flashbacks to the moment young Ricky was branded Angela by his demented aunt and when we cut back to Angela’s naked body, the extent of the damage we never realised was there becomes painstakingly clear. It’s a primitive depiction of a trans character – the latex Angela is close to caveman in appearance – but, as I stated earlier, the ugliness works for the film’s effect and is representative of Angela’s psyche at that point. I would argue that Hiltzik’s sympathy lies more with Angela than the carved teens strewn across the rest of the movie’s landscape and it doesn’t feel like a damnation against the trans gender but rather that of psychological abuse. The horror of the scene is not that Angela is a transgender murderer, but that she, a young teenage girl, has been damaged beyond repair.
Sleepaway Camp is a fascinating slasher. Eighty percent disposable but with a crucial twenty percent that is essential viewing for genre buffs. It’s one of those rare instances where a twist still has serious impact regardless of having it spoiled for years in advance thanks to some terrific filmmaking. I saw it in the early hours and those final moments made the next day’s daylight haunted by the face of poor Angela Baker. What can I say? It worked. A film very much of it’s time in it’s handling of a still-relevant topic, but the fact it handled it at all is quite extraordinary.