Sleepaway Camp: All About The Ending

SLEEPAWAY-CAMPS-poster-artSleepaway Camp, a 1983 Friday The 13th rip-off written/directed by Robert Hiltzik, is a baffling entry in the teenage slasher flick craze of the ‘80s. It’s almost totally bloodless, the killer is the one character you’re so sure is the killer you assume you must be wrong, there is no female nudity, the dialogue is kind of pleasantly naturalistic except when it aggressively isn’t, it’s not bad in the ways these movies are typically bad, yet it’s not good in the way the good ones are good, and the ending—oh, man, the ending—what the hell is the ending supposed to mean?

I’d tell you all about how it ends, but maybe you should watch Sleepaway Camp for yourself just to experience the weirdness.

An ending like this should retroactively paint the whole movie with meaning. But in Sleepaway Camp there is no meaning. It’s Hiltzak’s lone movie (save a straight-to-video sequel he made 20+ years later). His lack of filmmaking chops shows everywhere. Yet his lack of style and affect gives the movie a naturalness you’d never expect in a teen slasher flick. The kids look like kids. They talk like kids. They act like kids. Except when they don’t. Least natural of all is the evil girl, Judy, who’s nothing but a caricature of teenage nastiness, with no goal but to ruin the life of the shy, almost mute new girl, Angela.

Evil Judy taunts the mute

Evil Judy taunts the mute

Angela comes to camp with her brother, Ricky, who’s been many times. I guess mom didn’t want her girl going to camp? No. She didn’t. She’s got a reason. A creepy one.

And wait a second, is Ricky really Angela’s brother? Hiltzak opens his movie in a very confusing way, in part to hide the big reveal at movie’s end, and in part because he has no idea how to make a movie.

First of all, the credits play over an empty summer camp on a cloudy day, with children’s voices rising and falling on the soundtrack. Not a bad scary movie opening. The sequence ends on the camp’s sign, covered up with FOR SALE. Cut to a summer day with campers water-skiing. Did we just go back in time? Or did something awful happen long ago, and now the camp is under new ownership?

Nice shorts

Nice shorts

Forget it, doesn’t matter. The water-skiing kids are careless and run over a man swimming with his two little kids, a boy and a girl. The man is killed. Are the kids killed? I think it’s implied that one is? Maybe? I couldn’t tell.

And then we cut to EIGHT YEARS LATER and teenage Angela and Ricky with their insanely over-acting mom, and I figured both kids had lived. Maybe I was supposed to know Angela had been adopted? Or that the mom is a distant relative? Or maybe knowing this doesn’t matter?

It’s a peculiar movie in how little of anything matters to anyone, characters and filmmaker alike. It seems to exist for one reason: the bizarro ending.

Judy seduces the nice boy

Judy seduces the nice boy

Getting there isn’t boring, but it’s pretty far from interesting. A rapey cook is killed, then mean teen camper after mean teen camper, and finally a whole bunch of innocent campers, and we’re never quite sure who it is, of course, despite every five minutes or so cutting to Angela’s silent, staring face in close-up.

The deaths occur off-screen. There’s essentially no blood, and not a bit of gore, save the final shot. So in that sense, there’s a build-up. Which is something. And come to think of it, the killer is perhaps more cold-hearted and nefarious than their more famous counterparts, killing not only “bad” people, but, by the end, everyone, including innocent pre-teen kids, hacked up in their sleeping bags like a bunch of savaged turtles.

"And that's where the dead bodies are kept."

“And that’s where the dead bodies are kept.”

None of this is scary, by the way. Sleepaway Camp leans toward the funny end of cheapo horror flicks, only it’s not exactly funny, either. Worse yet, nobody has sex. What was Hiltzak going for? What was his purpose, aside from cashing in on a trend? Did he want his shock ending to mean something, and was he lacking the talent to deliver it? Or was the twist his only goal? The movie’s not campy enough to be a laugh riot, but it’s not serious enough to be gripping. I’ll give it this: it’s its own thing.

Sleepaway Camp became a hit on home video and spawned a bunch of sequels I have a hard time believing anyone saw. Hiltzak had no idea a cult following had developed. When he found out, he made his own sequel, which no one continued to see. Should one watch the original? Well. One could do worse. But you have to have a special interest in early ‘80s, cheap teen/slasher/horror flicks to make it at all worth your while. A Nightmare On Elm Street it ain’t.

4 responses on “Sleepaway Camp: All About The Ending

  1. I recently saw this for the first time after hearing murmurs about it for years. Decades, actually. It was always there at the vhs rental places when i was a horror-obsessed teen, never ever quite looking like it would be worth the two twenty five. The writers of fangoria seemed to drop knowing references to it without ever actually recommending it. Just sort of like HEH HEH, YEAH, FUCKIN’ SLEEPAWAY CAMP.

    Upon watching, I understood. It was terrible from top to bottom, not scary, not funny, but there was not a single dull moment. That mom, at the beginning… Holy shit. She is what John Waters is always trying to capture and never quite getting his finger on. Most of the rest of the cast is made up of non actors and summer stock newbies, rattling off lines that are pure 1950s b-grade pshychothriller. It has a sort of an innocence to it. But then that’s punctuated by all this 80s exploitation trash, the rape chef, the cussing, the OH NO gay dad in bed, and then that goddamn final shot.

    It is a genuinely weird movie that tried and wanted to be nothing but normal. It is its own protagonist writ large.

    On the seat back of an airplane the very next day, I had the luck to stumble across the late 80s quickie sequels. They were boring and one of them was SUPER racist. But Bruce Springsteen’s sister plays Angela in both of them.

    I am excited to learn from this post that the original auteur made another one… In this millennium, even? Gonna have to investigate.

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