If there was one horror movie growing up that was my favorite to show friends at a slumber party, it had to be Robert Hiltzik’s cult classic shocker Sleepaway Camp, which proved that eighties slashers weren’t always a dime a dozen. Scream Factory brings this often overlooked gem home to Blu-ray with a stunning transfer and presentation that would certainly live up to Aunt Martha’s high standards.
The story of Sleepaway Camp is pretty much everything you’d expect from a slasher movie and nothing you’d ever expect, which is what makes Hiltzik’s campy and disturbing summer camp tale still one of the more memorable horror movies I’ve seen. It follows a traumatized teenager, named Angela (Felissa Rose), who witnessed her entire family gruesomely killed after a tragic boating accident. She’s been living with those haunting events for the last eight years as well as her nutjob of an aunt, Martha (Desiree Gould), and her overprotective cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), whose defensive nature goes into overdrive once they head off to Camp Arawak for some time away from home. As the reclusive Angela is picked on relentlessly by her fellow campers, a series of gruesome murders unfold at Camp Arawak, leaving the audience to try and figure out just who the killer is and what exactly their motivations are.
The disturbing psychological aspects of Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp still resonate and feel timely when revisiting even now. There’s also an incredibly thoughtful and character-driven story just below its campy slasher movie facade, making it truly one of the more remarkable horror movies of its time. Rather than just give us a killer, some victims and a final girl to get us through the movie, Hiltzik switches up the formula by playing with the audience’s preconceived notions of heroes, victims and villains all while delving into some pretty deep sexually-charged issues.
Hiltzik also does a great job building a nice sense of “whodunit?” tension throughout Sleepaway Camp, never really giving us a true idea of who the killer stalking Camp Arawak might be until the very end of the film. Very few slashers at the time had that sense of mystery to them. And speaking of endings, Sleepaway Camp’s jaw-dropping finale still remains one of my top endings of a horror movie ever and is something that every genre fan should see at least once. In an era where everyone was trying to be the next Friday the 13th or Halloween, it was refreshing to see someone like Hiltzik consistently trying to do something different with both his script and his characters.
Something else that made Sleepaway Camp a standout from its peers was the fact that Hiltzik focused his story around kids, not a bunch of hot, young twenty-something’s and I think that’s a huge part of why the film always felt (and still does feel) so accessible to me as a fan. Everyone remembers being a kid. You remember you first crush or being scared or being bullied or even having to be away from your parents for the first time. Those are all things that everyone- regardless of age or stature- can relate to and, because Hiltzik was able to successfully tap into those universal themes all while delivering a clever and campy horror movie, that’s a big reason as to why Sleepaway Camp still continues to endure with fans of all ages today.
Because Hiltzik decided to focus most of Sleepaway Camp’s storyaround an underage cast, he took a huge gamble by not only casting real teenagers, but also casting real teenagers who didn’t have a ton of experience. With most of the weight to Sleepaway Camp resting on Rose’s adorable shoulders, the industry newbie (at the time) gives a very subtle and complex performance that most actresses with ten times her experience couldn’t have ever nailed. There’s something incredibly special about Rose’s work here that makes it so remarkable. I’ve probably seen Sleepaway Camp close to a hundred times now and I think I still catch little character moments from Angela with almost every viewing. There’s just so much going on there and it very well could still be the best thing we’ve ever seen from the very-talented Rose.
Rose is also joined by an immense amount of talent onscreen for Sleepaway Camp who all do a nice job with the material, keeping the film from ever veering too much into cheeseball territory. What’s great is that Hiltzik gives his entire cast something to do with their characters, allowing for some really fun moments involving some of Camp Arawak’s more notorious residents including bad girl Judy (Karen Fields), greedy camp owner Mel (Mike Kellin), bitchy camp counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi) and a perverted cook named Artie (Owen Hughes). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderfully wacky Gould as Aunt Martha, who feels like a warped June Cleaver sporting some serious parenting issues.
While there isn’t a ton of gore going on in Sleepaway Camp, the special effects in the film are rather impressive, considering the resources Hiltzik and his team were working with at the time. He does a lot with a little, allowing the reveal scenes to do all the work and plays most of the violence off-screen. That’s not to say that Sleepaway Camp doesn’t have a nasty streak to it- believe me, the kill scenes go to some very dark and disturbing places that were kind of unprecedented at the time. It’s just that Hiltzik uses old-fashioned tension build up instead of trying to shock us with gratuitous gore throughout Sleepaway Camp,allowing the audience’s imagination to play up those already horrific moments even more so.
As you may have guessed, picking up the recent Scream Factory Blu-ray and DVD combo of Sleepaway Camp is a no-brainer for fans. The movie has never looked more vivid and vibrant than it does here. Because Hiltzik often allowed his visuals to do some of the work in his slasher opus, the 2K transfer of the film does a fantastic job of breathing new life into this wonderful little indie horror classic. It’s also worth noting that many of the night scenes in Sleepaway Camp that used to be really muddy and dark look fantastic in this high-def presentation- a lot of the details that I previously missed (particularly the camp out scene in the final act) are easy to see now. Great stuff that long-time fans- and the Camp Arawaknewbies- will both appreciate.
When it comes to special features, the Sleepaway Camp release is a mixed bag. I really enjoyed the new commentary track with Rose and Tiersten, as there are some really interesting stories that pop up between the duo, including some lively chatter on a bit of the behind-the-scenes drama that happened during production. I also thought that At the Waterfront After the Social: The Legacy of Sleepaway Camp was very well done. There’s a music video included from Jonathan Tiersten, a short film that stars Karen Fields, and a slide show that’s perfectly fine, but they feel like a needless inclusion.
The biggest bummer for me was the featurette on the 2K scanning process. Being a bit of geek about how films are made, I was really interested to see more on just what happened during the process of the Sleepaway Camp transfer, so I could see first-hand how the technology can enhance old media Unfortunately, we get nothing of the sort. The guy giving the 2k presentation gives us some surface information about the scan process, shows us how to thread film through the machine, we see a bunch of shots from the movie on his computer screen with no real explanation and that’s about it. We don’t even get any sort of explanation as to what’s happening as we're watching the footage on the computer either which made me wonder just what we were waiting for. There were also some weird, random b-roll shots inserted in the featurette that didn’t even relate to topics at hand and the music they chose to accompany the presentation was loud and distracting. At the conclusion of the 2K scan featurette, I realized I didn't really know much about what I had just seen, which was totally a shame, since I was really hoping for something a bit more informative.
Issues with special features aside, Scream Factory’s Sleepaway Camp Blu-ray is absolutely still worth owning, especially for all my fellow long-suffering fans out there who have also been nervously using their out-of-print DVDs for the last few years, hoping that someone would finally resurrect Hiltzik’s timeless summer slasher in pristine high definition. Thankfully, the good people at Scream Factory heeded the call and gave Sleepaway Camp the love it was long overdue for.
Movie Score: 4/5 Disc Score: 3/5