Monday, January 23, 2006

Classic Camp from the Horror Vault: SLEEPAWAY CAMP


So I'm doing my thing a couple weeks ago, pretending to work while actually surfing the Net and telling myself I'll start writing my new chapter in a few minutes, when I notice that Netflix has recommended yet another movie for me. "SLEEPAWAY CAMP," it says, boasting a very effective image of a kid's sneaker impaled on a bloody knife.

"SLEEPAWAY CAMP!" I actually say out loud because I'm ten kinds of eccentric and I don't mind talking to an empty room. "I remember this movie!"

Ah, yes, 'tis a flick I have never, ever forgotten. And as I continue to avoid working, I'm inspired enough to decide that it'd be an excellent idea to read every single comment about the movie on Netflix. Heck, there're only 177 of them, so no problem. As the minutes tick by, I find myself becoming obsessed with this bizzare slasher flick. I then scoot over to the IMDB site and read every single member review because I'm completely in this grasp of zombie-like determination to avoid anything productive. Five hours later, it's too late to start writing my chapter and I browbeat myself for that. But, hey, that would be a premise for another movie--something David Cronenberg would direct, perhaps.

Anyway, let me tell you the reason I was so bent on gorging myself with SLEEPAWAY commentary that day. First, I was being a lazy good-for-nothing, yet that's been duly noted. Second, and more importantly, this is a movie that has stuck with me over the years, but in a very sneaky way: the truly weird, shocking ending has flashed through my mind on random occasions and, for a bottom-of-the-barrel budget movie that was no doubt released to earn a quick buck from teens who were just out for a good scare, SLEEPAWAY CAMP contains some extremely deep issues. There are no hockey-mask lack of motivations, here: the plot and characterizations are practically gothic in their sensibilities. There's a quality of repressed anger and confusion that changes this movie from FRIDAY THE 13th, Part V, to something more along the lines of a much tamer SANTA SANGRE, another psychological exercise that made me uncomfortable.

The basic jist of the movie is this: in flashback, we see a father taking his son and daughter for a sailboat ride. There is laughing and horseplay, resulting in the family spilling into the lake. Unfortunately, there are some dopey teenagers driving a boat, and they end up killing 2/3 of the family: the dad and one of the children. Eight years later, the really unsettling stuff begins. We visit "Aunt Martha"'s house on the day she's sending her son, Ricky, and her adopted daughter, Angela, to summer camp. The thing is, after about two seconds, you realize Aunt Martha is bat-poo crazy, with her wide empty eyes and affected speech. It's like she's wandered into this picture from the set of CABARET and she's the Joel Grey character, except she doesn't know when she's not on stage anymore. Just...eck. She causes minor mental trauma. But I digress. She packs Ricky and Angela off to camp, and you also notice that Angela is more than a little silent and shy. There's definitely something wrong with her, but you can make excuses because you realize that she's the child who suffered through the ugly death of her dad and sibling.

Yada, yada, we get to camp and are quickly introduced to Paul, who will be Angela's puppy-love interest, and Judy, who is way too close to all the uber-bitches who turned your seventh-grade life into Dante's lowest circle of hell. (That's another thing about this film: part of the disquiet comes from reliving what it felt like to be thirteen--from an awkward first kiss to enduring taunts from the other kids to just feeling like a freak in general; even though SLEEPAWAY's acting is stiff and endearingly dorky, the reality of adolescence is all too real.) We also meet a cook, who doubles as a pedophile. (Yeah, great, huh? Told ya--uck.) After the cook hits on Angela, bad things start to happen at camp, like the culinary pervert getting blistered by boiling water.

What follows is the "murder portion": bee attacks, shower stabbings, and a brutal, brutal killing with a curling iron. (Even though it's presented in shadow, it's one of those moments where you're sitting there going, "Did that really just happen the way I think it happened? Holy crap.") All the while, Judy the Evil attacks Angela with her sneers and rolling eyes and bitingly personal comments and anything else that is inevitably stowed in the arsenal of a hormonally driven malcontent. Surprisingly, Angela and Paul's puppy love story is sweet, even if it doesn't last long.


The killer is pretty obvious--it even shows a face as he/she stands in the doorway ready to attack another victim. However, Ricky and Angela look so much alike, that I was hard-pressed to identify whose face the director actually superimposed on the figure. I rewound the DVD several times to get a clear look, too. I think that trick was rather smart; it confused the audience and emphasized a theme of gender confusion. But crime solving isn't really the point of this movie: it's the ending that blows most viewers, like me, away.

When I first saw SLEEPAWAY CAMP, I was in high school, at a "get together," where the boys and girls would watch a few videos on a Friday night and eat popcorn and flirt. Very harmless. As usual, I think we were chatting throughout much of the flick but, when things got really intense with the murders, we shut our traps. We missed some clues that might've helped us to anticipate the ending, but who knows? We might never have guessed it because it's really well done. And, also, it was a real kick in the head. At our "get together," when the final image faded from the screen, we all just looked at each other and went, "What the...?" But that picture of the killer always lingered.

As much as I'd like to, I can't bring myself to tell you the actual finale. I just can't. But I will say this: while it seems to come out of the blue, it doesn't. If you've been paying attention, it makes perfect sense. And the revealtion's imagery? Creepy. Downright nightmarish. It's here that you realize SLEEPAWAY CAMP has tried to dig deeper than mere gore. It has stitched together the terror of growing up with the taboo, and the killer becomes an utterly tragic figure.

If you're a horror fan and you haven't seen this flick, try it out. It might do nothing for you. It might be just an awfully produced slasher movie that tried to ride the wave of FRIDAY THE 13th and HALLOWEEN. But then again, you might be in a different frame of mind, going along with the director's intention of showing us what's going on beneath the surface where tiny ripples only hint at the chaos underneath. And then those ripples turn to waves....

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