There are some films that become so iconic that they create their own genre. This is especially true with horror movies, whose extensive list of subgenres primarily dates back to the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most popular remains the summer camp slasher genre – which, of course, started with Friday the 13th.
Though it may be the king of this particular setting, that doesn’t mean some of the successors who were inspired by it still don’t hold their own. A primary example is a film with one of the most shocking twist endings of all time, making it a cult favorite that incites a visceral reaction from viewers to this day — 1983’s Sleepaway Camp.
Directed by Robert Hiltzik, it stars Felissa Rose as Angela, a teen who tragically lost her father and brother in a freak boating accident eight years prior and has been living with her aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) ever since. Traumatized by the events that killed her family, Angela is left mute and extremely introverted. When she and Ricky get sent to Camp Arawak for the summer, a series of murders begin to occur by an unknown assailant, turning this slasher into a quasi-whodunnit as the unseen killer wreaks havoc on campers and workers alike.
Sleepaway Camp follows Friday the 13th from a formulaic standpoint in terms of plot, setting, and gore. The location is idyllic. The killer is faceless. The deaths are gruesome and heinous. More than any other commonality, though, is that they both share a shocking twist ending that defines how people see them even decades later.
It could be said that Sleepaway Camp takes too many pages from Friday the 13th’s book, creating an unoriginal carbon copy… except that it doesn’t. What Sleepaway Camp did was borrow basic elements and then turn them upside down to make bolder, more controversial decisions… particularly with that ending.
Oh, that ending. It’s what this movie is most known for, and even forty years later, remains as flagrantly infamous as it was when it was first released. The moment it’s revealed (figuratively and literally) that Angela is not only the killer but also her supposedly deceased brother (and has been raised a female for the last eight years) is shocking not just for how unexpected it is but for the full frontal nudity that goes along with it. While female nudity was not unusual for movies of the time, showing a male sans clothes was much more rare. When you add in the context of what this scene actually means, it truly was an unprecedented decision on the filmmaker’s part.
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This is the kind of twist that makes you question everything you’ve just viewed, begging for a rewatch to try to catch all the clues and easter eggs that were hidden there all along. It takes what initially comes off as a cheesy, campy (pun intended) addition to the summer camp slasher genre and adds a darker, more complex layer.
The ending isn’t the only portion of the movie that takes brazen moves — there are also multiple scenes involving excessive bullying and overt inappropriate sexual remarks from adults toward minors. This may make for a difficult watch for many (because there’s no way to not be skeeved out by it), but it’s also a testament to how far Hiltzik was willing to go to tell a progressive tale.
While the conclusion may be the most talked about aspect of the movie, it’s only one small part of what makes it stand out. Sure, Friday the 13th may have accelerated summer camp horror culture, but Sleepaway Camp raised the stakes in forward-thinking ways while still retaining the nonsensical campiness that is so commonly seen in these types of flicks.
Over the last forty years, the film has become exceedingly divisive in how it’s regarded. While some see it as an ambitious take on gender identity, others classify it as close-minded and distasteful. Sleepaway Camp’s cast has been quick to defend it, particularly Felissa Rose, who has become a fixture in the convention circuit and a recognized fan favorite for her kindness and enthusiasm. According to them, the story shouldn’t be picked apart as much as it is, and Hilzik’s intent was to create an avant-garde examination of trauma and revenge.
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Retribution does play an important role, as many of the kills happen to those who acted in cruel and heinous ways. This makes Angela’s motivations much more convoluted and comprehensible. While murder is never the answer, there’s a layer of sympathy for why these decisions were made on her part. She herself is a victim — not just of tragedy but of repeated bullying and mental abuse.
Ultimately, Sleepaway Camp stands as a radical, fearless, and progressive entrant in the beloved genre of slashers involving campers and counselors, even forty years after its original release.
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