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Does cinema’s most shocking ending live up to the hype or is it just another ‘80s slasher gimmick?

Intro by Chris

The ‘80s are a great decade for the horror that we, the Macabre Brothers, love: cheesy deaths, teenage courtship, running the wrong way, running fast in the right way while the killer walks but he still ends up in front. The heyday of this subgenre of horror was a few years underway when an unknown writer/director, Robert Hiltzick, came up with the idea of Sleepaway Camp. He wanted to share in the wealth of the genre but he also had an ending in mind that would shock and awe first-time audiences for the rest of cinema history, and boy, did Mr. Hiltzick succeed.

Angela (Felissa Rose), a quiet and scrawny young girl, loses her family in a boating accident and goes to live with her cousin and eccentric aunt, who sends the children to summer camp. Being quiet and scrawny, Angela is the butt end of every joke for the girls and most of the guys at camp. She even encounters a chef who attempts to take advantage of her quiet personality. Luckily for Angela, her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tierston) is there to save her time after time, always picking fights in her name. The family quickly comes into the crosshairs of the camp’s cigar-smoking director, Mel, played by Mike Kellin, a Tony-nominated actor in his last screen role. While Mel has his eyes on the kids, especially Ricky, the murders start. Gradually increasing in violence and gore, including one effect that is still an amazing arrow through the neck, the murders culminate with the single-most shocking ending… Ever.

A cast of quirky characters, awesome ‘80s fashion, over- and underacting, and some pretty cool effects make Sleepaway Camp a must-see ‘80s slasher for any film and horror buffs. As you’ll find, the Macabre Brothers appreciate Sleepaway Camp because it has nearly escaped the eyes of most horror fans. This is incredibly shocking, as it is not only one of the cheesiest (second to the one and only Evil Dead trilogy… Possibly) and most mundane horror stories of the ‘80s, it also has THE ending to end all twists. As avid fans of this film, we, the Macabre Brothers, vow to you, our reader, to not give away the ending to this film! But if you want a hint at how shocking it is, compare it to Saw (spoiler alert): When Jigsaw gets up off the floor and you were like, “WTF?! That’s Jigsaw?!? Where did that come from?!!?” …Take that shocking of an ending and multiply it by 10. We guarantee you will not see this one coming.

Without further ado, we give you the discussion on the ending to end all twists. Enjoy the Macabre!

Wanna watch? Sleepaway Camp is currently only available on DVD through Amazon.com.

Phil: As much as I’d love to jump straight to the ending, let me begin simply: Sleepaway Camp might not be an essential film. Chris, you introduced me to it years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised by this cheap little flick I knew nothing about. At the time, I think we were both pretty smitten with the “dead teenager” sub-genre of horror films. I mean, our hormones were raging as hard as those on the screen, and filmmakers did all they could to include as much body penetration as possible – that meant both sex and gore. But after rewatching the film last week, I’m struggling to justify my previous affection for it, even in terms of an ‘80s slasher. I want to like it, but I don’t know if it’s a diamond in the rough – it’s more like cubic zirconia, with a pretty sheen but little soul. When it shimmers, though, it’s truly a one-of-a-kind film, and I’m referring to more than the final scene. Take Angela’s bizarre, overacting Aunt Martha: She’s a relatively minor character (I actually forgot she existed), but in her few scene, she sets a tone that’s both timelessly discomforting and ’80s-era cheese. How about you? Does the film still hold a special place in your heart?

Chris: I remember that first week of owning this film. I watched it on the way home from North Dakota in the car, then again with you, and then again with Matt a few days later. I saw this movie three times in one week, and that doesn’t happen often with me and films. Watching it again for this I had the same kind of feeling, but less so. The editing is pretty badass in a few areas, but the acting is almost unbearable at times. I think the scenes in the dance hall are a bit lag and could be taken out without too much fuss to be had. Just include the shit about Ricky’s friend Paul (Christopher Collet) trying to hook up with Angela, and the rest of those camp dance hall scenes can be cut. With all that being said, I, unlike you, am not struggling to justify my previous affection. I still enjoy this movie. I have grown up a bit more since… When would we have first watched it, Phil? Maybe 2004? But I do still enjoy the film almost as much as that first week. But I’m curious, brother, why the discontent with it? If we went back, which we will in October I believe, and watched Wrong Turn, do you think that will dissatisfy you now also? I’m really curious as to why you say that.

Phil: I don’t hate the film – it’s more like I enjoy it for other reasons. In a lean 84 minutes, there are at least 20 minutes of filler, most at the dance hall you mention, as well as a mid-film baseball game. Aside from being almost unbearably boring, these scenes add little to the plot or characterization. In a horror film, the director has to keep things flowing in one direction or the audience will lose all sense of dread and mystery. Sleepaway Camp features some of the sweetest, most innovative kills I’ve seen in a summer-camp slasher – praise that doesn’t come lightly, given the endless Friday the 13th series – but the majority of the film seems to be taken from a different, less threatening one. To be honest, it views like an after-school special about the dangers of making out sloppily on a moonlit beach, intercut with lovingly-constructed murders. I guess age has taught me to appreciate more than contextless sex and violence.

That said, let’s talk about sex and violence – the special effects on this film are gorgeous, in that weird, gory kind of way. They were also crafted by a future makeup master: Ed French, who had previously worked on Amityville II: The Possession and went on to do William Friedkin’s The Guardian, TV’s House and Star Trek VI, earning an Emmy and Oscar nomination in the process. Give me the nitty gritty on your favorite death scene from Sleepaway Camp.

Creepy Aunt Martha, the red-lipped foreshadowing master.

Chris: Good form, Phil… glad to hear you don’t hate it. You’re right, though, and 20 minutes of filler does make the movie seem a lot longer than it is. And death!!! This film really does have some ghastly death scenes. As previously mentioned, the arrow through the neck with no edit or cut to help is still an amazing effect to this day, but not my favorite death scene. My favorite, and probably one of the most horrific, is the curling iron. For those unfamiliar with the movie, let me explain: So the camp bitch, Judy – you know, the popular girl all the guys like and who picks on Angela because she’s flat-chested and quiet – is in her bunkhouse alone, curling her hair. The killer walks in, but we can’t tell who it is. The bitch says, “Oh, it’s you. What do you want?” and the killer replies with a strong left pimp-hand, followed by a pillow to the face. As the bitch starts suffocating, the killer then takes the curling iron, and in the silhouette on the wall we see the iron open and slide out of frame towards her nether regions. What follows is the sound of something wet sizzling under heat and the hands of the camp bitch in the air as she chokes on her last breaths under the pillow. That scene has stuck with me as torturous for quite some time. What about you, Phil? Favorite death?

Phil: The bunkhouse curling iron is grotesque and, if you hadn’t mentioned it before me, also my favorite. It’s not visually gory – I feel like a future Hostel sequel will show the same thing in wet, fleshy, unnecessary detail – but it brings all the elements of a slasher together in one bloody bundle. There’s the shadowy killer, a presumptuous victim, an inventive death instrument and creepy sexual overtones, not to mention a delightfully old-school silhouette used to imply rather than show. It’s a classic, well-crafted scene, chock full of the mirth and mystery that’s a trademark of fine horror films.

Sleepaway Camp catches a lot of flak for how tame and anticlimactic the deaths are, but I believe horror can be eerily funny without seeming tone deaf, particularly slashers. The curling-iron dildo barely beats out the first real kill of the film, set in a stanky, disgusting, all-too-familiar fixture of summer camps everywhere: an outhouse. One of the older boys goes into a stall, complete with white walls and dinky lock, where he is attacked and mutilated by a swarm of bees. From a comedy and horror standpoint, the scene has everything I hoped for during the set-up: Obligatory shots of squirming feet beneath a stall door, a bodiless hand appearing with a knife, the suffocating sound of endless buzzing, the almost-funny pleas for help as the victim fumbles with an outhouse lock. I mean, seriously? An outhouse lock? The skin-crawling final shot of bees swarming on a bubbled corpse keeps it from being laugh-out-loud, but if I’m ever in a bad mood, I could watch the opening sequences on an endless loop. Maybe I’m kinda sick like that.

Chris, unless you have more blood and gore to discuss, let’s talk about sex (feel free to sing that like Salt ‘n’ Pepa). In Sleepaway Camp, it’s not the titillating kind found in most other slashers – another reason some fans deride the film – but instead shifts between laughingly prude and unbearably deviant. How do you feel about Hiltzick’s choice to make the characters young, naive children, and then send them to a summer camp with pedaphilic cooks and genital mutilation? It’s a far cry from a faceless killer hunting down horny camp counselors in their twenties.

Chris: Good choice on the death scenes. I’m glad we are on the same page about the best – or worst, depending on how you think about it – death of the film. The implied sizzling is disgusting. I can’t imagine how that scene makes a lady feel… Wow, talk about powerful minus the gore. Another one of my favorite deaths has a lot to do with the sexual under and overtones of the film. One of the camp counselors, in a nod to the great Alfred Hitchcock, is stabbed through the divider of a shower while preparing for a date with the cigar-smoking camp leader, Mel. With comedic prowess, the old man finds her and freaks out. It touches on the same fear that the chef blatantly rapes. Phil, you hit on it perfectly, and to answer your question, I think the youth factor adds an extra element of creepy sexuality to the film – the children that don’t even know what knockers are when the say the word. And then for Hiltzick to show a statutory relationship of a teen and a man old enough to be her father, it’s extra weird. What if he focused more on that, and less on the 20 minutes of dance-hall awkwardness?

The slightly misleading cover.

Phil: I think that could have turned Sleepaway Camp from a one-trick pony into a bona fide genre classic. If the film had spent more time exploring the sexual anxiety inherent to adolescence and less time trying to recreate a routine ‘80s summer camp, it would have been a keen and hair-raising look at the pitch-black underbelly of all slashers. Sure, the whole genre boasts copious amounts of graphic violence, but the real threat is sexuality – an overarching theme is how the teenage experience of sex is simultaneously rewarding and threatening. At the height of my teenage slasher fetish, some part of me saw mounds of truth in that idea.

More so than any of its ‘80s peers, Sleepaway Camp tried to peel back the gloss and excitement of sex when young. With the pedophile cook, dirty uncle Mel, Angela’s dark backstory and the stunning final scene, I can tell Hiltzick was trying to subvert sexual conventions and bend them to his own means – basically, attempting to tell a horror story that didn’t shy away from the ghastly aspects of sex. Without giving away too many concrete details, the final scene is a near-perfect summary of the entire film: it’s unrelenting and unforgettable, but doesn’t have the emotional weight it should. I was left suitably shocked, but not in the festering, gut-punch way of the best horror films. So, lay it on me and describe the ending without breaking our spoiler-free promise.

Chris: Alright, you bastard, thanks for putting me on the spot! Here goes… So, Mel gets all pissed about his teenage sex-toy dying and goes on a rampage to find the killer, because he knows who it has been the entire movie but didn’t want to admit it. Shortly after, two counselors venture down to the beach where, decapitated head in hand, the killer rises with mouth screaming in a shocking picture of innocence, naivety, ghastliness and absurdity. Then, with that picture frozen, the credits roll as you think to yourself, “WTF did I just see?”

BAM! Sad thing is, brother, I can’t give it away. You have to see to believe. Haha. So, sex: check. Death: check. Ending: check. Overall importance: Check. If we missed anything that needs to be covered, write now or forever hold your peace. If we didn’t… Well, then let’s have it, brother! Rate this flick!

Phil: I’m standing by what I said earlier – in a rare reversal for a cult feature, Sleepaway Camp doesn’t live up to my initial viewing. It’s an intriguing but flawed film, with missed opportunities and disastrous pacing that can’t be overlooked. Like last week’s ill-fated Creature, this film squanders a chance to upend slasher conventions, although it comes much closer to hitting the mark. You can’t blame Hiltzick for trying. After all, the guy is responsible for that closing image.

Chris: This is a true slasher – unlike Creature, which I so poorly labeled a slasher – and it does have the single-most shocking ending I’ve ever seen. But the pacing is the downfall, and again, this movie falls short of the mark. We have a recommendation for a September review that is supposed to be great, but until then, we will continue graciously watching movies that aren’t so gracious on the eyes and mind.

Phil: 1 – Watchable with a couple whiskey shots
Chris: 2  Likeable with your friends, no lovers and a fifth

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