Sunday, October 12, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Sleepaway Camp

Camp will be fun ... until it's not at Sleepaway Camp.
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 12: Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Slasher pics were hot properties in the early and mid-1980s, and over the next few days, we are going to try to explore why that is. Sleepaway Camp fits squarely in that category, which also includes My Bloody Valentine (1981), April Fool’s Day (1986), Prom Night (1980), and The House on Sorority Row (1983), among countless others. If those titles sound familiar, it is because they have all been remade in the 21st century, but not Sleepaway Camp, not yet.

Sleepaway Camp sets itself apart by being just a little weirder, just a little more gruesome, and by having a twist that is genuinely shocking rather than merely amusing like so many of its ilk. I have seen dozens of these ‘80s slasher films, and I remember most of them pretty well, but the twist is rarely memorable, unless it stands out for being particularly stupid. It often does not matter what last-second pivot the story takes because it does nothing to change the facts of what has gone before it.

But with Sleepaway Camp, a full re-evaluation is required. When it comes to a close, viewers are forced to reconcile the fact that as little as the characters understood what was happening around them, they knew just as little. Motivations, slights, murders – they all take on new weight in a new light cast by the final dramatic shift in perspective. It is like a trick in which the magician correctly guesses the card you picked, but you realize too late you were never even holding a card.

Angela suffers a family tragedy and is raised by her aunt. Similar to many young horror movie heroes, she is shy, quiet, and reserved. She and her cousin are sent off to summer camp. Campers and counselors die, and finally, there is the big moment. It is pretty standard stuff in terms of plot, but the kills are ingenious, and the whole atmosphere is off kilter in the best ways. The characters are adrift, the audience is adrift, and when the twist comes, we are all so off balance that we cannot help but be knocked over.

Writer-director Robert Hiltzik has made just two movies in his career: Sleepaway Camp and a direct-to-video sequel 25 years later, Return to Sleepaway Camp. If he does nothing else, his mark is still indelible. It takes a lot to stand out from the pack in this genre, but if your movie is so strange that even money-hungry Hollywood will not remake it, then you know you have made something special.

Tomorrow, we attend another summer camp that is not a nice place to visit.

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