“Sleepaway Camp”: Another great cult classic summer camp slasher, now on AMC’s Shudder

By on December 27, 2017

Night Flight was recently asked by Shudder — the AMC Network’s horror streaming channel — to curate a guest row of content, and so we turned to our resident expert on ’80s cult horror, our social media editor KJ, who selected four films from their cult horror library.

We had asked members of Night Flight’s community to select the fifth movie you’ll find in our row of five cult horror titles, and the winner is David Cronenberg’s 1977 cult fave Rabid, which we recently wrote about in this previous blog post.

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The poll is now closed, and thanks for voting! By the way, we’re still offering 25% OFF on an annual subscription (regularly just $29.99 for the whole year) to Night Flight Plus (promo code: SHUDDER), and a free month of Shudder (promo code: NIGHTFLIGHT)!

Read more about Sleepaway Camp below.

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When Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp was released in November of 1983, horror film fans and critics immediately gleefully noted that this tale — about a deranged killer stalking teens and counselors at a summer camp in upstate New York — had ripped off some of the ideas previously seen in Friday the 13th (1980) and The Burning (1981).

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Sleepaway Camp begins with a brief prologue set in 1975, in which John Baker and his boyfriend Lenny take John’s children Angela and Peter on a boating trip on Lake George, near Camp Arawak.

Tragedy strikes when their boat capsizes and they end up swimming into the path of a reckless motorboat, driven by one of the camp’s counselors, towing a water skier. John and one of the children are struck and killed.

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Then, the plot jumps forward eight years in time, and we now meet cousins Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and Angela (Felissa Rose), the lone survivor of that boating accident, who are about to head off to summer camp.

We learn that Angela has been adopted by Ricky’s mother, the beret-wearing weirdo Aunt Martha Thomas (Desiree Gould, who pretty much steals the film away from everyone else).

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Then, the action switches over to Camp Arawak — there are scenes in the cabin, rec hall, kitchen, boat docks, archery range, lakeside beach and hiking trails — where we meet the camp owner and day manager, Mel Kostic (played by the great Mike Kellin in his last film role; check him out as “Bogey” in The Phynx!).

We see how athletic, potty-mouthed Ricky assimilates just fine with his fellow campers.

Doe-eyed Angela — who is painfully shy, her face nearly always displaying a blank deer-in-headlights expression — refuses to speak to anyone, though, and her moodiness irritates some of the spoiled brats in the camp.

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It’s not long before the mousy Angela is being teased by some of the camp’s bitchy girls, particularly her bunkmate, the camp cutie pie Judy (Karen Fields), and camp counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi).

She’s also being hit on by the dorky boys, one of whom — wearing a Blue Oyster Cult t-shirt at the time — actually asks: “Yo Angela, why are you so fucked up?!”

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Angela finally begins to come out of her shell a bit when Ricky’s friend Paul (Christopher Collet) begins flirting with her, but he also happens to be the boy that Judy had her eye on.

She’s also tormented by the camp’s lecherous head cook Artie (Owen Hughes), who has boiling water thrown in his face.

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Then, pretty much everyone who crosses Angela starts showing up dead in the most unpleasant ways imaginable, including a camper found drowned in the lake.

The dead bodies then begin to start piling up: one girl is stung to death when a hornet’s nest is placed in her bathroom stall; a camp counselor is slit in half with a hunting knife; another beloved character is shot in the throat with an arrow (just like Kevin Bacon’s character in Friday the 13th), and one who meets her gruesome fate by being smothered to death with a pillow and simultaneously violated by a hot curling iron.

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Sleepaway Camp starts out as a campy John Waters-style teen-throb saga with lots of stuff to giggle at, especially the feathered-hair boys and their crop tops, short shorts and striped knee socks (musclehead camp counselor Ronnie Angelo — played by Paul DeAngelo — even looks like he’s smuggling a gerbil in his).

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Everything gets nastier and nastier, and metaphorically and literally darker and darker, as the movie arrives at its memorably shocking and too-short ending, which turns on a great plot twist, one of the most shocking endings among ’80s horror films.

We won’t spoil for you here, even though pretty much everyone on the internet already spoils the ending anyway.

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First-time filmmaker Robert Hiltzik wrote the screenplay for Sleepaway Camp during a one-year hiatus — after graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts and before entering NYU’s Graduate School of Film — and reportedly sold shares to raise the money for his debut feature film.

He spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect actress to cast for Angela. Felissa Rose — who has since gone on to appear in numerous low-budget horror films as well as being one of director Dante Tomaselli’s muses — has even said that Hiltzik was “looking for a wide-eyed, flat chested, quiet thirteen-year old. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.”

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Most of the camp scenes were shot in the summer and fall of 1982 in and around Lake George and the Clearview Motor Lodge in South Glen Falls, NY, protected Adirondack region of mountains and old-growth forest, and in the towns of Edwards and Argyle, some two hundred miles of NYC.

The film proved to be so popular that, much like Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp became a cult classic, spawning a bunch of sequels of its own, including Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers and Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland (1989), which actually starred Bruce Springsteen‘s sister Pamela.

AMC Shudder says Sleepaway Camp — also marketed on VHS as Nightmare Vacation — is “essential viewing for ’80s slasher fiends,” and Night Flight agrees!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.