Monday, July 12, 2021

Free to Be You vs. Me: SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

There's been an exciting upswing in the media presence of trans and/or non-binary young people these days, not merely activists or carpetbaggers but genuinely cool, free, unique types better than both boxes checked together; I wouldn't dare name some and by error omit others, but I think they can perhaps be measured in their coolness by their response to Sleepaway Camp, which in today's climate might be deemed 'problematic' in its association with what is and isn't horrific (or further, how a girl might change her sex due to a boat propellor or if that even fits into anything.) I think it bodes well for the future that the heroine of the film is also a murderer and has gone on to become a kind of gender-bending icon, as well as a kind of de facto female Freddy/Jason for the slasher set. We need more like her! 

There's a lot going on in this strange, intentionally disjointed film we choose to call Sleepaway Camp, especially the much ballyhooed shock ending. I only recently finally saw it, having lifted my self-imposed ban on all early-80s slasher films (the feminizing scars of my squirmish 80s boyhood finally healed) and was amazed how well it captures the vibe of my own experiences at summer camp. Watching one lazy Sunday afternoon, I fell under its spell and began to feel like I was actually there, thanks to its languid pace and crowded mise-en-scene. Most importantly, it gives us the coolest pair of kids in all of camp slasher moviedom: Ricky--played with  tender but unshowy ferocity by Jonathan Tiersten--and his catatonic cousin Angela (the indelible Felissa Rose), who barely know each other but are packed off to summer camp as one unit by their very weird guardian (Desiree Gould, who makes Deborah Reed in Troll 2 seem restrained) after a weird boating accident. 

Summer camp is terrifying until you get through the first few nights; after that it becomes a mix of giddy anarchy, boredom and relentless dirtiness. If you've already been there, maybe you aren't so apprehensive. Ricky was at the same camp last summer -- he's a legacy! He made friends there! But it's the first time off in the boonies for cousin Angela. Not exactly shy or terrified per se, while Ricky renews acquaintances, Angela just sits around, quiet and unassailable as the Mona Lisa, doing, saying, and eating almost nothing. She doesn't even seem to be miserable, she gives the world around her nary a clue as to her inner life, causing most of the other campers and counsellors various degrees of consternation. Initially attracted by her mystery, the more hormonal idiot males circle her like predators, irritated by her lack of reaction to their overtures and provocations. The girls in turn are irritated by the attention she gets from the boys they mistake her impassivity for snootiness. In one way or another, everyone is provoked and then irritated by her serene disinterest. Counsellors try to make sure she's fed and unmolested but even they wind up on the outside. If they push too hard, bad things tend to happen. If they just let her be, no one mysteriously dies.

Ricky, in the complete opposite camp, comfortably ensconced with his rowdy but cool boys-only clique, doesn't care if his cousin doesn't want to engage. Whatever she wants is all right with him. He lets her sit there, and only steps in if someone starts bothering her. He protects but doesn't engage. This rote proximity-respectful chivalry is a great character detail that gives Ricky a kind of untarnished nobility. He doesn't have to understand her. As far as he's concerned, she's all right as she is.

Being a slasher movie, plenty of offensive people at this camp don't respect Angela's space, and soon end up dead. But it's not with the murders that Sleepaway Camp earns props from me; it's not just because of the 'shock ending.' 

For me, it's the curious way the male counsellors are all Italian muscle guys in super tight  shorts and white tube socks (the style of the time). It's the campers, the vivid ugliness of the way white socks look with grubby sneakers and shorts, over legs just beginning to sprout hair; it's the young cast's richly lived-in semi-improv vibe; it's the slovenly look of the group cabins--awash in snack bags wet bathing suits, towels, floor stains, clumps of clothes, late sleepers--and the almost von Sternbergian way kids race in and out of the ratty screen door at the edge of the frame, to quick grab their swim suits or baseball gloves, laughing at something we didn't hear, and then racing out again. The many daytime scenes and lived-in mise-en-scene make it more of a summer camp movie with slashing rather than a slasher movie with camping. Its characters breathe and bicker like actual people and when they die it's not because they have 'transgressed' but because they wandered off the real people reservation. When they cease being original and real and become a camp stock cliches--bully, pedophile, mean girl, date rapist, blackmailer, etc.--it makes the subsequently inflicted violence more rewarding than scary. Unlike most slasher of the era, the moral is not 'stay a virgin' (these kids are too young for that), but stay a true character, fluid and 3/D--keep it real or face the consequences.

Ricky, especially, never falls into cliche- and he stands as a refreshing holdover from the kids of the 70s movies, who were often badass little punks (see CinemArchetype 23: the Wild Child), like Matt Dillon, Jodie Foster, and Jackie Earle Haley, i.e. the days when characters like that were the good guys. This was a time when junior high schools had student smoking areas. It wasn't until E.T. that kids all became doe-eyed saints. Before then we would have taken Tobey Maguire and kicked him into a trash can. It's no wonder most of us (male moviegoers) wind up conditioned to wince whenever a new boy shows up for his first day of school in a movie. He's generally pushed into a locker before he even gets to his first class. Never is there a boy we can identify with and admire and trust to take care of himself regardless of whatever new hell he's packed off to. But now and again we have a scrawny nerd who relishes the chance to throw down against some idiot twice his size--ala Dreamcatcher, Over the Edge, Bad News Bears, Brick --and man, it's such a relief! A kid like this may get their ass kicked, but they never lose their moxy or our respect. All bullied kids need to see such things, to learn it's not if you win or lose it's that you're not cowering, or avoiding, or pussying out--that cowardly avoidance echoes throughout the remainder of your life as the default settings for your behavior when forced into any threat or conflict. Even picking himself out of a trash can, Bad News's little blonde Tanner (Chris Barnes) is more of a badass than all the Karate Kids combined because no matter the size or number of the other kids, he won't back down. They have to throw him in the trash just to be sure he doesn't follow them and slash their hamstrings with a homemade shiv.

Nowadays, this fighting spirit is so repressed and shunned it can only explode in ballets of high school gun violence. Even then it's only by armed loners, never by fed-up masses of kids determined to fight back against curfews and petty institutional persecution or over-parenting. In fact, these kids today, they don't know how bad they have it, because they're whisked into child therapy the moment they fight back. 

For my generation--who ran wild in the 70s with a degree of freedom that would terrify parents and children of today--badass kids in films gave us ideals to strive for; they provided a compass for the chaos. Jan Michael Vincent teaching Jackie Earle Haley to drink beer and to drive a futuristic tank-trailer in Damnation Alley; Jackie Earle Haley tooling on his dirt bike,  and smoking a cigarette in Bad News Bears; Claude pounding a 1.75 liter of bourbon on his way to a party in Over the Edge... Nowadays? the Haley equivalent can't get on a motorbike without a helmet and elbow pads, even if the diegetic child protective services is long-since nuked.

A lot of the lamer adult filmmakers think kids identify with, and like to see, other kids in movies. It's one of the great tragic mistakes of pop culture history (and that goes double for sidekicks - i.e. Robin, Short-Round, etc - any kid who has a poster of Short Round, or Robin, or Superboy [1] on his wall - run.). There's only one kid we--as kid viewers or badass adults who remember being kid viewers--want to identify with:, the Wild Child. We saw them running amok in films like Logan's Run and--of course--the "Bop! Bop!" street gang in Star Trek. We don't want to identify with the goody-two-shoes kids our own age. We want to be older. We wanted to be Han Solo, not Luke. We may identify with the scared first day kid getting passively shoved against the lockers, but we don't want to. And we'll hate any movie that tries to shove this little pisher down our throats. The badass wild child, on the other hand, he's all right. He's got guts, and sometimes guts is enough, even if he ends up getting beat up and shoved into a trash can, he's all right. 
END TIRADE (sorry, ahem)

Why this is all worth mentioning is to praise by contrast a dirt-encrusted kid like Ricky, who can get along with most of the kids without being either the showboat center of attention or a bully, is a great fresh air blast in a sea of one dimensional stock kid types; he had a girlfriend the previous summer, and she's back but dating another dude, so he's hurt but tells her off and gets over it. He holds his own against the bully contingent--he bullies the bullies, if you will. Neither a nerd nor a Ferris Bueller smartass, Ricky quickly re-establishes his pack of cronies and starts going about his summer camp activities, keeping his troubled cousin always within eyeshot, but always leaving her to do her thing, which is...what? Sitting still and watching? It's her thing, man, leave her alone!

Is she in a kind of fugue state? What's Angela's deal?  Is she doing some weird act in a VC Andrews style plot? It's as if the camera hypnotizes her in place. She only comes alive when the camera isn't looking for her or at her, at which point the killer's POV takes over, craftily hiding in tight spaces and waiting for the perfect macabre "accident"opportunity to present itself: a drowning, a hornet nest tossed into the shower, scalding vat of hot corn-cob boiling water in the camp kitchen... all befalling the deserving. When it can't be blamed on freak accident anymore, the knife comes out. People get it right through the thin lining of shower stalls. Meanwhile Angela's taciturn disaffect seems like a red flag cape, inviting hormone-amped teens to charge at her, which in turn gives valid reason for their deaths. It's a kind of hormonal Mona Lisa Venus fly trap of projector screen anima-bivalence.

Man, those socks are so on point.

Ricky is no saint either - and in a unique centerpiece we see him and his boys play a very relaxed softball game that seems to go on for about ten whole diegetic minutes of the movie without building to a victorious climax or agony-of-defeat downer one way or the other (it's lulling without being dull). Getting the real rhythm of a summer camp softball game is hard--the way the distances between players necessitate different styles of throwing, the hit-or-miss at the bat, the satisfying 'thwump' of a base hit, etc., the bucolic real time of it casts a nice mood we wouldn't get in either loudly-scored exaggeration like Bad News Bears or misty Rockwell nostalgia like The Sandlot.  We're spared even the cliche of the kid busy playing his electronic game and missing the key fly!  Here he actually manages to put his boxing game away and go "oh shit!", put his glove on and catch the fly -- all without slow motion and cheering and swelling horns.  If anything, the victory is in the way it captures the leisurely stillness of an actual game, the peculiarly laid-back rhythm of the sport itself. In fact, to make it all the better, Ricky's a bit of a bad winner, rubbing the losing team's face in their gambling loss, deliberately inviting retaliation from the other camp's team so he can have something to retaliate back to, getting into a brawl for no reason other than the game's yin demands an uproarious yang. Watching I could feel that itchy constant of phantom wet socks under grass stained pebble-soled Keds. 

I don't know how or why Hitzik figured a slasher film could really benefit from all this real time softball business, but it works. Each daytime scene is crowded with kids running around in and out of the frame in an almost Von Sternberg level of movement from all directions and angles; every cabin is laden with a very real-looking color-blind melange of socks and discarded camp shirts, sleeping bags and kids crashing in and out of the front screen door to pick up or drop off jackets, change into swimsuits, etc. Campers race into the bunks to either shed a sweater or grab one depending on the weather change, then zip out as if they're keeping a game waiting, all hopped up on kid energy for the activity at hand. Friendships are struck or missed out on in each brief contact. On the whole, these campers are nice, normal, trying their best. Most make an honest effort to break through Angela's haze, and don't hold it against her that they can't. It would be much easier to just have a few campers in each shot, but this camp is thriving and on the whole, benevolently run without being mawkish or overly "nice." The head counsellor, is a muscle-bound Italian-American dude in tight shorts who looks like he should be bullying a guy named Eugene or combing his hair in a gas station mirror but he's actually a stealth sweetheart who makes a concerted effort to find Angela something to eat in the kitchen after she refuses to eat anything at dinner. He seldom leaves a medium or wide shot, just materializes in and out of frame to try his best to make Angela comfortable, then sails on in a seamless Hawksian flow. 

Even the few bad apples are--a few loathsome creeps aside--really just restless, seething with hormonal surges they can't control, taking out their energy in a way that, deep down, is probably well intended. Her enigmatic silence proves such a challenge to the hormonally unhinged older male campers they all but try attack her yet they barely make a dent on her serene distance (not sure if that was written into the character other than making it seem like actress Felissa Rose was struggling to keep a straight face. It's so refreshing not to worry about either of these two groovy wild kids: they take care of themselves just fine. We're put in the position of feeling bad for boisterous, creepy, bitchy, and horny idiots who unwittingly sign their own death warrants just because they can't abide that sphinx impassivity. It's so refreshing it's like a plunge into a cold lake after seemingly decades trapped in stale unairconditioned cliche classrooms.

Other characters in the film also defy cliche: I like that the camp manager Mel (Mike Kellin) with his cigar is cool without being callous, and amiable without being soft ( He watches the boys fight while talking to some counsellor girl - barely interested in either the fight or chat with the girl but keeping an eye on everything- to let the drama play (he'd probably intervene if they brought out weapons or he saw real blood). 

That's another great thing, the welcome anti-pedophile sadism, as when the scalded would-be rapist cook screams in agonizing pain and the other cooks and the camp manager just kind of stare glassy-eyed--without knowing for sure he had it coming just sensing it by the unseen audience's rapture-- and all the doctor can do is leisurely imagine the agony he must be in, lamenting that his morphine can't cover all the pain at hand. It's icky but soooo much nicer than getting there through the cathartic engine most exploitation filmmakers rely on, wherein they have to 'out-traumatize' each other in depicting misogynistic ultra-violence in order to 'earn' the climactic cathartic revenge (as in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Here we get the correct ratio - a pound of retribution for an ounce of offense. 

Us cool nice dudes know that being castrated in the movies invariably implies you deserved it.

To paraphrase Naveen Andrews line in Planet Terror: We don't need the reason, sweetheart, just your balls.

The counsellors (the nice Italian stallion head counsellor Ronnie --Paul DeAngelo-- is in the red track suit)

The killer of Sleepaway Camp operates on a modus even more precise than the alienation caused by watching your friends or older siblings drift off for casual sex, leaving you--the only one who senses danger all around as you're not yet blinded and deafened by horomones-- alone at the campfire, or out swimming, or trick-or-treating. This hormonal call was Jason and Michael's trigger switch, their knifing and slashing marked a steadfast refusal to enter the realm of adult sexuality, either as an a priori rejection or a post-shaming after some fumbling attempt to alleviate their budding biological imperative. (The final girl's own pre-sexual wariness made her more aware of the killer's).  Blaming the killer's socially stunted sociopathic inhumanity on stunted sexuality is to get it backwards. What makes us 'human' is our resistance to the harsh whip and carrot of our body's biological urges. The scourge laid onto our backs is never consistent enough to become mere background noise. Our only salve is sex or killing, either is a welcome relief. Meanwhile, grace of kindness and support comes from somewhere more benign, not a carrot but a salve that reminds us we're more than just sex drives and latent violence. Like Ricky watching out for Angela--a higher power keeps us from reverting fully to the savagery our body relentlessly craves. 

But at the same time, why else are we at this stupid camp if not to kill kill KILL? Angela gets that. In the end, she is us, and her own spectator, which is why her kills are all conveniently POV. We can't even be sure she did them. There's more than one way to get a head.... or other appendage. 

1. Marvel doesn't have kid sidekicks --Stan knew the score, there's almost no recurring children characters in the whole MCU


  1. I remember renting "Sleepaway Camp" on VHS when I was about twelve. My best friend and I watched with a mixture of awe and incredulity. As a twelve-year-old boy who fully realized he was gay but was still in the depths of the closet, I found the film unsettling and probably too bizarre for its own good. At the time, I had few mechanisms to process the film's sexualities, but the early 1980s tropes of masculinity--tube socks, bulging groins, short-shorts, etc.--certainly made a lasting impression.

    1. Wow, thanks Andrew! I can only imagine the extra weirdness that must have caused (in addition to all the other weirdness going on in this bizarro film), especially back in those much-less enlightened times. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article. Last time my kids are went to the Sleep- away Camp For Girls In Maine and they enjoy and learned many things


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