The Best Horror Movie of the '80s: Two Superfans Talk 'Sleepaway Camp'

'Sleepaway Camp' is a horror must-watch. Complex's resident 'Sleepaway Camp' superfans discuss the greatest horror flick you've certainly never watched.

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Image via American Eagle Films

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

In 1983, first-time writer/director Robert Hiltzik’s film, Sleepaway Camp dropped in theaters, a seemingly pretty standard slasher movie in a post-Friday the 13th (1980) horror landscape. 

It had all the correct beats: two teen cousins, Angela and Ricky, go to summer camp in the height of the heat and their hormones. Angela’s dead silent because as we learn, her father and her brother were killed years earlier in a tragic boating accident, which has rendered her uneasy with people other than Ricky. Of course, a killer begins plaguing the camp in great slasher tradition with increasingly creative murders. 

Pretty par for the course, right? Not so fast.

The film’s insane twist ending (one that you’d never guess) gave it a gravitas that more generic slashers didn’t have. It received pretty positive reviews upon its original release and was even the top-grossing film in New York on its opening weekend. It spawned several sequels (none of which were as good as the first) and a reboot is expected with Hiltzik’s involvement. 

It’s a film that upon first viewing just can’t be shaken. Sleepaway Camp effortlessly blends camp, humor, and traditional horror conventions with bizarre turns (that ending!), while also making you surprisingly sympathetic for both the heroes and the villains of the film. 

The two Sleepaway Camp truthers of the squad, Complex Deputy Editor/Lit Aunt, Kerensa Cadenas, and Complex Social Editor/Pops Culture, khal, chatted about their mutual appreciation of Sleepaway Camp and some of the problems the film brings up in 2015. Beware: major spoilers are ahead. 

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khal: So, how the hell does one even start discussing Sleepaway Camp in 2015? Is it a situation where we look at it in a new light, post-Caitlyn Jenner? It feels like a cop out, but it's interesting to see so much going on in the trans community today and then revisit a horror flick with such a big reveal at the VERY end. It was shocking back in 1983, and would be shocking now... right?

Kerensa: I mean, starting our discussion off with one of the biggest, weirdest reveals in horror is maybe the only way to begin, right?

That ending scene I think is still shocking today because of the lead up to it—it feels like it legit comes out of nowhere. I just rewatched the movie, and it was the first time, in the dozens, dozens of times that I've watched, where I felt like I finally saw Angela's shadowed face in a doorway late in the film. 

Even though I love this film so much, it's certainly problematic. Angela's forced to be a girl by her crazy aunt after her dad (who is gay) dies. Her dad being gay seems like it's supposed to have something to do with this, but that doesn't really make any sense at all since her aunt forced this situation. It's equally homophobic and transphobic, although, we don't know how Angela identifies. Unless that's something that comes up in the later movies, which I haven't seen. 

khal: The homophobic bits are in there throughout, and are very unnecessary. It's almost like those bits are thrown in there, but any scenes delving into them are abandoned for the pure "whodunit?!" delight. The problem is, we lose any real motivation for Angela. Sure, they were kids and wanted to go to a sleepaway camp when the tragic accident happened, but where did it go from "I'm your crazy aunt and making you dress up like the daughter I always wanted" to "I'm going to murder anyone who offends me or my cousin?"

Outside of that glaring problem, I actually really dig this film. The early '80s feel (which definitely has that "still trying to get out of the '70s" flavor to it) adds a sense of corniness to it, but they didn't scrimp on the swerve. Like you said, for a while it feels like you don't know who the hell the murderer is, and the head of the camp trying to be his own detective helps build to the major WTF ending. 

Kerensa: Yeah, I mean it's clearly a thin, problematic definition of "transgender" especially because it seems that we're never actually given Angela's thoughts on identifying herself as such. 

I totally agree that Angela's motivations don't really make much sense at all. I mean, if getting mercilessly picked on is a motivation, then sure, but if anyone really deserved to die, it was certainly the crazy fucking weirdo aunt who clearly traumatized her! I could totally have used a scene giving us that because the one that they do use (for Angela's possible motivation?) is when we see the dad with his lover and that makes even less sense. 

This is probably my all-time favorite horror movie and a litmus test I use to see if someone is a quality person worth my time. The early '80s feel is so perfect, as is the the summer camp setting (I'm still so mad I never got to go to summer camp). It's a pretty ingenious horror movie, despite its camp, and certainly the fact that it's bad but really not that bad, if you get what I'm saying. 

Plus, the deaths! The kills are SO good in this. As is Angela’s blank “death stare” as you so called it. 

khal: Yeah, I think homeboy really dropped the ball in giving us the aunt's backstory. She was quirky af, but somehow only gets two scenes in the entire film. It just reeks of good ideas but poor execution on that front.

And we HAVE to talk deaths. Hell, we're not even sure if the old Jared Fogle-ish cook ended up dying in the beginning, but that whole bit was amazing, especially because most of the film was told from the first-person angle. The most memorable is obviously Judy with the hair curler, but I think the most gruesome was Meg getting it in the shower. It's part of the beauty of the non-CGI era—uou don't have the effects like films today have, so you had to get creative. I sat there wincing a bit as the knife went down the wall with the splatters of blood, then seeing Meg wince in pain. Best kill IMHO.

It's also a twist on the whole "bad kids getting got" thing in Friday the 13th (which had to have been an influence), but it was more personal because these people ended up getting got only AFTER they outright wronged Angela. The setup is almost too perfect, and if the head of the camp was smarter, he could've put those pieces together.

Kerensa: Especially because the aunt is SO FUCKING WEIRD. I need so many explanations for her—those bizarre clothes, her flightiness, etc. I mean she's too weird to not be given a backstory. Is there a director's cut somewhere?

My favorite kill is the Jared Fogle-ish cook for sure. Whether he died or not, watching the skin on his face bubble up was so satisfying because he's such a fucking creep. Meg's death was totally impactful on me. I remember one time in high school at an overnight camp situation, the showers looked exactly like the ones Meg showers in before she's stabbed to death and I totally got flashbacks. 

Speaking of other trash men though, the head of the camp is such a creep! He's sleeping with Meg and just seems like such a sheisty guy. Also, when he's beating up Ricky, his arms seem like the arms of Stretch Armstrong—they are too elastic-seeming to be real, which creeps me out. 

khal: Yeah that was weird; like it's TOTALLY understandable that he wouldn't want his camp being shown in a bad light, but it looked like a pretty shitty camp. ‎And for as scared as he was about the kids seeing cops or ambulances, it's not like they were super freaked out when cops and ambulances were there. 

Kerensa: It did look like a shitty camp! We have to talk about Judy now. She does have the most epic side ponytail known to man. 

khal: Yeah I mean, being the HBIC at some trash summer camp could have its perks, I'm just wondering WTF those perks were? She got excited for a night off (and a rendezvous with the creepy camp head), so I can only imagine how shitty her days were.

Judy's side pony, though. In a cast that was wrapped up in cheesy dialogue and overacting–put a pin in "Angela's death stare"—Judy was a goddamn vision. [Editor's Note: Judy was almost played by Jane Krakowski] It was weird to think that Ricky and her were an item (sorry, going steady) before; she comes off as being VERY stuck up and conniving for no real reason. I'm almost surprised that they waited to give her the business in the flick; she of course got the most gruesome death out of all (IMHO), but she made no bones about throwing shade Angela's way—all the while stealing her man for the LOLs.

You almost wish Judy DIDN'T die, because she was so lit, but what can you do.

Kerensa: I would assume being a camp counselor would be annoying af, so maybe that's why Meg was so cranky all the time. 

Judy is clearly the MVP of the film. She's always throwing shade and had the most fire outfits. As for her death it was certainly the most gruesome, and I felt like really fell into the "she's slutty, so here's how she dies terribly" horror trope. :/ 

Have you seen any of the sequels? 

khal: From what I read about the sequels, I almost don't want to watch them, and just want to check out Return to Sleepaway Camp. I like the sincere (for lack of a better word) feel that the original film has, and with so many changes in those three (!) sequels, I have a feeling that they added too much camp or deviated too far away from what makes the original so endearing.

Kerensa: I haven't watched any of them either, but I totally agree. I think so much of the charm of the original is because it feels sincere. You can tell that Hiltzik was so excited to make this movie, so even when it tips into schlock at times, it's still so endearing. 

Without seeing the sequels, I'm going to make a misguided statement: There's absolutely no way that the sequels have the rewatchability of Sleepaway Camp. I simply will not believe that. 

khal:  I appreciate the thought that they tried to make this slasher film with a legitimate swerve of an ending, instead of trying to play up camp-y bits to appease moviegoers who might think it was corny. It was just corny because, hey, that time in the '80s was corny af. There's a vision in the original that, based on the trailers I've seen from the sequels, just isn't there (for obvious reasons), but I would just hate feeling that the rest of the series just took the most shocking part of the original (a trans serial killer kid at summer camp) and turned the rest of the series into "dude looks like a lady who might kill you if you mess with her."

Angela doesn't deserve that.

Truth be told, Sleepaway Camp is one of those films like Goodnight Mommy, where even if you know how the story ends, it's about finding the clues throughout the film. And if we're being honest, it has enough camp to make it an enjoyable throwback experience no matter what.

Kerensa: I completely agree with all of this. I know that it has a deep cult following (my best friend in high school showed it to me) but it's crazy how it doesn't seem to be talked about nearly as much as it should be. It has all the elements of a great horror classic and should be on must-watch lists everywhere. 

Plus, can it bring the male crop top back? 

khal: If it does, I'm not wearing one.

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