Sleepaway Camp Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
Written and directed by Robert Hiltzik
1983, Region A, 84 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on May 27th, 2014
Felissa Rose as Angela
Jonathan Tiersten as Ricky
Karen Fields as Judy
Christopher Collet as Peter
Katherine Kamhi as Meg
Paul DeAngelo as Ronnie
Susan Glaze as Susie
Desiree Gould as Aunt Martha
Owen Hughes as Artie
Mike Kellin as Mel
Robert Earl Jones as Ben
Camp Arawak is a popular sleepaway camp in upstate New York that offers boating, archery and baseball among its wide range of activities. There are plenty of opportunities for kids to have fun, make lasting friendships and maybe even fall in love along the way. But this summer the camp is plagued by a series of mishaps that leave a bunch of kids dead, including a drowning, an attack by bees and – oh yes, someone was sodomized with a curling iron! Wait. What?! Okay, maybe there is something more sinister going on here. Let me back up a minute.
After surviving a horrific boating accident, Angela is sent to live with her Cousin Ricky and eccentric Aunt Martha. The kids attend summer camp but Angela is shy and an easy target for the bullies who don't understand her. Upon arrival, she is singled out for humiliation by the other girls, led by super-bitch Judy. To make matters worse, the head chef is a pedophile who takes special interest in Angela, the new kid that doesn't talk. Luckily Ricky is there to defend his cousin from both the jerky campers and the predatory staff. He may be small, but he's scrappy and God help anyone that messes with his family.
Bodies start piling up, as anyone who has harmed or threatened Angela is either seriously injured or brutally murdered, but the killer's identity remains a mystery. Camp owner Mel is convinced that Ricky is going too far to protect his cousin, while some suspect Angela herself to be responsible. What follows is not so much a whodunnit but rather a mystery laced with a string of revealing flashbacks that build to an unexpected and infamously shocking finale that is every bit as disturbing now as it was when the film debuted over thirty years ago.
Sleepaway Camp is a subversive little picture that plays with audience expectations, as what appears to be just another slasher film contains a darker level of content just below the surface. Themes of bullying and revenge killing are matched with pedophilia, child abuse, possible incest and the wild concept of adults deliberately manipulating the gender identification of children. These elements are all the more powerful in that rather than casting actors in their early twenties to play kids, the film features actual teens in these situations – lead actress Felissa Rose was only 13 years old during production. This decision provides an additional level of realism to the daily exchanges among the campers as these kids, particularly Ricky, are pretty intense in their mood swings.
The cast delivers performances that should be graded on a sliding scale, as the dialogue is frequently awkward but handled with such conviction by the younger actors that it's usually the adults who come off as wooden or bizarre. Felissa Rose (Satan's Playground) is particularly solid as Angela, a character that doesn't speak for the first half hour of the film. She is a pretty girl with big expressive doe-eyes that make her even more sympathetic when getting picked on by the others. Jonathan Tiersten (The Perfect House) is a great match as Cousin Ricky, the juvenile defender of women. His verbal insults are pretty shocking for a youngster in 1982, and some of his saltier dialogue could make the kids from The Bad News Bears (1976) blush. Christopher Collet (Firstborn) is Peter, the most well-adjusted and friendliest kid at camp, who has a crush on Angela. He is instantly likeable from the minute he appears and the actor shares great onscreen chemistry with both Tiersten and Rose. Karen Fields is perfect as Judy, the bully that can rock a side ponytail and humiliate lesser campers without even trying. She is enabled by the delinquent camp counselor Meg (Katherine Kamhi, The Occupants), whose primary interests are making the kids' lives a living hell and banging a dude forty years her senior.
Desiree Gould (Under Surveillance) is absolutely wonderful as quirky Aunt Martha, a woman living in her own world where David Lynch and John Waters create mainstream entertainment. Owen Hughes has limited screen time but makes a lasting impression as Artie, the chef with a thing for “baldies” (yikes!) The late Mike Kellin (Just Before Dawn) does a fine job (in his final performance) as Mel, the economically stressed and physically abusive camp owner. Honorable mentions go to Paul DeAngelo (Silent Madness), Susan Glaze and Robert Earl Jones (The Sting, and father of James), who portray the only decent adult characters (Ronnie, Susie and Ben respectively) in the film.
Writer/ director Robert Hiltzik (Return to Sleepaway Camp) created a cult classic that continues to improve with repeat viewings. It is difficult to describe why this movie works without running head first into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say the script is really fun and bizarre. Not everything hits the mark and yet the failings are part of what add to the overall success of the picture. Also working to the film's advantage is that it serves as a time capsule for anyone nostalgic for 1980s fashion mistakes. Sleepaway Camp is one of those movies that kids would talk about in the cafeteria at school and it would sound like they were making shit up. There is an obvious difference between a good movie and a fun one, and this thing is so bonkers that it is easily recommended viewing. Do yourself a favor and check it out right now!
Video and Audio:
Scream Factory has gone all out and commissioned a new 2K scan from the original film elements and the image has never looked better. Presented here in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the picture is sharp with strong colors and deep black levels. Some of the low-budget limitations are more evident in this crisp new edition, but they add to the charm. The previous Anchor Bay DVD release was missing a few seconds of footage, but all of the original content is intact in this new Blu-ray.
A DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track is all you need and it is surprisingly decent. Music cues are hysterically over the top, but never to the point of distraction. Dialogue remains clear and free from distortion and English subtitles are offered for anyone in need.
Starting things off are three commentary tracks. The first is perhaps the strongest and features stars Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten strolling down memory lane. The second features moderator Jeff Hayes (webmaster of SleepawayCampMovies.com) who has his work cut out for him, as he spends 80 minutes pulling teeth to get director Robert Hiltzik engaged in conversation. This is probably the most informative and revealing track, but it's also the most frustrating. Returning from the earlier DVD release is the original commentary featuring director Hiltzik with Rose and moderated once again by Hayes. The discussion wanders a bit from time to time and Hiltzik remains evasive in some of the details, but Rose is an awesome participant and extremely fun to listen to.
Next up is the 45-minute retrospective piece At the Waterfront After the Social: The Legacy of Sleepaway Camp, and it is very well crafted, but I wish a few more participants had been included. The focus is on Rose, Tiersten and Hiltzik, as it should be, but when additional cast and crew members pop up it is nice to hear their comments. This has lots of amusing anecdotes with a fair amount of repetition from the commentaries, but is still worth checking out.
Two photo galleries provide a glimpse behind the scenes. The first is a general look back titled Camp Arawak Scrapbook. The second offers a look at the design work for some of the film's more memorable moments through a series of rare images courtesy of make-up artist Ed French.
Karen Fields returns as the girl you love to hate in Judy (16 minutes), a short film from director Jeff Hayes. This is not exactly a great film, but it is fun to see Fields back on camera for the first time in three decades.
Have you ever wondered what Ricky's band sounds like? Well, you're in luck, as we are treated to a music video for Jonathan Tiersten's song Princess.
A Demonstration of the 2K Film Scan Process (9 minutes) is a self-explanatory piece that looks at the restoration of the movie. It is both technical and informative, but I wish there had been a few moments of before and after video comparisons to demonstrate the level of improvement to the picture quality.
A collection of trailers and TV spots offer a look at how the film was marketed.
A DVD copy of the film is also included.