Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Friday the 13th meets The Crying Game, with Martin Scorsese at the helm.

Written and directed by Robert Hiltzik, whose entire film career has been dedicated to the Sleepaway Camp franchise (a fifth sequel is currently in the works with Hiltzik at the helm), this surprising slasher film contains many singular elements, including sympathetic teenage characters and a genuine sense of humor.

You will probably guess the identity of the killer in the first ten minutes, but the fun lies not in unmasking the perp but in discovering his motives. Besides, the film works better as a portrait of youth, sort of a coming-of-age film with darkly psychoanalytical implications, than a slasher film per se. And although psychoanalysis could be said to intrinsically characterize the sub-genre, it is never quite so emphasized as in this film. Since I mentioned The Crying Game in my opening statement, you may make an educated guess as to what I am implying... At any rate, no synopsis could truly do the film justice, save one that could magically infer all the sharp turns of phrase present and echo the obsessive hiss from the closing shot.

The good, the bad and the weird
Although the premise might sound atrociously dated (teenagers falling prey to a vengeful killer in a summer camp), Sleepaway Camp is much more than your average teenage slasher. It's a well-played (often without words), surprisingly involving and entirely cultish effort in narrative excess. It contains many unique characters and situations, the likes of which you couldn't even dream of seeing back at Camp Crystal Lake. There's a bevy of foul-mouthed campers who would put David Mamet to shame, a pedophile cook, an incongruous romance between a gorgeous young counselor and the aging owner of the camp, kids chopped to bits with an axe, and plenty of sexual hijinks revolving around a seriously messed-up protagonist. If none of this strikes your fancy, then you might as well return to the complacency of Friday the 13th. But if you like your slasher films with a psychoanalytical twist ending right out of giallos, Bosch-esque depictions of corpses à la Se7en and vigorous exchanges of words straight out of Goodfellas, then run to your nearest video store and find out why Eli Roth has put this film in his personal top five (along with Troll 2, Creepshow, Zombi 2 and Pieces).

For those who doubt the influence of Sleepaway Camp,
simply consider this colorful Japanese artwork

Sleepaway Camp is the story of Angela, a shy, introspective youth and her protective cousin Ricky. When Angela leaves town for a summer at camp Arawak, her whacked-out mother entrusts Ricky with her, then bids them farewell in a scene that could fast become a classic of over-acting. When the two teenagers reach camp, the good stuff keeps coming. Parked on the grass inbetween surging children, some of the most flamboyant characters from the cast are introduced. There's cigar-totting, murder-covering camp owner Mel (Mike Kellin), abnormally broad-shouldered beefcake and head counselor Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo), token black sous-chef Ben (Robert Earl Jones) and perverted chef Artie (Owen Hugues). The latter two share a brief exchange that should put you in a receptive mindset right away. As the children come rushing past him, the camera focuses on Artie, who makes a colorful remark to the effect that his mouth is watering with perverted anticipation. When Ben replies that none of the children are old enough to understand what's on his mind, Artie asserts that there's no such thing as too young, only too old. Ben then laughs at the joke even though it is no joke, acting as if his friend had commented on a busty broad instead of elementary school children. If this sort of political incorrectness doesn't make your brows raise instantly, then I don't know what can. For one, I was delighted. And luckily for me, this is the kind of deliciously refreshing plays on convention that ornate the entire film.

The horror of everyday life
When Artie is done drooling and the camera cuts back to Angela and Ricky, we see the latter being reacquainted with old friends Paul (a faithful buddy of his who will also become the tragic love interest of Angela) and Judy (an ex-girlfriend whose over-confidence and forked tongue have grown simultaneously with her breasts). Ricky then leaves Angela, who reaches the girls' cabin, where we are introduced to Meg (M-E-G, as spelled by the lovely Katherine Kamhi), a total bitch from frame 1 and a catalyst in the ensuing martyrdom of Angela. Thus, all the main players are revealed, and there begins what is essentially a slice of summer camp life caught on tape. Because although the narrative contains attempted molestation, child beating and gruesome executions, some of which featuring kids no older than twelve, its crux lies in the depiction of everyday events constituting camp life. Hence, we witness the rough-edged friendship of boys, lots of water-centered pranks, budding romances, healthy antagonisms stemming from sport practice, casual bullying and bitch fits among the girls, all depicted with colorful dialogue and involving interplays of bodies. All of these elements contribute to the appearance of normality that permeates the film and under which the roots of dissension are growing. Just like the outstretched arm extruding from the stagnant waters of a zombie lake, rippling the still surface with angry waves, so too must repressed individuality violently break down the wall of conformity. And this is what happens here, provoking a slew of "accident"-type murders perpetrated by a not-so mysterious assassin who manages to elude the suspicion of onscreen characters until the very (disturbing) last frame.

Meg is preparing for a hot date with camp owner Mel

In a distinctive fashion that helps validate its main point, the film noticeably breaks away from other slashers of the era by foregrounding the campers and not the vapid teenage counselors. Instead of focusing on nubile youths humping each other, the film chooses instead to tell the story of children on the arduous path to teenagehood and only in doing so does it become horrific. The horror here lies not in the murders, but in the social stigmatization which is the burden of Angela. The incessant taunting, the molestation attempts, the betrayal of friends and the low-flying qualifiers thrown her way, paramount of which is Judy's "carpenter's dream" remark, all concur to create a truly hostile environment that's palpable to anybody who's ever been, or has simply felt different. By showcasing the execution of creepy bullies, the film thus becomes a juvenile fantasy, a liberating dream from the shackles of overwhelming conformity. The materialization of vengeful feelings is much more tangible here than in other similar films because it derives from what's happening in the story, not merely what happened before the credits. The clash between difference and sameness, here is where the essence, and the unfathomable horror, of summer camps lie, as portrayed by Hiltzik with surprising flair.

Like many dramatic heroines before her, Angela is a victim of circumstances. She does absolutely nothing to deserve the punishments bestowed upon her. Actually, she does nothing at all, observing a vow of silence for the most part of the film, simply staring at people who grow increasingly annoyed with her. As exemplified by this narrative, it is not boastful arrogance which society has trouble accepting, but quiet observation. In a world where loudmouth malcontents run the show, it seems only fair that introspective subtlety should be marked and looked down upon. In this particular case, silence isolates Angela a great deal since all other characters are running their mouths like an army of Tommy Devitos and Ricky Romas. Shy, introspective, and unable to generate the sympathy of others, she is left with very limited modes of expression, including her empty gaze and some rare, meaningless chatter. Luckily, she soon finds an alternative way to assert herself, which I will let you discover for yourself.

Angela's stare is her only mode of expression. Or is it?

A sign of the ages
Much to my surprise, the film has garnered a lot of negative press from film critics at the time, only now being "rediscovered" as something more in-tune with popular tastes. During my research, I read a lot of catastrophic reviews containing marked annoyance protruding like a bloody knife out of the water. John Stanley called it a "weak-kneed slasher flick, without flair for gore". This being an extreme example, the consensus seems to lean toward plagiarism, earning the film such qualifiers as "run-of-the-mill" and "clone" of the inferior Friday the 13th, with which it shares almost only the main location and the stalker shots, which were already a staple of the giallo in the 60s. Seeing all this hatred directed at what is essentially an energetic film filled with enterprising actors, tasty dialogues and super-nasty kills, paramount of which involves a curling iron and a vagina (ouch!), I understood that history and only history can be the judge of such films. In other words, only time can tell what is run-of-the-mill and what isn't. This is called the test of time. And those who can withstand it are not always those you'd have first thought. Here, it is narrative excess that distinguishes the film, especially toward the end. And this feature distinguishes it not so much from other films of the era, but rather from the films made since. Clearly, a curling iron in the vagina, even if only implied, would have a hard time making it onscreen today. There's the pedophile aspect also and the teenage nudity, as well as the murder of kids that would also have a hard time passing by censors. That said, a film containing rarer acts of violence is not better de facto, but it certainly helps it stand out from the mass, which makes it a more prized item amongst aficionados.

More to the point, it shows the evolution of mentalities in matters of morality, which has now seemed to soften in terms of graphic violence (as exemplified by the rise of the torture porn sub-genre), but harden in terms of sex. If you simply look at how prude the remake of lurid The Wicker Man is, then you will be truly awakened to the contradictory state of current affairs, wherein sex sells, but only if packaged in pink aluminum wrappers. Standing out from the masses also means appealing to the most intrinsic and incongruous fears of the viewer. You may think me crazy, but I believe that the curling iron murder is a rare example of female-oriented events within horror films. If you think about it, the only affect it can create is amongst the girls in the audience. Who use curling irons? Girls. Who have vaginas? Girls. Thus, only them can possibly imagine what it could feel like to be raped with a red-hot iron bar. This singles them out as horror film enthusiasts, making them part of the family. And it talks directly to their own fears, maybe even traumatizing them a bit. The other murder scenes do not involve such extreme imagery; they focus instead on common fears such as drowning, bee stings and scalding. So, there's a little something for everybody here. And since the film freely alternates between the childish world of boys from Ricky's story and the cruel world of girls epitomized by the martyrdom of Angela, it tiptoes around the traps of phallocentrism, thus complicating its categorization and psycho-feminist dismissal.

On the graphic power of pickled bodies
Like it did for Se7en, the after-the-fact revelation of murdered victims actually strengthens the spectacle thereof. Instead of showing knifes puncturing through rubber flesh with scarlet-colored blood gushing out in crude close-ups, we are treated to the sight of corpses at various stages of decay, most of which are more striking than the felled bimbos of lesser slashers, who disappear from the screen right after their death. Here, the depiction of death usually entails more than a quick knife to the throat, sometimes reaching near-brilliant levels of grotesquery. The grayish skin and dried-out wounds of one bloodless victim tells volumes about the circumstances of her death, driving a witness to murderous hysteria. As for the bloated arms and face of the scalded cook, I'm sure they will amaze and disgust you with the pulsating boils and scraps of peeled skin covering their reddened surface.

All in all, the kill count is fairly low here, but the quality thereof greatly outweighs the quantity. And if you follow the trail of corpses, you will unmask the killer in no time. What will prove hard to find is the motivation behind the kills, the unpredictable source of madness validated only by rare, slightly opaque flashbacks. That said, those flashbacks protrude only slightly from the smooth narrative surface, acting along with the murders as mere roadside attractions punctuating the linear trail followed by the plot. The highway-type narrative model works fine here because, as I mentioned earlier, the film's efficiency lies not in preserving mystery or generating shock, but in depicting the boring, mundane horror of teenagehood.

Artie is hotter than ever

Fishing for an audience
Sleepaway Camp is a film that demands rediscovery. For those who can appreciate it, the film contains many eye-catching elements: the flamboyant homoeroticism, the tight clothing worn by muscular cyborgs, the gruesome makeup covering the killer's mutilated victims, the devilish bitterness of teenage vamps and Mamet-ian tirades born out of hormonal fury, all of which are inscribed in a strikingly realistic framework. Its inclusion of oddball characters and touchy sexual material further help it become one of the under-appreciated gems of its time. The film's elusive cult status is surely due in part to the abysmal trailer and lackluster cover art featuring an impaled sneaker over a backgrounded letter handwritten in juvenile characters. Both elements make the film look like the Friday the 13th clone described by reviewers, which menaces to over-saturate the slasher sub-genre. But don't be fooled by such outside appearances. What's inside is much more interesting, and so is what lies underneath...

3/5 A gutsy, energetic and entirely distinctive entry in a saturated genre.