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Written and directed by Robert Hiltzik, 1983's Sleepaway Camp could have very easily been lost in the crowd of eighties slasher films had it not been for the film's infamous shock ending, one that's gone down in history, and rightly so. We won't spoil it here but this is really one of those movies where you're not going to see it coming and a picture which proves that, when handled right, a little shock value can go a long way.
The movie is set at Camp Arawak where a two camps, Angela (Felissa Rose) and her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), have been sent by Angela's Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould). Ricky's a tough talking socialite; Angela is introverted, shy and doesn't really want to participate in any of the activities at the camp. Her introversion likely stems back to death of her father which she witnessed some years ago during a boating accident. At any rate, Ricky heads off to bunk with the boys and play baseball, Angela bunks with some girls and has trouble making any friends. In fact, soon enough the requisite mean girl at camp, Judy (Karen Fields), has set her sights on poor Angela, teasing the girl and trying to make her life Hell.
If that weren't bad enough, the creepy cook (Owen Hughes) gets Angela alone in the kitchen and tries to get his greasy paws on her. Ricky shows up and gets her out of there just in time, but shortly after the cook is found on the floor, a huge pot of boiling water having fallen on him and scalded him, his screams continuing as he's carried off on a stretcher. The man in charge of the camp, Mel (Mike Kellin), keeps this hush-hush so as not to worry the campers, his source of income. From there, a few of the campers who have been picking on Angela start getting knocked off in increasingly gruesome ways: a drowning, a swarm of bees, a grisly knife attack. The counsellors can't figure out who's behind it all while Mel figures it's got to be Ricky. Meanwhile, Angela befriends a kindly teenage boy named Paul (Christopher Collet) but when Angela spies him in the woods with Judy, well… none of this is going to end well for anybody.
While this is, until the final twenty-minutes or so, a fairly by the numbers slasher the movie does a pretty good job of establishing Angela as a genuinely sympathetic character. Most of the credit for this has to go to Rose. The story gives us reason to feel for her, with the opening scene in which she loses her father, but it's Rose's doe eyed, reserved take on the character that gives Angela the appropriate amount of sympathy required to make this work. The rest of the cast also turn in pretty enjoyable performances. Karen Fields is perfect as the ‘mean girl' out to make Angela's time at camp as miserable as possible. She's got that snarling, snotty holier-than-thou attitude about her but when the lights go out and no one's around, she's the first to make the moves on the closest available cute guy. Tiersten is solid as the noble Ricky. He knows his cousin needs to be protected and isn't afraid to stand up to bigger, tougher, older kids if the need arises. Mike Kellin sometimes steals the show as Mel, the money hungry owner of the camp ground with an eye for teenage girls. He's pretty funny to watch strutting about the camp in gaudy outfits with a smoke hanging out of his mouth and his socks pulled up to his knees.
At just short of an hour and a half the movie doesn't overstay it's welcome. The location photography helps to give the movie an air of authenticity and the score suits the action and tensions quite well. The effects, all done long before CGI was even an option, hold up well and are fairly grisly at times. Some of the kill scenes are pretty creative as well. So yeah, again, it's the ending that really sets this one apart from the rest of the pack but everything leading up to it is, if clichéd, at least a whole lot of good, gory fun.
Note: The previous Anchor Bay DVD release was slightly cut. There were trims made to a scene where the snake comes out of Kenny's mouth and to a skinny dipping scene. This new release from Shout! Factory restores those minor trims.The Blu-ray:
Sleepaway Camp debuts on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory framed at 1.78.1 widescreen in a ‘new 2k scan of the original camera negative.' Presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition, and aside from some minor compression artifacts that pop up in the backgrounds from time to time, this is a solid transfer. Detail and color reproduction are vastly improved over the previous DVD release and skin tones look more natural as well. Black levels are good and the picture is quite clean, showing as much grain as you'd expect but free of any serious print damage. Sure, some minor specks do show up here and there but for the most part if you're not looking for them you probably won't even notice them. There's no evidence of noise reduction or heavy edge enhancement to note either. Does this look like the latest and greatest big budgeted Hollywood production? No. But it shouldn't. This looks like the low budget eighties slasher that it is, albeit with some definite and obvious improvements over past issues of the film.Sound:
The English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track on the disc is also pretty solid. There's some decent depth to the track and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion. Dialogue is consistently clean and clear and easily discernible and the levels are properly mixed. The sound effects and screams have good presence and power behind them but they don't bury the dialogue when they co-mingle. The film's genuinely effective score has some impressive depth to it as well, and this is a pretty solid track all in all. Again, this is a noticeable improvement over the previous DVD release. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.Extras:
The supplements include three separate commentary tracks. The first is a new audio commentary with actors Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten, moderated Justin Beahm. These two have got a nice chemistry together as they share some stories about what it was like working together on this picture during their early teen years. They also talk about the locations, some of the more notorious scenes in the film and more. The second track is also new to this disc and it features director Robert Hiltzik and Jeff Hayes, the webmaster of the SleepawayCampMovies.com site. It's a bit more technical and Hayes does a good job of prodding Hiltzik for information here. He talks about how the ideas came about, the locations, the script, auditioning the kids used in the movie and quite a bit more. This is a solid track, it's got a lot of good information in it and it's well paced despite a few quiet spots here and there. Carried over from the Anchor Bay DVD release is the original DVD audio commentary by Hiltzik and Rose, also moderated by Hayes. This recycled track had some pacing problems and it went off topic from time to time but carrying it over here was the right thing to do, even if the other two new tracks are better and cover much of the same ground.
From there, check out the all new forty-five minute featurette called At The Waterfront After The Social: The Legacy Of Sleepaway Camp which features new interviews with director Robert Hiltzik, cast members Felissa Rose, Jonathan Tiersten, Paul DeAngelo, Karen Fields, Desiree Gould and Frank Saladino and makeup FX artist Ed French. This is a pretty interesting piece (and it ends on a very sweet note) that, yeah, covers some of the same ground as the three commentary tracks (how could it not?) but which features some great stories and some cool archival imagery to accompany the interviews. The documentary is well put together and nicely paced and it covers what went into the location shooting, the effects work and what it was like on set. We hear firsthand about some of the relationships that developed while the primarily teenage cast was all holed up in a hotel for the shoot, about the infamous ending of course, and about the film's pre-production and budget. Rose's mother pops up to talk about being a ‘stage mom' too, which is kind of amusing. All in all this is good natured, informative and a pretty fun watch. Fans should eat this up.
The disc also includes a ten minute piece that explains how the new 2k scan was done from the original elements by way of some explanatory footage from the technician who did the work. It's fairly technical in nature but an interesting look into how things like this are handled and the work that can go into it. Rounding out the extras is a short horror film by Jeff Hayes entitled Judy featuring Karen Fields, a music video by Jonathan Tiersten for a song called Princess, a still gallery ‘scrapbook' and a still gallery of effects photos, a trailer and some TV spots for the feature. Menus and chapter selection are included, of course, and the cover art is reversible with the newly commissioned piece on one side and the theatrical one sheet on the flip side. All of this fits inside a nifty cardboard slipcover. As this is a combo pack release, a DVD version is also included inside the case.Final Thoughts:
Sleepaway Camp gets a pretty solid special edition from Shout! Factory, offering up the complete movie in solid HD quality and with a lot of supplements to accompany it. The movie itself holds up well, the ending still has the power to shock and the kill scenes and performances are pretty strong too. Those who enjoy the film should appreciate this release. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.