The first two minutes of Robert Hiltzik’s 1983 feature film crawl forward from the lake setting with overwhelming Manfredini-esque horns and strings. It’s a heavy-handed prompt: you’re supposed to be scared. You’re getting the formula. Or are you?
Relatively bloodless and progressive compared to its contemporary brethren but still distressing in its usage of transgender women for shock value, the series is both liberatory and confrontational – a weird, wonderful bundle of contradictions dressed up in cutoff shorts and tube socks. The first film in particular is an affirmation of boundaries, and what happens when we don’t respect them.
The summary goes that years after a tragic boating accident seemingly killed her family, young Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) is sent to Camp Arawak with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Within hours of their arrival, an unseen assailant begins to maim or kill various campers and staff at the campgrounds. Angela’s introduction is a heavy one: her father and sibling are killed in a freak accident, run over by a boat. Hiltzik is tasteful enough to turn away from a shocking opening by merely showing the aftermath of a child death (a shredded life vest surfaces just after the father’s corpse floats by). Keeping the now-infamous ending in mind, it makes for a stronger punch later on to have the camera refuse to look away from its grotesquery display, lulling the viewer into a relative sense of security. If it gets really wild, the camera will simply look away. This strategy plays out for most of the film, mostly showing a postmortem glimpse here and there. No arrows through Kevin Bacon’s neck, no Tom Savini shock-and-awe massacres, no crimson rivulets running down bare breasts. In fact, the most gruesome violence visited upon the female body is that of a morbidly creative curling iron dildo kill, and it’s never explicitly shown. We get the aftermath and the shocked look on the cop’s face upon beholding the victim—less of a creative choice than a forced capitulation to the MPAA. But the end product is that at Camp Arawak, the camera is skittish but omniscient.
When asked if she’d like to do any activities like sailing, Angela replies, “That’s okay. I don’t mind watching.” Hiltzik’s lens is, like Angela, a silent non-participant. When camp cook Artie refers to the incoming young girl campers as “baldies,” comparing them to fresh young chickens ripe for consumption, the other men nearby roll their eyes or laugh it off. No one checks him. But the camera does not leer with him; instead it sits and stares at his lasciviousness and pulls in tight to his lip-smacking foulness. By the time the greaseball corners Angela in a pantry and undoes his belt, he figuratively digs his own grave, it’s no surprise when he is the film’s first victim. A flick of the wrist and a tug of a stepstool bring a comically large pot of boiling water right over Artie’s head; the camera stays on his face, another medium shot that lingers long enough to see his newly-formed blisters pulsating with each anguished scream. Just before this, Hiltzik adapts the now-routine killer POV seen in earlier genre joints like A Bay of Blood (1971). As Angela doles out punishments to Artie and her ensuing aggressors throughout the ensuing eighty-four minutes, she becomes both the watcher and the watched.
In contrast to its Camp Crystal Lake counterpart, Sleepaway Camp features a cadre of strong characters among its slasher fodder. In the lead role, Felissa Rose carves out bits of humanity within Angela’s general muteness through subtle expression. On the Scream Factory commentary, Rose expounds: “When you’re a child, you’re apt to have a bigger imagination. I created a whole character for myself.” When camper Paul (Christopher Collet) approaches Angela at a camp social and begins to tell her stories about himself, Rose utilizes her physicality to say what her character can’t: her eyes widen, the corners of her mouth turn slightly (but noticeably) upward, her head tilts forward as a turtle emerges from its shell. As her relationship with Paul progresses throughout the runtime, she eventually speaks, and it’s no surprise that Paul is the recipient of her words—her comfort with him was apparent from their first meeting.
On the other end of the scale is everyone’s favorite character, Judy (Karen Fields). As a proto-Mean Girl, Fields is a phenomenal adolescent resurrection of The Bad Seed’s Rhoda Penmark, as smug and over-the-top as our distorted memories of the hair-twirling tormentors in our adolescent lives. Fields wears her character’s sadism on her ruffled sleeve, jutting her hip out and throwing ice daggers with her piercing eyes. Judy is salty about everything that doesn’t center her; the negative attention that Angela receives is still attention, so Judy flips her hair and smacks her lips, a cheerleader’s death sentence she dispenses with the extreme prejudice later seen in the titular teens of Heathers (1984). Fields plays it over-the-top with exaggerated expressions and theatrical pantomime as though she’s playing to the cheap seats, effectively making her character a counterweight to Angela’s reserved meekness. Between Judy and scenery-chewing Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould), two grotesque forms of femininity battle with Angela’s “false” (according to the film’s attitude) iteration, leaving viewers with a binary extreme of womanhood—you’re a bitch or a prude, and there’s something dreadfully wrong with you either way.
However, menace itself isn’t Judy’s fatal flaw. The brunette bully’s biggest offense is setting her sights on Angela specifically, taunting and theorizing on her hygiene practices and her body: “She’s a carpenter’s dream: flat as a board, and needs a screw!” Judy paints the pre-pubescent body as a negative (Angela, according to Judy, won’t take showers so that no one can see that “she has no hair down below”). It wasn’t that she was mean, it was that she was mean to Angela, prompting the victim’s metamorphosis into what the Hungarian title for Sleepaway Camp promises: A Halal Angyala— “The Angel of Death.”
Sleepaway Camp strikes a thought-provoking contrast from the likes of its hack-n-slash predecessors (Halloween, Black Christmas, Friday the 13th) in its subversion of genre norms. The early 80s killer-in-the-woods branch of slasher films had previously struck down victims as revenge or for avenged pranks gone wrong (Friday the 13th, The Burning) or for the simple crime of penetrating the rural space (Don’t Go in the Woods, Madman), but Hiltzik had another offshoot in mind: gender shenanigans.
In the Sleepaway Camp commentary, the director explains, “It’s all about blurring the lines of gender roles. Who is who? Who’s the man?” He reveals this most explicitly in the story’s climax: Angela turns out to formerly be Peter, who was hit in the head by the boating accident that killed his sister and father. Crazy Aunt Martha decided to raise Peter as Angela, buying frilly dresses and living out her dream of having a little girl to dote upon. After her final kill, decapitating the boy who had been trying to get to second base with her, Angela stands, nude—her body is that of a male, with a lean muscular chest and all of the downstairs plumbing associated with a man. Hiltzik decides to keep the camera trained on her form, maximizing the sensation of the moment. Angela’s snarling face frozen in exclamation along with her unexpected body constitutes what critic Sean Collins calls “the monumental horror image.” In his essay of the same name for The Outline, Collins elaborates that “subjects of these images are horrifying more for what they represent than what they actually do. In most cases, they don’t do anything but stand there,” like a nude man on a roof in It Follows (2014) or a paralyzed man in a hollowed-out bear in Midsommar (2019).
It gets hairy when considering the implications of the monumental image of a naked sex-inverted Angela; her transgender body is a site of grotesquery, framed and filmed for repulsion. Add to it her animalistic growl as she exposes herself fully to the audience, and she underlines Collins commentary on the uncanny element of the monumental horror image, “…an unnerving uncertainty as to whether what we’re looking at is alive or dead, animate or inanimate.” In Angela’s case, we wonder whether what we gaze upon is human or inhuman. It’s not the first time transgender and transsexual characters have been villainized—we’ve seen monstrous gender swaps from Psycho (1960) to Silence of the Lambs (1991) and beyond (and these films have been the target of protests for this exact reason in their respective eras). Critic Willow Maclay’s recent modern trans reading of Sleepaway Camp concludes that the story is “a trap narrative rechristened in the structure of the slasher genre” while Joseph Brennan’s queer reading of the film in Gender and Contemporary Horror in Film acknowledges the equivalency between “the monstrous and sexual difference.” If nothing else, Sleepaway Camp serves as a snapshot of an era in which the fear of the unknown included a fear of those who knew that their brains and bodies didn’t match.
Not only was Angela gender-confused for her entire time at Arawak (her gender change was not voluntary at first, though it was in the sequels), but nearly every interaction there complicated her identity, from mean girls to sexually interested males to folks who simply wouldn’t leave her alone. Sleepaway Camp is a film of transgressions. In another instance of gender subversion, the first instances of drug use and nudity are solely committed by the boys in the camp: two teen boys smoke weed underneath the bleachers while their fellow camp mates hold a sausage fest skinny-dip in the lake nearby. But that’s not what they’re killed for. If we’re breaking out the abacus, the gender breakdown of mutilated bodies is as double-take worthy as the climax. Final count for the first film shows nine males and two females going to the big campground in the sky. The common thread adds even more intrigue: every single victim personally violated the physical, emotional, or sexual boundaries of the siblings. A cook who tried to molest Angela (2nd degree burns); a boy who called Angela crazy (drowned); a teen who launched projectiles at Angela (death by bees); Counselor Meg, who threw Angela in the water (stabbed); mean girl Judy (curling iron dildo); four boys who participated in the harassment of both Angela and Ricky (death by axe); camp owner Ronnie, who assaulted Ricky and enabled bullying (arrow to the throat); and finally, poor bachelor Paul who kept pushing her psychosexual limits (decapitated).
Sleepaway Camp, like its protagonist, straddles a binary: on one hand, the focus of the notably muted violence undermines gendered expectations, with first offense drawn by and first blood drawn on male characters. On the other hand, the transgender body is still presented as a site of horror and anxiety. But, as film scholar Isabel Cristina Pinedo observes in her book Recreational Terror, the horror genre is “a mix of contradictory tendencies”, with feminist and antifeminist parts, rebukes to and sly advocacy of rape culture and patriarchal structures, all cogs in the same machine.
Hiltzik’s feature slasher was a success, netting an $11 million box office return on its $350,000 budget and beating out Amityville 3D in its opening weekend. Seeing this, producer Jerry Silva bought the rights to Sleepaway Camp to make a sequel. He felt that the sequel director Robert Hiltzik had written was too dark and wanted to take the franchise in a more comedic direction. Double Helix Films asked Michael A. Simpson to direct the sequel, despite never making a horror film. On the Sleepaway Camp 2 DVD featurette A Tale of Two Sequels, Simpson lays out where his head was at: “I knew that the genre had already played itself out. It was so formulaic and I thought there had to be some way that you could play with the formula a little bit while still fulfilling (fan) expectations, while having some fun.”
Fun it is. Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers sees Angela fully embracing her identity and purpose five years after the events of the first film, surgically transitioning and appointing herself as the moral arbiter for the campgrounds (now Camp Rolling Hills). “The most interesting thing about the first film,” according to Simpson, “was the great twist at the end. That was the thing that everybody talked about. We thought that’s where we should take the sequel. Where can you take that character in a place that no one has ever gone before? We talked about it, and that’s where changing her gender caught my attention. It hadn’t been done, to my knowledge, in any film. A transsexual psychopathic killer.” Screenwriter Fritz Gordon wrote the next two sequels’ scripts, leaning more into horror-comedy and turning the tone of the first film on a dime. From naming the campers after members of the Brat Pack to infusing the story with references to slasher classics like Friday the 13th and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Gordon took the meta route and earned the respect of director Simpson and editor John David Allen. On the same featurette, Allen praised the black humor of the back-to-back sequels of 1988 and 1989: “Horror’s already an irreverent medium. To make a film that’s making fun of an irreverent medium is kind of in itself an irreverence, and that just thrilled us all. Nobody thought it would be more than something we would make and then it would sit on video shelves for a few years, and then people would forget about it. Maybe Michael and a few others had the vision to see that this was more than a great joke.”
With Felissa Rose focusing on her higher education at the time, Simpson opened up casting for Sleepaway Camps II and III (whose extended title is Teenage Wasteland), landing on Pamela Springsteen to pick up the baton for the role of Angela. According to the director, Pamela injected the lead character with a “quirkiness” that belied a mental instability, with humor to boot. In an evolution form punishing personal transgressors, the now-grown woman extends her rage towards those who offend her sensibilities. Smoke weed and die. Have sex and die. All of horror nerd Randy’s rules in Scream (1995) apply, and Angela doesn’t mind acting as the onscreen personification of the omniscient slasher writer/filmmaker and smiting teens who violate Judeo-Christan soccer mom sensitivities. She plays with her prey before pouncing, dressing up as Freddy Krueger or presenting their oncoming death as a game. It leads to several memorable death scenes, including a girl being shoved into an outhouse toilet and a driver catching a power drill to the head.
Bill “Splat” Johnson provided the goofy makeup effects for the kills, in one of his early career moves. He tells Scream Factory that he actually had to turn down another horror staple to come to the Waco, Georgia set of Sleepaway Camp 2 and 3: “I remember they were shooting Evil Dead 2 and Bruce Campbell called me up while I was working at the art store and wanted me to do some mechanical effects. I had to turn it down. I had already done several low-budget films and I guess Michael Simpson and Bob Phillips were looking through the book and calling different people.” The dividends were fruitful: throat slashing, acid burns, and decapitations splash across the frame like Arawak lake water. The unrealism is clearly played for laughs, and hits differently from the straight-faced sleaze of the o.g. picture.
In the original film, Ricky’s prank on a friend entails a magician’s speech: “Mind over matter says that even the incredibly simple task of a single sit-up should be impossible, should the mind will it. Concentrate all of your will on this single sit-up, and you’ll be amazed that when the time comes, although the body is willing, the mind refuses.” Though Angela’s body was willing to present itself one way, her mind refused to follow suit. By the second film (and indeed, the third), Angela has changed her name and fully embraced her true identity— neither woman (though she presents as one) nor man, but arbiter of morality. Angela “the carpenter’s dream” has become Angela the Accuser, a hiking boot-clad John the Baptist commanding righteousness from sinners before their final judgement. More post-millennial sequels would follow, including a 2008 effort with a sinister return from the singular Felissa Rose. The original trilogy, however, stands apart as a manic trio underlining the various ways that, as Pinedo puts it, “humiliation is transformed into unbridled female rage.” The takeaway is simple: respect boundaries and mind your business, and you’ll be a happy camper.
The original “Sleepaway Camp” trilogy is now streaming on Shudder.