Sleepaway Camp (US - BD RA)
Gabe returns to the most notorious campgrounds since Crystal Lake...
After a terrible boating accident killed her family, shy Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) went to live with her eccentric Aunt Martha and her cousin Ricky. This summer, Martha decides to send them both to Camp Arawak, a place to enjoy the great outdoors. Shortly after their arrival, a series of bizarre and violent ‘accidents’ begin to claim the lives of various campers. Has a dark secret returned from the camp’s past…or will an unspeakable horror end the summer season for all? (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
On paper, Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp is a standardized, rather unremarkable entry in the early ‘80s slasher boom. Even though it was released only three years after the original summer camp body count movie, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, it came at a time when the formula was already losing traction with audiences. It’s murder scenes aren’t particular gory (it required only minimal MPAA cuts at a time the organization was gunning for the subgenre), its sex scenes aren’t particularly graphic, and it sticks strictly to the slasher blueprint in terms of its story. I can even name at least a dozen similar films that do the same thing more effectively – yet, Sleepaway Camp endures with a stronger, more loyal cult following than any of them.
It’s easy enough to hang this abiding popularity on that notorious twist ending, which certainly a more outrageous outcome than the average whodunit’s climax. I’m assuming even those of you that haven’t seen the film are aware of how it ends, but in case you didn’t – and you aren’t concerned with having a 30-year-old slasher movie spoiled for you – it turns out that not only is the main protagonist, Angela, the murderer, but she’s also a boy who was raised as a girl (dun, dun, dun). But movies usually don’t inspire such diligent fandoms via a single shock following 90 minutes of interchangeably blasé moments, leaving us with a burning, seemingly unanswerable question: what is it about Sleepaway Camp that endures?
Objectively speaking, Sleepaway Camp is ‘good’ only because it’s so campy (excuse the pun) and difficult to define. I think that it is meant to be taken as subversive – even after culling hours of commentary tracks and behind-the-scenes documentaries. Further appeal lies in Hiltzik’s limited skill-sets. Unlike ‘lesser’ slashers, where the scenes between kills are merely an excuse to use the bathroom/get popcorn without missing anything important, Sleepaway Camp’s dialogue-heavy, non-horror scenes of summer camp life are genuinely great. The dialogue is funny in a very natural way and the actors – especially the children – are all much better than what is usually associated with the genre. In contrast, whenever Hiltzik tries his hand at earnest horror, he fails miserably, prompting a charming string of accidental laughs. Despite mimicking genre/subgenre convention (even that famous reveal is a grotesque variation on the secret identity of Norma/Norman Bates) doesn’t appear to understand the basic functions of the genre he’s aping, but its very charming to see him try. Again, it is possible to assume Sleepaway Camp is a spoof of type, even without on-the-record proof of the director’s intentions.
Sleepaway Camp’s failure as a horror movie is easy enough to dismiss as faulty filmmaking, but its pointed disregard for traditional sexual titillation is fascinating. Hiltzik appears intent on mocking the slasher genre’s proclivity for gratuitous nudity and sex by replacing ‘fun’ kinks with more complex and uncomfortable perversions. For example, the camp’s head cook is presented as an active, even vocal pedophile, but his brief attempt at raping Angela is only a plot device -– the fact that none of the other adults seem to have a problem with his blatant sexual tastes is much more disturbing. There’s no indication that Hiltzik is endorsing the behavior, of course (the cook gets boiled nearly to death in the next scene), but he’s certainly stoking the issue for the sake of reaction. Further proof is found in the fact that he dresses most of his adult male counseling staff in clothing that is about two sizes too small, equating their masculine sexual appeal with childlike apparel.
Despite the homophobic and transphobic subtexts running through its veins, Sleepaway Camp has developed a loyal following in the gay community. This is thanks in large part to campy performances and fiercely homoerotic undertones. It’s possible that Angela and Peter were raised by two men (their mother is never mentioned) and just as possible that Angela isn’t a transgender adolescent, but a plainly gay young man who was raised as a girl. The homophile implications are made visually evident by the aforementioned counseling staff’s costumes and the complete lack of feminine nudity – even the skinny-dipping scene is an all-male affair. In fact, the closest the film comes to the T&A that usually accompanies the genre are completely un-sexualized scenes of campers in bathing suits and a ‘from the collarbone up’ shower scene murder. The subtext was, according to interviews with Hiltzik, intended as ‘foreshadowing’ – an answer that, out of context, actually seems to verify that he thought of the film’s gay elements as perverse. Whatever his intent (at the very least, he was exploiting the era’s homophobia for the sake of shock), Hiltzik has embraced the following, proving his heart was in the right place in the end.
There are also hints of racism in the supporting cast – almost every adult in charge of camp maintenance is a minority who serves the all white the counseling staff and campers. The issue is emphasized by the fact that the only minority actor with lines is a throwback to African American ‘Yes, sir’ stereotypes. This is more likely an act of tone-deafness than subversion, however.
Sleepaway Camp was available completely uncut on VHS for years, but its official US and UK DVD releases, via Anchor Bay entertainment, featured a censored version. The cuts included censored violence alongside a number of random dialogue edits/miss-synced effects. When fans approached Anchor Bay with the problem, the studio claimed (on the record) that the dropped scenes were too damaged to bother including with their remastered, anamorphic print. That claim was disproven when the now-defunct Monsters HD channel aired a relatively clean, fully HD version of the film that was completely uncut. Some fans still feared that Scream Factory wouldn’t be working from the uncut source, but I can assure you that, to the best of my knowledge, all cuts have been reinstated.
A complete rundown of the edits and the controversy that followed can be read [url=http://www.sleepawaycampfilms.com/dvdcontrovers...].
To reiterate, Anchor Bay released the first anamorphic version of Sleepaway Camp on DVD, but it was censored. Later, a Canadian grey market version was released by Legacy Entertainment, but it used a pan & scan, VHS copy for their transfer. Fans were forced to choose between a good-looking cut disc and a hideous uncut disc. Scream Factory’s new 1080p, 1.78:1 (slightly re-framed from the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1) Blu-ray probably would’ve been considered successful, had they simply reproduced whatever transfer Monsters HD used. However, knowing the strength of this particular film’s fanbase, they didn’t take any chances and rescanned the original negative in 2K (likely working from Hiltzik's personal print). This is a fantastic transfer overall, featuring only minor print damage and relatively even grain levels. Most of the notable shortcomings tend to be side effects of the film’s slightly fuzzy focus during daylight shots (perhaps CRT machine noise?), which limits the contrast and dynamic levels, and the persistently dark nighttime shots (these are notably grainier than their daylight counterparts). The dark scenes are the more problematic ones, but the limitations are no longer heightened by muddy compression noise. Fine textures and background patterns are sharp without any edge haloes or unnatural DNR effects. Colours are vibrant and natural, including lush greens, crisp blues, and consistent skin tones. Some of the punchier reds bleed a smidge, but feature no notable blocking effects.
The uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio improvements aren’t as fantastic as the HD video upgrade, but I do appreciate the presence of the original mono soundtrack. Anchor Bay’s US and UK discs were given 5.1 remixes and the results were problematic. Many of the sync and missing dialogue issues were likely symptoms of the remixing process and nothing serves a cheap and dirty slasher film from 1983 better than a relatively uncomplicated, single-channel soundtrack. This release corrects most of the offending mis-syncs and missing lines, including valued chestnuts like ‘wrinkled old dick.’ Even with the corrections, the dialogue is still a bit tinny and flat. Volume level discrepancies cause some minor high-end distortion and hiss on aspirated consonants. The incidental and environmental sounds are a mixed bag in terms of the material available, including both well-mixed background noises (crickets, frogs, breeze, et cetera) and stiff Foley effects. Edward Bilous’ underrated symphonic score has no such problems and has never sounded richer – even the DVD’s stereo spread sounded flatter than this mono version.
- New commentary track with actors Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten, moderated by Scream Factory’s Justin Bean – I expected this first track to be the least informative, but Bean’s moderation and Rose’s familiarity with the commentary process, following the original DVD’s track ensures that the facts outweigh the nostalgia. This is a good place for behind-the-scenes stories that are told without a technical slant.
- New commentary track with writer/director Robert Hiltzik, moderated by SleepawayCampMovies.com Webmaster Jeff Hayes – This track is something of a ‘round two’ for Hiltzik and Hayes, following their work on the original track. It is a more focused showing that actively tries to avoid overlap, but also features the most blank space of the three.
- The original Anchor Bay disc commentary with Hiltzik and Rose, also moderated by Hayes – As stated above, this track isn’t as focused as the new director/moderator track, but is probably the best one to start with in terms of overall content.
- At the Waterfront After the Social: The Legacy of Sleepaway Camp (45:40, HD) – A series of newly recorded, retrospective interviews with various members of the cast and crew that takes us through both the Sleepaway Camp filmmaking process and, briefly, their careers. Subject matter includes casting, secrecy surrounding the final twist, make-up effects, the location/sets, on-set relationships/friendships, and the film’s lasting impact. Curiously, the HD film footage included here looks awful. Perhaps this doc was completed before they had the 2K scan ready.
- Judy (15:50, HD version of SD material) – A silly, amateurish fan film by Webmaster Hayes, starring Karen Fields.
- The Princess (5:30, HD) – A music video featuring a performance from Jonathan Tiersten (it is unrelated to the movie).
- Camp Arawak Scrapbook still gallery
- Theatrical trailer & TV spot reel (2:10, HD)
- Rare images from make-up effects artist Ed French
- 2K film scan demonstration/comparison (9:00, HD)
Sleepaway Camp has finally been given the royal home video treatment fans have been clamoring for. The new 2K transfer looks just about as good as the film can ever hope, the problems with the older DVD’s soundtrack has been fixed, all deleted footage has been reinstated, and Scream Factory has prepped a series of brand new extras, including two commentaries and a retrospective documentary. This collection is highly recommended for everyone that loves this weird little slasher.
* Note: Because I had trouble opening this disc on multiple computers, the above images are taken from the Blu-ray as .jpgs and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 27th May 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Actor Commentary, Director Commentary, Director and Star Commentary, At the Waterfront After the Social: The Legacy of Sleepaway Camp, Judy Short Film, Music Video, Still Galleries, 2K Scan Demonstration, Blu-ray Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Robert Hiltzik
Cast: Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo, Jonathan Tiersten, Felissa Rose, Karen Fields, Christopher Collet
Length: 88 minutes
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