RETRO REVIEW: Splatter Cinema and the Plaza Theatre Camp It Up at SLEEPAWAY CAMP!

Posted on: Jun 9th, 2014 By:

Splatter Cinema presents SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983); Dir. Robert Hiltzik; Starring Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten; Tuesday, June 10 @ 9:30 p.m. (free photos in a recreation of a scene from the film start @ 9:00 p.m.); Plaza Atlanta; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Friday the 13th is upon us this week, and Splatter Cinema has taken the bold step of avoiding Crystal Lake altogether. Instead, they and the Plaza Theatre bring you a blood-soaked classic from another camp: Robert Hiltzik’s SLEEPAWAY CAMP!

Horror movies are disreputable. If you have any doubts about that, ask yourself how many horror films have won Oscars versus, say, movies from any other genre. Ask yourself how many times a horror movie has been handicapped right out of the gate by critics for simply being a horror film. Ask yourself how many times a great horror film has received only qualified praise (“it’s good…for a horror movie”).

So, yeah. Disreputable. Marginalized. Ostracized.

But slasher flicks? Doubly so. At least.

Sure, they’re typically formulaic. Then again, so are gangster pictures. So are westerns. So are films noir. (Nobody walks into DOUBLE INDEMNITY and thinks, “I’m sure Fred MacMurray is going to get out of this just fine.”) But limitations sometimes produce great art. John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN? Great art. Hitchcock’s PSYCHO? Great art. Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE? Great art.

SLEEPAWAY CAMP? Well, not even I am going to argue that this is great, much less art. But it’s fascinating. Sure, it was obviously designed to capitalize on the whole “people are getting slaughtered at a summer camp” trend that was raking in bucketloads of cash in the 1980s, and as a knockoff of an already-critically-maligned series, it’s automatically more disreputable than most.  But it’s visceral and pulpy in a way that 90% of FRIDAY THE 13TH films most definitely aren’t. It constantly teeters on the brink of ridiculousness, has a definite and palpable sense of danger, and pulls off the most insane climax of any entry in the slasher movie subgenre.

The plot is paper-thin, seeming to be merely a hook upon which to hang multiple corpses. Introverted Angela and her protective cousin Ricky are sent to Camp Arawak for the summer. There, she is bullied and attacked by a series of people, all of whom wind up dead at the hand of an unseen killer stalking the campgrounds. Superficially, this doesn’t appear that different from most entries in the FRIDAY series. But one thing that sets SLEEPAWAY CAMP apart is whom the film targets.

Typically, in FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, most of the victims are the camp’s counselors and staff, generally vulnerable women (and the occasional vulnerable guy). Their deaths are all the more likely if they have just had sex, are contemplating having sex in the near future, or have a passing interest in potentially having sex at some point in their lives. But in SLEEPAWAY CAMP, most of the people who get killed are the campers themselves. In slasher cinema, this is generally not done. It’s out of bounds. Kids are innocents, and our killers’ knives are out for those who have transgressed some kind of warped code of adult morality. But not here. At Camp Arawak, the kids and adults are jerks and bullies, and nobody is safe. This alone would make the movie one of the more morally questionable entries in the slasher field. Add in the increasingly bizarre ways in which people are slaughtered (beehive? curling iron?) and you’ve got reprehensibility writ large.

But beyond the victims being targeted and the means of their destruction, what also makes this film stand out from its competitors is its relentlessly odd tone. There are tons of slashers that attempt to inject some humor into the mix, but few do it with as straight a face as this movie. Other films, for instance, might play up the character of camp owner Mel Costic as an over-the-top bit of comic relief, as he constantly tries to spin the series of outlandish murders as simple accidents. But while he’s obviously something of a caricature, he’s no more or less overtly comic than any other adult in the picture. He’s the equivalent of Paul Bartel in Joe Dante’s PIRANHA: a comic authority figure, but not a jokey figure. He is, at least, more relatable than Angela’s aunt Martha, who seems to exist in some weird state of hyper-eccentricity that feels like it’s been borrowed from some other movie altogether. The presence of renowned character actors like Mike Kellin (as the aforementioned Mel Costic) and Robert Earl Jones (father of James) lends a level of credence and gravity to these roles that would otherwise be ham-handedly played for comedic effect. As a whole, the character work in the movie seems to work on an almost delirious TWIN PEAKS-ish level, where we’re thrown off because what we’re seeing is funny, but it’s not parodic or written as explicit comedy. And when it combines with the horror of the film’s content, it’s…off-puttingly humorous.

And that’s not even getting into the whole psychosexual aspect of the movie that just traipses giddily all over the line dividing “sympathetic” and “offensive” and builds up to a twist ending that has left jaws firmly planted on floors since 1983.

Upon release, the movie was generally ignored as just another kids-at-camp-getting-killed flick. But even then, there were rumblings of this being something bigger than that. I remember, after first seeing it as a VHS rental, talking with friends of mine about how mind-blowingly nuts the movie was. How inventive the kills were. THAT ENDING. And in the years since, a sizable cult has grown up around this movie as tales of its oddball charms have circulated among horror fans. Today, the movie holds an impressive 82% favorable rating at RottenTomatoes.com. From critics who really ought to know better.

So here we have one of the more disreputable entries in arguably the most disreputable subgenre of an already disreputable genre. And it has developed a large following and overwhelmingly favorable critical consensus. It has traveled the full circle of sleaze all the way back around to ultimate acceptance, like someone made a John Waters movie completely by accident.

So take some time out of your busy mid-week schedule to visit the kids at camp. No, not Crystal Lake. The other one.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO-LA-LA and the Plaza Theatre Ask: Have You Visited Your MOMMIE DEAREST Lately?

Posted on: Apr 4th, 2013 By:

Blast-Off Burlesque’s TABOO-LA-LA Presents MOMMIE DEAREST (1981); Dir. Frank Perry; Starring Faye Dunaway and Diana Scarwid; Saturday, April 6 @ 9:00 p.m.; Ages 18+ only; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The historic Plaza Theatre and Blast-Off Burlesque have joined forces once again for another round of TABOO-LA-LA! This time, take a trip to the Golden Age of Hollywood via the excesses of the early ‘80s, and watch as Faye Dunaway goes gloriously over the top in the role of Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST!

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

In 1978, Christina Crawford published her memoir MOMMIE DEAREST, in which she revealed the private face of her mother: Tinseltown legend Joan Crawford. Rather than the standard glowing Hollywood biography, Christina’s told a sordid tale of alcoholism and abuse that few suspected lurked behind the carefully stylized façade of Joan Crawford’s public image.

While many of Joan’s closest friends called Christina’s claims into question—that though her mother’s alcoholism was undeniable, the abusive acts chronicled by Christina were embellishments—other long-time friends of Joan’s said that they had witnessed some of the events of abuse and supported Christina’s side of the story. Whichever side is closest to the truth, though, the fact remains that the enormous success of Christina’s book created an entirely new public perception of Joan Crawford, helped to usher in the phenomenon of the “celebrity tell-all” biography and resulted in a film that quickly became known as a high camp classic.

Now, I’ve long held a particular philosophy when it comes to film: the most important question that should be asked when evaluating a movie’s worth is “was it entertaining?” By typical standards, it’s hard to make the case that MOMMIE DEAREST is a good movie. The tone is pitched far too high for it to be taken seriously as a biopic. Faye Dunaway somehow manages to overact before even speaking a word. (In fact, the only real reference she makes to the movie in her autobiography is to say that she wished that director Frank Perry knew how to rein in his actors’ performances.) But despite all of this, the movie works and has gained a cult following because it’s just so giddily entertaining.

Faye Dunaway in one of the more crazed moments in her performance as Joan Crawford in MOMMIE DEAREST. Paramount Pictures, 1981

Because MOMMIE DEAREST draws from the classic Hollywood film and the made-for-TV movie, the movie feels more like an exaggerated melodrama than a traditional biopic. Characters are abstracted to fit into particular stereotypes (the repressive and tyrannical family head, the resolute and self-sacrificing heroine). Themes center on familial turmoil and emotional struggle. Emotions within the film are heightened to an almost surreal point. However, when you’re dealing with a persona as tightly wound and stylized as Joan Crawford, to abstract what is already something of an abstraction of a “real person”—while wildly amping up emotional levels to the John Waters setting—results in something close to (if not smack dab in the middle of) caricature. And while caricature is likely not what Frank Perry or Faye Dunaway was intending, the resulting cartoon is 10 times more captivating than a realistic depiction.

For instance, it requires a facile skill and considerable contemplation to film scenarios that turn a harrowing depiction of child abuse into something hilarious. It’s a fine line to tread between hysterical tastelessness and offensive tastelessness. But in the celebrated “no more wire hangers!” scene—a fractal-like smaller moment that perfectly captures and represents the larger whole—Frank Perry falls bass-ackwards into hilarity without even trying. He’s like the Fool in the Tarot deck: blissfully stepping off a precipice into the jaws of a grand journey while his attention is drawn elsewhere, unwittingly creating a sublime parody of the melodrama without even thinking about it.

Meanwhile, what can be said about Faye Dunaway? She’s one of the great actresses, whose performance in 1967’s BONNIE AND CLYDE helped define the “new Hollywood” of the late 1960s and ‘70s, portraying one of the defining actresses of the “old Hollywood.” And she physically transforms herself into…not Joan Crawford, but the idea of a Joan Crawford. A concept of what a Joan Crawford might be. She’s all eyebrows, lips, nostrils and shoulder pads, fueled by viciousness and liquor. A ranting, raging simulacrum of a human being. It’s a role that Divine was practically born to play, but somehow I doubt that even the divine Divine could pull off the required over-the-top theatrics of the part while maintaining the gravitas that comes with an actress like Dunaway in the role. It’s the only thing that keeps the performance from flying through the ceiling as it is.

Christina Crawford (Diane Scarwid) and her MOMMIE DEAREST put on a cheery public face. Paramount Pictures, 1981

Shortly after the film was released, Paramount realized that nobody was seeing this film because of the story’s real-life compelling drama; they were seeing it for the unintentional comedy it had become. A month into its release, they changed promotional tactics, telling audiences to “meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!” Even that same year, rock band Blue Öyster Cult took advantage of the inherent comedy of MOMMIE DEAREST and released their single Joan Crawford from the album FIRE OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN. The song details the resurrection of Joan Crawford as a harbinger of the apocalypse and features the voice of a zombified Joan calling out “Christina, Mother’s home! Come to Mother!”

Blast-Off Burlesque brings the inadvertent work of genius that is MOMMIE DEAREST to the Plaza’s big screen in a celebratory bash as gloriously over the top as the film itself. DJ Westwood-A-GoGo will be spinning tunes in the lobby, where patrons can enjoy complimentary cocktails and mingle before the show begins. Once seated, the audience will be treated to a riotous performance by Blast-Off Burlesque, with guest performers Kristiva Diva, Poly Sorbate, Chico Nunez, and the Baphomettes. Audience members are encouraged to dress like their favorite character, and to enter contests to win prizes provided by Libertine and Cherry Blossom Salon.

So get dolled up in your old-school finery and get down to the Plaza on Saturday, April 6. You wouldn’t want to get on this Mommie’s bad side.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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