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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This Week in Retro Atlanta, June 20-26, 2011

Posted on: Jun 20th, 2011 By:

Monday June 20

Swing to Joe Gransden, trumpet player extraordinaire, and his 16-piece orchestra during Big Band Night at Cafe 290 on the first and third Monday of every month. From 3 PM on, savor tropical sounds and libations, as well as a Polynesian dinner during Mai Tai Monday at Smith’s Olde Bar. Kingsized and Tongo Hiti lead singer Big Mike Geier is Monday night’s celebrity bartender at Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong ParlorNorthside Tavern hosts its weekly Blues Jam.

Tuesday June 21

Grab your horn and head to Twain’s in Decatur for a Joe Gransden jazz jam session starting at 9 PM. Fedora Blues is at Fat Matt’s Rib Shack. Notorious DJ Romeo Cologne spins the best ‘70s funk and disco at 10 High in Virginia-Highland. Catch Tuesday Retro in the Metro nights at Midtown’s Deadwood Saloon, featuring live video mixes of ’80s, ’90s, and 2Ks hits.

Wednesday  June 22

It’s an all-star night of jazz and swing at the Star Bar with Nat King Coal Miners, a dynamic new jazz trio made up of three seasoned musicians, February ATLRetro Kool Kat Spike Fullerton (Ghost Riders Car Club) on guitar, Matt Wauchope (Blair Crimmins & the Hookers) on piano and blues man Dave Roth (Burnt Bacon). Read more about them in a sneak preview with Spike Fullerton posting soon.

Chris Isaak may not have that perfect pompadour anymore but you can see him still shaking up alt-rock with that modern Sinatra vibe tonight at in the Classic Chastain series. Get ready to rumba, cha-cha and jitterbug at the weekly Swing Night at Graveyard TavernThe Hollidays bring a little soul to Fat Matt’s Rib Shack and Danny “Mudcat” Dudeckblues it down at Northside Tavern respectively. Dance to ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s hits during Retro in the Metro Wednesdays presented by Godiva Vodka, at Pub 71 in Brookhaven.

Thursday  June 23

Expect “shimmies, shakes, glitter, glamour and, of course, tassels” as the burlesque beauties of Minette Magnifique take to the stage tonight in a new show titled Prohibition Exhibition *Making the Illicit Explict* at The Warren City Club. Read the ATLRetro Kool Kat profile of Shellie Schmals, aka Baroness VONSchmalhausen here.

In Conversations with Contemporary Artists: Radcliffe Bailey, the world-renowned artist discusses his work with diverse media in the new exhibition MEMORY AS MEDICINE, which opens Sun. June 26 and runs through Sept. 11 at High Museum of Art. Take a tour with the provocative artist in this week’s Kool Kat here. Tickets to the talk at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Auditorium are free but limited to two per person, and advance reservations are recommended at (404) 733-5000.

Tongo Hiti

Classic horror (James Whale’s 1931 FRANKENSTEIN featuring Boris Karloff vs Hitchcock’s 1963 THE BIRDS) is the theme for viewer’s choice night at Piedmont Park‘s Screen on the Green. Listen to Tongo Hiti’s luxurious live lounge sounds, as well as some trippy takes on iconic pop songs, just about every Thursday night at Trader Vic’s. Alt-country act McNary plays Kathmandu Kitchen & Grill (formerly Pho Truc) in Clarkston. All shows are no cover charge, no smoking and all ages. Party ‘70s style with DJ Romeo Cologne at Aurum LoungeBreeze Kingsand Chickenshack bring on the blues respectively at Northside Tavern and Fat Matt’s Rib Shack.Bluegrass Thursday at Red Light Cafe features Curtis Jones & Friends.

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