Sleepaway Camp (aka Nightmare Vacation) (1983)

Sleepaway Camp (aka Nightmare Vacation) first published (in a slightly different verion) by Movie Gazette

After a father and one of his young children are killed in a freak boating accident, the surviving child is sent to live with kooky Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould). Cut to eight years later, and Angela (Felissa Rose) is growing into a problem teenager, uncomfortable in her own skin, sexually repressed and almost mute with shyness. Shipped off for the summer to Camp Arawak with her protective cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten), Angela has to endure the unwanted attentions of sleazy chef Artie (Owen Hughes), the bullying of counsellor Meg (Katherine Kemhi) and vicious teasing from bitchy Judy (Karen Fields) and the other children. As Angela begins to come out of her shell, and has her first awkward experiences of love with Ricky’s friend Paul (Christopher Collet), children and staff at the camp start dying one by one at the hands of a mysterious and inventive killer.

If you were to create a map of movie massacres, its most popular sites would inevitably be Crystal Lake and Elm Street – but even if Camp Arawak, also from a horror franchise launched in the Eighties, has been visited less often than these locations, sometimes, as any camper can tell you, it is necessary to venture a little off the beaten track in order to find the best spot. The point-of-view killings in Sleepaway Camp (aka Nightmare Vacation) might recall the earlier Halloween (1978), and its creative slice-and-dice (murder weapons include a cooking vat, a curling iron, and even, in acknowledgement of the film’s status as B-movie, a swarm of bees) might evoke the Friday the Thirteenth franchise, but where those movies were all about co-ed carnage and the punishment of rampant carnality, Robert Hiltzik’s film explores the more virgin territory of early teens caught up in that difficult time of transition when sexuality has still not properly defined itself. There may be gory corpses aplenty in Sleepaway Camp, but its real horror derives from the bodies of those still living, as burgeoning hormones and developing desires bring to the surface all manner of anxieties about that most confusing and often unpleasant of phases, adolescence, when the innocence of childhood starts irrevocably to recede, and everything else begins to hang out.

The identity of the killer in Sleepaway Camp is pretty obvious from early on – so obvious, in fact, that you might even convince yourself for some time that the person in question can only be a red herring – but this is not ultimately a whodunnit so much as a whydunnit, and the Argento-esque kink in its tail is truly satisfying, offering a solution which is difficult to see coming but still makes perfect sense, and will leave you wanting to see the film all over again. For it always plays fair with its rightly influential twist, and even as the final sequence leaves first-time viewers reeling, those who rewind and rewatch the film can unzip all the hints and tells which Hiltzik has artfully concealed in the dialogue of his subversive screenplay.

Summary: Camp Eighties slasher classic with a well disguised twist.

Anton Bitel