Sleepaway Camp is a perfect bad movie. It’s so ridiculous in anything it is doing that it is a constant joy to watch (if you enjoy bad movies of course). The acting is over the top or non-existent, every aspect of filmmaking is weird and the story doesn’t make any sense. But it’s fun! It’s a classic slasher movie with silly death scenes and the most logic-free plot you can imagine. On top of it all, the movie is incredibly sexist (in many ways) all the way to the insane ending. It is really incredible that this movie was a success and seemingly is still remembered fondly by people who saw it in the 80s. But there is nothing better for listening to funny people talk about it.
Let me try to summarize the plot. A kid’s father is killed in a preposterous boat accident (that prepares you well for what’s to come) and is then taken in by an aunt (or something, the plot is quite confusing). Years later, she returns to the summer camp of the accident where people are killed. The first victim is a cook who sees the kids arriving at summer camp and openly says that he lusts for them. He’s standing in a crowd, people he works with and he says the most outrageous things (“There is no such thing as being too young”), but no one cares, they laugh about him. But when he gets a chance, he wants to rape Angela (Felissa Rose), the semi-mute protagonist, in a back room to the kitchen, clearly not the first time. Sure, he gets killed soon, well, actually, just hurt very badly in the most unlikely way possible, but there’s something to the way the movie treats his sexual violence that makes it seem so commonplace. It is a little disturbing.
The camp’s supervisor Mel (Mike Kellin), who is about 60, also makes comments about the teenage girls in the camp and at one point sets up a date with one of them. No one seems surprised and the other girls almost seem jealous. He is the same guy who smokes all the time and tries to cover up the murders, so that his camp doesn’t get a bad reputation. What a catch!
When Angela makes out with another boy (everybody wants to have sex in this camp), a flashback reveals something about her past, namely that her father (who was killed in the beginning), had an affair – with another man! The movie treats this not entirely homophobic. Sure, the kids who watch them are laughing, but that seems a natural reaction for kids watching adults being intimate. The love scene itself is not even a typical cliché for gay sex. In another flashback scene we see the two kids reenacting what they just witnessed or at least attempting to, simply by trying to touch each other. Again, there seems nothing really problematic with this but when the flashback ends, Angela jumps up and runs away from the boy. When the final twist occurs, we get a different understanding of this, but at this point it seems that witnessing her father’s homosexual affair might have traumatized her for sex after all. As outrageous and sexually depraved as this movie is, this scene is far from being as bad as it could have been and, for example, actually better than other modern day examples.
So, let’s talk about that infamous ending. Final spoiler warning! In the end two things are revealed: that Angela is actually the killer, which is not that surprising, since it must have been either her or her cousin Ricky. And… that she is actually a boy. The final shot of the movie shows her, naked, with a very visible penis while some campers react in shock. Well, there is also the head of her boyfriend in her lap, but it’s clear that the transgender aspect is the real shock. Since the movie ends right then and there, with that reveal, it is not just an implication to think that this is all the reason we need for her to be the killer. I mean, gosh!, she is actually transgender, so of course she is a serial killer! And did she become transgender because she her father having gay sex? Again, the implication is certainly there. That is what makes the ending especially horrendous for me, not so much the reveal itself, but the repercussions for what it says about transsexuality. That last shot makes her look inhuman, a monster, that makes a hissing sound and the combination of penis and female facial features are enough to take away her humanity. Even if we could assume that she was forced to become a girl by her crazy aunt (which we can only guess from the movie’s confused script), becoming crazy herself, this seems outrageous. It is campy as hell, I know, and I had fun, but I still can’t help thinking about the reinforcement of stereotypes this movie has caused in audiences ever since.