The 1983 cult slasher Sleepaway Camp has, until recent years, been considered an obscure and/or “lost” horror film. To those of us hardcore horror fans, it was never “lost” or “unheard of”. It’s a classic with one of the most famous twist endings in horror history. It was easy, perhaps, for this film to get shuffled down during the slasher boom of the late 1970’s - 1980’s with iconic franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street constantly pushing out sequels with horror staples like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. But what of Angela Baker?
The premise of the film is simple, perhaps, at first. We see cousins Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and Angela (Felissa Rose) being sent to summer camp. Camp slashers were not new as Friday the 13th already had 3 entries in the franchise out at the time Sleepaway Camp made its debut. The similarities between the two stop there. Angela is a shy, intensely quiet girl who has the fierce protection of her outgoing cousin Ricky. The pair are tremendously close as Angela has been raised by her aunt, Ricky’s eccentric mother Martha (Desiree Gould), after her brother and father were killed in a boating accident when she was 5 years old.
The kids at camp in the focus of the film range from about 13 - 15 years old, with Angela and Ricky being around 13. It is an awkward age for everyone and Sleepaway Camp manages this well. Angela’s awkwardness and quiet ways are easily understandable considering this and the tragedy of losing her family 8 years prior.
The killer is this film is done strictly from a POV shaky camera - which adds a nice mystery as to who the slasher is and leaves a lot to the imagination. If you have not seen the film, I’m going to hint heavily at the twist as I feel a discussion about Sleepaway Camp would be incomplete without it. It’s a great and truly unique twist so please watch the film and then continue with this article. At the time of this writing, Sleepaway Camp is currently streaming on Shudder both regularly and with Joe Bob Briggs on The Last Drive In with Felissa Rose guesting on the episode.
Angela is the subject of bullying by the other girls and boys at camp due to her shy, quiet nature. Ricky is protective and aggressive and particularly foul-mouthed in his defense of his cousin. As the bodies start to pile up, it’s easy to feel sorry for Angela and feel a grim sort of justice towards the victims, particularly our first victim - the camp cook Artie who is very clearly a pedophile.
A few parts of the film have some awkward cringe (we discuss this on my horror podcast The House That Screams, so tune into that episode as it releases very soon), but I think the majority of the film is smart and ahead of its time and very relevant in today’s culture. This film is so intelligent for low-budget fare that it succeeds in making you truly think you have the twist figured out, only to have a BIGGER twist lying in wait.
As we say on The House That Screams podcast episode about Sleepaway Camp, this film is one you love to show to friends that haven’t seen it before and are unaware of the ending. We also state how important this film is in the Queer Horror genre. Angela has become an icon in the genre and actress Felissa Rose truly embraces that aspect of the film and character. In a world where we are still struggling for the rights and protection of the Trans community, the reception of the film is split into factions of those who find the character of Angela important in Queer Horror and those who find Angela offensive.
As a member of the queer community, I stand by this film as important as the character of Angela helped a lot of fans realize truths about themselves and push them to “come out” (we have a touching story relayed about this from The House That Screams family member Nico Nice - a close friend of Felissa Rose’s). I do not feel like this film portrays all transgender people as violent or is inflammatory to the community. It’s still a hot topic 37 years later and devising - much like the controversy of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and openly-gay star Mark Patton. In my experience in the Queer Horror community, both Felissa Rose and Mark Patton are icons that helped many identify truths about themselves. I love it that Felissa Rose and Mark Patton are friends and have worked together. It’s a beautiful thing.
A quick video to give a taste of Queer Horror
In conclusion, I haven’t COMPLETELY revealed the twist, but I’ve definitely pointed it out. This film is very intelligent and ahead of its time and I feel like it needs to be elevated from the slush pile of slashers out there and be recognized for the low-budget masterpiece it is. It’s an absolute must-see for all horror fans and I urge everyone to speak their piece on the film. Show it to those who haven’t seen it. Talk about it on your blog or YouTube channel. Seek out interviews with the cast - especially Felissa Rose. Stay tuned for the upcoming release of Sleepaway Camp on my horror podcast The House That Screams.
🕷 Stay Spooky! 🕷
Candy “The Final Girl” Allison