“Who wants to go skinny dipping with only 15 guys and 5 girls?” – A boy camper, seconds before going skinny dipping with 15 guys and 0 girls
Sleepaway Camp may share the same setting, time-period and basic “crazy person murders people to the delight of others” structure as the more popular Friday the 13th series, but director Robert Hilzik’s film is more than a by-the-book knock-off. Loaded with stiff performances and despicable characters, something feels off throughout all of Sleepaway Camp. It’s a low budget piece of camp that relishes in subverting its audience’s expectations and concludes with a twist that’s as clever as it is stupid.
Like teen sex comedies of the 1980’s, the slasher genre relied on an audience of thirteen-year-olds under loose supervision—kids with fathers who would let them rent whatever R-Rated junk they could find at the video store. As a consequence, the genre became one fueled by the primitive desires of sexually confused, blood-thirsty, largely heterosexual, boys. Thus the genre earned its two key components: blood and boobs.
Only twenty-five when he directed Sleepaway Camp, Hilzik knew what his audience wanted, and while he gleefully delivers the gross-out gore, he twists the film’s sexual tone to have a strikingly queer edge. The film uses the sexual confusion of adolescence and the latent homophobia of machismo-obsessed youths as a cudgel, luring its audience in with the promise of your typical straight male slanted slasher flick and then forcing them to face their greatest nightmare: the penis.
You see, the big twist in Sleepaway Camp isn’t just that the murderer turns out to be Angela, the traumatized girl that’s framed as the film’s protagonist, it’s that she’s actually a boy. However, it’s not the revelation that Angela is transsexual that’s shocking or even all that memorable, it’s the way it’s revealed. After being discovered naked on the beach by a pair of a pair of camp counselors, Angela leaps to her feet, and, in the only bit of nudity in the film, the camera pans out to reveal a full frontal shot of Angela and her penis.
The image, with the superimposed head of actress Felissa Rose on a small man’s body, is striking. Angela’s mouth is agape, in a weird kind of death scream, and the superimposing job is shoddy, with her head too low and off-center, making her look stooped and unnatural. Then there’s the penis; the penis that has, no doubt, horrified countless insecure teenage boys for the last 30 years.
Angela’s penis isn’t the only prank that Hilzik pulls on his audience. Typically a slasher of this type will stack its cast with eager female teens, happy to parade their jugs around for the nation’s horny thirteen-year-olds, but Hilzik only really sexualizes his male characters. It’s the men in Sleepaway Camp that prance around with package-hugging shorts and exposed mid-drifts—out running around getting sweaty and showing off their buff physiques. When skinny dipping gets suggested, the large group of boys have no problem stripping down and jumping in the water when the girls turn down their offer.
And there are also an awful lot of all boy dog-piles in this movie.
Still, the motives behind Hilzik’s use of homosexuality in Sleepaway Camp are unclear. Since directing the film, Hilzik has led a mostly private life, only offering up the odd interview to the occasional Sleepaway Camp fanatic, so this theory of using homosexual imagery as a kind of subversive send-up to the genre isn’t fully proven. While a good amount of Sleepaway Camp’s fan base praise it as being a pro-LBGT horror film, there is one scene in the film that many find difficult to digest, and it’s the only sex scene in the film, a flashback scene of Angela (then named Peter) spying on her two fathers in the bedroom.
The easy take-away from this scene is that it is part of the reason that Angela eventually snapped—which would be a clear anti-gay sentiment. But the implications of the scene are debatable. Angela/Peter seems to have a happy life with her two fathers before one of them gets killed in a boating accident, so it’s doubtful that the sight of her parents having sex was enough to make her into a hissing, feral, cross-dressing lunatic.
Angela as a transsexual also raises some issues for many. Though the film never really dwells on the issue for long—it ends with the reveal of Angela’s manhood—there’s an implication that paints transgender people as something monstrous. But that doesn’t really apply, Angela din’t became a girl on her own volition, but was, rather, forced by her demented aunt. And, to go back to the homosexuality-making-straight-boys-uncomfortable theory from before, about the last thing a young, straight male of that age wants to see is another man’s penis, and revealing Angela as a boy in such a direct, and unexpected manner is just one final turn of the screw.
Either that or Hilzik just lifted the idea from Psycho, which, let’s face it, that’s probably what he did.