DVD Review: Sleepaway Camp
Release Date: August 20, 2002
Distributor: Anchor Bay
· Robert Hiltzik
· Mike Kellin
· Felissa Rose
· Jonathan Tiersten
· Karen Fields
by Troy Riser
Published: August 16, 2005
I watched Anchor Bay’s DVD release of Sleepaway Camp. I sat through the entire length of the thing, all of it, partly out of a sense of obligation—I readily agreed to write this review—and partly out of a sense of nostalgia. I came of age in the late Seventies and early Eighties, so I was looking for something evocative of the time: bad hair, bad fashion, rampant dope smoking, non-lethal casual sex, cheap gasoline, and the death of disco. What I saw was an exercise in cynicism, the creation of a death-by-the-numbers, three-film franchise built on the shakiest motivation for serial murder since Norman Bates stuffed his mother like a parakeet and took up cross-dressing. Speaking of mothers: Robert Hiltzek, the writer and director, dedicated Sleepaway Camp to the memory of his mother. Profoundly sorry, Mrs. Hiltzek, wherever you are, but your boy did you wrong.
I actually watched this film twice, back-to-back: once on its own, the second time with commentary provided by Hiltzek, as well as Felissa Rose, who played Angela, the then-thirteen-year-old lead, and Jeff Hayes, who maintains a fan site dedicated to all things Sleepaway Camp. Hiltzek, to his credit, makes no grandiose claims for his film or holds forth pretentiously on its deeper, hidden meanings, never once coming across as defensive or guilt-laden for foisting a blatant Friday the 13th rip-off on a jaded public. Hiltzek’s openly sleazy, make-a-fast-buck candor was refreshing. Felissa Rose, now clearly (obviously) all grown up, comes across as generous, funny, and warm. I can only wonder about Jeff Hayes. He said very little throughout the commentary, and I began to think he might be dazzled by the experience. I mean, who wouldn’t be a little star-struck, meeting the mastermind behind Sleepaway Camp and its sequels?
Anyway, since Sleepaway Camp was more or less advertised as a gratuitously exploitive slasher flick, I was also hoping for some, well, gratuitous exploitation of some kind. No luck there, either. To give you an idea, I counted 11 murders, and six took place off-screen. Since straight-up bloody murder seemed passé to the writer/director, he went for novelty: death by drowning, death by scalding, death by bee sting (points for originality there), death by curling iron (don’t ask), death by knife (points for originality taken away), death by hatchet, death by arrow, and death by beheading. Lots of carnage, true, but little violence, strange as it sounds. No sex, either -- well, not much sex, anyway. Some full frontal nudity you probably don’t want to know about. Really.
While low budget, the film had some talented cast members, chief of whom was Mike Kellin playing Mel Costic, the owner of Camp Arawak, aka Sleepaway Camp. An Oscar-nominated, Tony Award-winning actor, Kellin had one of the most expressive faces in show business, beautiful in its seamed, leathery ugliness, a marvel to watch even when given the poorest material. But even his performance here and a surprisingly genuinely creepy climax could not make this film worth recommending. In a way, the uniformly earnest, competent performances of the actors involved in this production probably detract from its camp value, even when these actors are gamely dodging the seemingly ubiquitous microphone booms. One feels a nearly indefinable sense of loss when watching proven or potential talent wasted. It simply isn’t funny like, say, watching Tor Johnson meander through the desert in The Beast of Yucca Flats is funny.
This Anchor Bay release of Sleepaway Camp has been packaged as part of its ‘Fright Pack: Campy Classics’ package. Extras included the movie trailer and the commentary. As usual with the folks at Anchor Bay, the DVD transfer was flawless, at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the picture clear to perfection and the colors vivid and true. That said, one wonders at the effort involved. One thinks, ‘Earrings on a pig,’ and moves on.