Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Mike Kellin, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo, Jonathan Tierston, Felissa Rose
Director:  Robert Hiltzik
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono (2 Channel)
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Commentary Track
Length:  84 Minutes
Release Date:  July 25, 2000

Film ***1/2

Sleepaway Camp belongs on a very short list of the best 80's horror films; the list that would be topped, of course, by Nightmare on Elm Street.  Though modestly budgeted, it's quite entertaining, featuring some better-than-average acting for this kind of movie.  It also boasts one of the best surprise endings ever, and if you don't know what it is, I envy you getting to see it for the first time!

The B-grade horror flick is a genre in it's own right, and while it has produced innumerable atrociously bad films over the years, there are a few that seem to transcend the money issue and become influential classics in their own right.  Think Night of the Living Dead, Carnival of Souls, or Evil Dead, and you get the idea.  Unfortunately, Sleepaway Camp seems to have fallen through the cracks of time…so much so, that Leonard Maltin doesn't even mention it in his popular movie guide (nor the two sequels)!  Which is too bad, because, like I said, that ending is a classic.  Hopefully, the film will find a new generation of fans with this quality DVD (more on that further down).

The movie opens with a grisly boating accident, leaving a father and one child dead.  Jump forward eight years, and we see the other child, Angela (Rose) getting ready to leave for summer camp with her cousin Ricky (Tierston).  The orphaned Angela has since grown up with her cousin's family and raised by her rather bizarre Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould's memorable, freaky performance).  Since the accident, Angela has been quiet and withdrawn, rarely speaking, rarely making any kind of contact.  Ricky, it seems, has taken over the role of protector of his cousin, a behavior that continues right on into camp.

The teens at camp naturally A) form into cliques, and B) start dying.  Most noticeably, every kid who picks on or harasses the pitiful Angela seems to end up dead.  Is it Ricky doing the grisly deeds?  Could the sweet, harmless Angela have a murderous streak?  The film keeps you guessing as the body count grows more and more rapidly, and more gruesome, as the film streaks toward its climax.  But, unless you know going in, you truly won't guess what's coming.

As mentioned, the acting is better than you might expect, though most of the characters exist as one type of caricature or another.  My favorite is the camp owner, Mel (Kellin), who grumbles, “That's it.  We're finished.  No parents are ever gonna send their kids here again.”  This guy seriously needs to sit down with the mayor of Amity from Jaws and have a beer.  The rest of the kids are your usual assortment of hormone crazed teens, jocks, nerds, or what have you.  But hey…they're just fodder for the killer in these types of movies, right?  And they are, for the most part, brought to life by competent young actors.  The real standout, however, is Felissa Rose, who brings a genuine appeal to Angela through her sorrow and silence.

Writer/director Robert Hiltzik brings his own sense of style to the killings, and it's a good one:  most of the time, you don't actually see the deeds occurring on screen, but you get to see the stomach churning results afterward…usually at the same time another character in the film is discovering it, and screaming “Oh my GOD!!!”  And though mostly straightforward in his filmmaking, he shows a flash or two of expertise with his camerawork and editing to create memorable sequences, like one particular reveal shot that circumvents a bed with two kids, edited carefully so the movement is smooth, but so the kids are always shown from the same side.  I have a theory that most B grade filmmakers have seen and loved Citizen Kane, and hope deep down inside that they're making horror's answer to that.  It rarely works, but it's always nice to see them try.

I realize this isn't the kind of film that will appeal to everyone, so consider:  if turning out all the lights, having a few friends over, and yelling advice at the characters on your screen while watching a cheesy slasher flick sounds like your idea of fun, you've hit the jackpot.  If not, lower my rating by a star and a half.  It's not overly gory, but there are more than a handful of moments that will make you squirm in your seat.

One bit of warning:  if this is your first time seeing this movie, do not, repeat, do NOT turn on the commentary track before watching.  Not even for a few seconds.  If you do, the surprise will be spoiled, and THAT would truly be horrifying.

Video ***1/2

This anamorphic transfer from Anchor Bay is amazingly good!  I say amazingly, because I've been disappointed with the way a lot of 80's films have looked on DVD.  This one is bright, crisp, clear, and sharp all the way through, with excellent, natural coloring and no bleeding, and no evidence of compression.  The print is also remarkably free from any spots, scratches, scars, or other artifacts of aging.  Even the dark scenes are well rendered, with true, deep blacks and well contained coloring.  Save for one brief scene in the woods at night, which exhibited some softness and grain, there are no complaints.  Isn't it something that we can get a quality, new anamorphic transfer for Sleepaway Camp, but not for The Princess Bride?  Oh, well.  Nice job, Anchor Bay!

Audio **1/2

This disc features the original mono soundtrack presented in split channel Dolby Digital.  It's fine, but unremarkable.  Dialogue is always clear, and there's no distracting noise, but I would have liked a little bit more dynamic range.  The score by Edward Bilous is quite good, though, and adds to the overall atmosphere and listening experience.

Features ***

For starters, you get some cool animated menus that feature a slashing knife when you move from one screen to another.  Then there's a good trailer, and a commentary track by director Hiltzik, star Rose, and Camp historian and webmaster Jeff Hayes, who's created one of the best movie fan sites I've seen at www.sleepawaycampmovies.com.  This is a funny, entertaining, and informative track.  Some of the best commentary tracks have been for low budget horror films:  Re-Animator, Night of the Living Dead, the Evil Dead films…and this one continues the tradition.


I'm thankful that Anchor Bay is willing to cater to the serious horror fan, and has delivered a quality DVD with a good extras package here for a title that any number of studios might have just slapped on a disc and shipped it out.  Sleepaway Camp may indeed be a horror sleeper, but now, everybody from the die hard fan to the mildly curious can check out this low budget, overlooked classic on this terrific DVD.  Sleep tight.