Sleepaway Camp is stalk and slash movie where the cast screams out their lines like cartoon caricatures; where everyone is so corrupt and sleazy they couldn’t possibly be from the real world. Underneath this veneer of slick Velveeta cheese and crude potty mouth language could possibly be an interesting commentary on gender and racial politics. Sleepaway Camp weaves an odd web of poignant social commentary while catering to the sleazy tropes of the early 80’s slasher boom. Sleepaway Camp would wear a tuxedo shirt to college graduation, deliver a rousing intellectual speech peppered with fart jokes, and then pound a six pack of beer and burp in your face.
The very first line in the movie that we can hear over the ghost like background chatter as the camera slowly pans over Camp Arawak is a threat to a camper over a pail of water. Water and trouble seem to go hand in hand throughout the film. From there we are whisked to a lake where a tragedy unfolds involving a child and parent death at the hands of a careless boater. This tragedy drives the mystery of the movie; who really died in the accident? What was the fallout? Right from the beginning the film makers plant seeds of unease in the viewer that will carry on throughout the movie through gender confusion and a hearty dose of sleaze pie.
We are then brought forward in time to a scene with a mother who has very masculine qualities. Her hands and jaw line suggest transgender qualities, and she seems almost too organized, sweet, and put together; again raising suspicion in the viewer and raising the level of unease. Her cryptic statement about doing her own kids physicals, and being a doctor, all seem very suspicious, like something is being covered up. Angela also seems more traumatized than shy from the get go. The ambiguity of her character should further raise unease in the viewer.
The kill scenes are purposely non-phallic in nature when it came to the men of the film; no real stabbings until later. They are boiled, stung to death by bees, and drowned in the lake. The murders utilizing more phallic devices, like a knife or hot curling iron, are reserved for the alpha bitch women of the story.
“Meet me at the waterfront after the social” is another allusion to water bringing about a fearful change. For Angela her first transformation through trauma happened when her father and sister died in the boat accident. There is a prevalent water motif throughout the film, symbolizing feminization and trouble. Freud surmised that entering water was a subliminal act of entering the womb. Angela is fearful and resentful of becoming a woman, something thrust on him by circumstance. His transgender qualities are not by choice, but rather through trauma at the hands of his aunt who “always wanted a little girl”. This explains his reluctance to get in the water and rejection of feminine beauty.
Angela is struggling internally with male and female forces, and the kills reflect that internal struggle. There are no boobs to be seen, but all the males wear shorter shorts than the girls, skinny dip, and there is a full frontal cock shot at the end like an exclamation point further confusing the stereotypical .tropes of early 80’s slasher cinema. Killing Mel with the arrow was a crime of passion, not planned and orchestrated like the other murders, because he was beating Ricky to death the need to kill him was much more urgent. Otherwise anyone who objectifies Angela as a sex object is killed. She subconsciously will fight at any cost to protect her true biological nature, not the forced nature of her condition through trauma. The kids murdered on the camping trip does not fit pattern raising the suspicion that there were two killers at the camp.
The film makers slyly played with the uncomfortable gender topics of the time to create a sense of unease in the audience. Angela is terrified of her own sexuality and sexuality in general; she maintains a very passive role not out of gender conformance, but out of fear of being discovered. She is seen, but not heard, like the ideal stereotypical 50’s house wife. The patriarchal order is threatened by over masculine, aggressive women, and men who seem to love skinny dipping together. Discomfort through ambiguity and hints at homosexuality are a common theme throughout the movie and despite being in relatively poor taste, it creates a rather interesting blend of low brow stalk and slash mayhem and some heady subtext that seems to promote homophobia only to attack the viewers own sensibilities and gender bender hysteria of the era.