Sleepaway Camp

All art functions as a Rorschach Test - even shitty lowbrow exploitation films. Take for example Sleepaway Camp, a "killer is on the loose at a summer camp full of horny teens" movie from the early '80s. Even though Sleepaway Camp isn't particularly challenging or deep movie, it can still say different things to different people. Horror nerds will watch this semi-satirical slasher film and be interested in it's mixture of goofiness and gruesomeness. Many of the early slasher films were trying to be competent thrillers and many of the later slasher films devolved into intentional campiness, but Sleepaway Camp kind of bridges the gap, because it features both tones - it has a scene where someone is stung to death by bees in a toilet that's meant to be silly, but it also features a scene where someone is burned to death by scalding water which is legitimately trying to make the audience uncomfortable.

Culture warriors, however, will be less interested in the film's humorous side because there are a few scenes which were tasteless back then but which are inexcusable now. I'm thinking in particular of a scene where one of the chefs in the camp's kitchen attempts to rape one of the young campers, which the film thinks is funnier than it really is. The film's nonsensical ending will also anger a lot of easily angered people, because the killer's origin story is... well, let's just say it isn't very PC and leave it at that.

However my reaction was very different from either of those: this film made me feel rather navel-gazey. That might sound odd, given that such uninsightful movies rarely make their audience feel self-reflective, but I couldn't help it.  You see, Sleepaway Camp made me feel very old. Part of it was seeing a bunch of horny teens running around and realizing "Oh man, it's been a long time since I was a horny teen". (Although in all honesty that was only a small part of my general I'm-growing-older malaise because even at the height of my hormonal years I wasn't the type that would try to pressure girls into going skinny dipping with me, especially not in a snake filled lake when a murderous madman is running amok.)

No, the biggest thing that made me feel old was realizing that the bulk of my sympathy was no longer with the teens that were getting murdered but with the poor guy who was running the camp. I know that sounds semi-insane - after all, the camp's overseer was a fully grown man and thus he was an unlikely to be targeted by the sex-crazed psycho killer who seemed to be mostly interested in offing teens. However, I would probably have felt less sympathy for him if I thought he was going to die because dying is easy (particularly in a movie like this) but signing up for a lot of responsibility and then totally bungling it - I mean like "having to ship dozens of kids you were in charge of back to their parents in body bags" levels of bungling it - and then living with your failure afterwards... That's hard. Or at least it seemed hard to me, because I spend a lot of time worrying about how I'm not very good at life, so my first instinct was to sympathize with what the shame that guy surely must have been feeling. And that sympathy is good, because if I'm capable of feeling empathy with a cartoonish character in a dumb movie I must be a very empathetic person indeed, but it's also bad because it means I'm a goddamned old man. You would have to be a geriatric fool to watch a movie about nubile teens in various stages of excitement or danger and think "huh, well if I shift my focus to a background character I can totally use this movie as an excuse to continue obsessing over my ever-increasing obsolescence."

Let me be clear: I am well aware that the camp director is actually an unsympathetic character. Like every other character in this movie he's basically a monster. He pays the kitchen staff a cash bonus under the table so they will stay quiet after they discover a dead body in front of the main stove. He only knows one way to discipline a rambunctious camper: yell at them. At the end of the movie it's revealed that he's trying to sleep with one of the counselors (who was easily half his age.) He's a greedy no-account sonuvabitch who cares not a whit for the safety of his charges.

No, I don't care at all for the caretaker as a man, but I do care about him as a concept, because the idea of being attacked by a knife wielding psycho is very abstract to me but the idea of a life that is a never-ending series of traumatic setbacks is very real to me. All that greasy amoral huckster wanted to do was put on a goddamn summer camp and skim a few bucks off of a few shitty parents and here he is having to explain to the police why so many corpses kept turning up in his bunks. That sucks, because you don't get hired to run that sort of run-down shithole unless you've lived a life full of compromises and disappointments, and then once you've fucked that up, too,  your life is definitely going to be an eternal hell of pent-up regrets and dashed dreams. And that is far, far scarier to me than being killed by a psycho with a beehive, because I have never sat up late at night and thought "If I don't start being more vigilant and trying way harder then I know what my future holds: an embarrassing death in an outhouse."

Of course, at the end of the day all of those readings on Sleepaway Camp have their strengths and their weaknesses. On the one hand it is interesting how Sleepaway Camp fits into the overall evolution of the slasher genre, but on the other hand comparing and contrasting this with other cheap-o exploitation flicks is maybe not as important as thinking about the way that sexist/homophobic/etc. movies like this trivialize social issues that are actually important. On the other other hand focusing on those larger social issues is a pretty abstract way of examining a film like this when you could look at how it impacts the viewer on a personal level. On the other other other hand, I probably need to stop worrying that I am turning into Fucking Methuselah when I'm not really that old. On the other other other hand why be so serious about such a silly movie? I haven't even begun to talk about how over-the-top that death by motorboat was. On the other other other hand...

Winner: Me

Sleepaway Camp on IMDB