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Analysis: Sleepaway Camp

Freudian Kills

Sleepaway Camp was made in 1983, right in the middle of the first slasher boom. It's clear that the makers wanted to do a few things differently, perhaps in an attempt to stand out from the crowd. There's an obvious focus on creative kills: of the six onscreen murders, only one is performed with a conventional blade. On a very basic level, this averts the Knife Nut that slashers tend to fall into. It's a breath of fresh air, and aside from the obvious, it's part of why a lot of people like the movie. But when you take a closer look at the individual kills, in conjunction with the nature of the killer, a more interesting possible pattern emerges.

A disclaimer: I don't claim that any of this was deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. When it's 1982 and you're making a slasher movie, pretty much every creative choice you make is dictated by money. I'm just pointing out some interesting patterns I notice about the movie that are quite likely accidental.

Also, I don't think I need to black anything out, as this is maybe the most-spoiled Twist Ending in the world of cult film.

Let's break it down Clue-style:
  • Artie in the kitchen with the cauldron: The obese would-be-molester gets his comeuppance when the killer scalds him to death with a huge pot of boiling water.
  • Kenny in the capsized boat with the ... lake: The boy who harassed Angela and beat up Ricky at the social gets violently drowned and his rotting body left in the boat.
  • Billy in the bathroom with the beehive: The killer locks Billy the balloon-throwing bully in the stall and throws a beehive through the window. The bees proceed to sting Billy to death in about 40 seconds before he manages to break the flimsy broom that's barring the door closed. Maybe the kid was allergic.
  • Meg in the shower with the knife: Meg the Alpha Bitch finally gets hers, right before her "date" with the camp owner, Mel (Eww). The killer slices Meg's back open through the shower wall.
  • Judy in bed with the curling iron: Ouch. Judy, another Alpha Bitch contender, is in her empty cabin blowing off the social when the killer attacks her with a hot curling iron and does something awful with it.
  • Mel on the archery range with the arrow: The psychotic camp owner just got finished kicking the shit out of Ricky, whom he thinks is the killer, when the real killer surprises him and shoots him through the throat with what appears to be a hunting arrow.

First of all, I want to point out the persistence of water as an motif in this movie in general, and the deaths in particular:
  • The very first line heard in the film is "Get away from me with that pail of water!"
  • The accident that killed Angela's family happened on the water.
  • Artie is killed with boiling water.
  • Kenny is drowned.
  • Billy throws water balloons at Angela, and is killed in the bathroom.
  • Angela doesn't like to swim (neither would you). To torment her, Meg and Judy throw Angela into the water.
  • Meg is killed in the shower.
  • The one line of dialogue most people remember from this movie is "meet me at the waterfront after the social."
  • The final murder happens on said waterfront and the famous last shot has boats in the background.
Three of the six on-screen murders involve water directly. Water symbolizes the feminine in classical tradition, and Freud's interpretation of water is very maternal. Falling into water is said to symbolize birth, or acts of femininity.

Unlike most slashers of the day, this one features a female killer. Sort of. Gender ambiguity is definitely at the thematic heart of this movie. We have a killer who we are led to believe is male (Ricky is the foremost of many red herrings), who turns out to be female—only in the final moments, we learn that she is, indeed, biologically male.

This reading of the film becomes interesting when you look at the kills. As I mentioned above, this movie gives you more than your boring old Knife Nut, Machete Mayhem, Chainsaw Good, Slasher Movie staples. There's also the water motif that I pointed out. Beyond even that, though, this movie subverts the phallic-obsessed, male-gaze-laden tropes that everybody who thinks they know everything about slasher movies always trots out.

Artie is killed in the kitchen, a traditionally feminine space. Kenny is drowned, his head held underwater, another death that is by no means phallic. Billy is killed by a honeycomb. These three males (the movie's first three victims) suffer deaths with strongly feminine undertones.

Now we come to the girls: Meg and Judy. Meg's murder is the most traditional of the lot. Girl? Check. Shower? Check. Knife? Check. There's a flair to its brutality, with Angela stabbing through the shower wall when Meg leans against it, carving her back right open. But the scene is mainly unique for having no tits. More on that later.

Judy, perhaps the most hate-worthy character in slasher history, suffers a death that I still wouldn't wish on my worst enemy in one of that history's most outrageous scenes. Judy's just finished making out with a boy in the cabin and is sitting on the bed when the POV killer enters. The killer forces a pillow over Judy's face (more smothering), and thrusts a sizzling hot curling iron into her vagina. This is both an exaggeration and an inversion of the standard "phallic slasher" rule. On the one hand, the killer goes so far as to give Judy the slut a literal Death by Sex; on the other, the deed is done with a curling iron, a symbol of feminine beauty. On Angela the killer's part, acts like this and Meg's murder are symbolic rejections of traditional femininity.

The movie itself does the same thing. As I alluded to above, there is no female nudity in this movie. Let that sink in. It's 1982, it's a slasher movie, it's a summer camp, and there are no tits to be found. On the other hand, there is plenty of male butt, beef and thigh on display, no to mention the famous full-frontal closing cock shot. As my brothers and sisters at NOTLP pointed out, the boys wear shorter shorts than the girls. There is an all-male skinny-dipping scene in this movie. It's 90 minutes of built dudes wearing practically nothing, while the girls dress like nuns by comparison. Then a transgender person kills them all.

The one onscreen murder that does not seem to fit the pattern is when Mel takes an arrow to the throat. There might be more to this one, but I take context into account. Angela just watched Mel kick the shit out of Ricky, her cousin and her constant protector. She saw the bow and arrow and took her opportunity. Likely this was a "crime of passion" and wasn't planned like the other killings were.

The murders of the kids on the camping trip do not seem to fit any pattern at all—in fact, they do not seem to fit the movie or its plotline, and it seems almost impossible for Angela to have done it. I heard a rumor that those scenes were shot later and shoe-horned in because there weren't enough murders in the movie. In-universe, we can posit that Angela didn't really kill them—perhaps there was another killer—perhaps Mel was right about Ricky after all.

Angela's psychosis comes to a head at the end of the movie. As someone who was forced to be transgender, we can ascribe every murder she commits to the explosion of already-latent homicidal tendencies in response to that trauma, triggered by being forced to confront her confused sexuality. Anyone, male or female, who sexually objectifies Angela in the movie ends up dead. In Paul, she meets a boy whom she actually likes—only to have her homicidal side emerge when she feels forced to reveal her biology to him. Angela's reluctance to get close to him (or anyone) signals that she knew something like this might happen.

What emerges from all this is a portrait of a traumatized young person who, like Jason Voorhees, is as easy to pity as to fear. Intentional or not, the Freudian symbolism and the complicated gender politics make this one of the most interesting slashers of the 80s. Bad writing, bad acting, bad photography, bad everything else be damned.
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