A couple of dumb teens manage to drive their speed boat over a man and one of his kids, so the surviving child - Angela - goes to live with her tacky, doting Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould). Years later, the now-teenage Angela (Felissa Rose) and her hot-tempered cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) are about to head off Camp Arawak for the summer... and Martha's been gracious enough to supply them both with forged physical papers. That, my friends, is what we like to call none-too-subtle foreshadowing. Upon arriving at camp, Ricky is reunited with his best friend Paul (Christopher Collet) but is given the cold shoulder by Judy (Karen Fields), his steady from the year before, who's transformed into a snotty mega-bitch since he's been away. Angela, who's awkward and so painfully shy she hardly ever speaks, has a bad habit of staring at everyone and refuses to shower when the other girls do, becomes her primary target for torment. But Judy's not the only one who's mean to Angela; nearly everyone at the camp seems dead set on making the poor girl's summer camp experience a living hell. As we all know, it's not wise to poke at a hornet's nest, so those who are cruel soon pay the ultimate price for it when someone in the camp takes it upon themselves to start killing everyone.
A child molester cook who tries to show Angela "something interesting in the walk-in" is the first to go when a pot of boiling water gets poured over his face and body. Next up, a boy who asks Angela why she's "so fucked up" gets drowned (when his body is discovered the next day a snake comes slithering out of his mouth). Meg (Katherine Kamhi), a female counselor who's about as nice as her pal Judy and throws Angela (who doesn't swim because of her traumatic childhood experience) into the lake, gets stabbed to death in the shower. One guy who pelts Angela with water balloons is stung to death by bees while sitting on the crapper, some little kids who threw sand on Angela get chopped up with an axe while camping and there's also a decapitation, death by curling iron and an arrow through the neck. The gore effects, which are usually pretty good, were done by Ed French. Character actor Mike Kellin receives top-billing as camp owner Mel, who wants to avoid bad publicity and goes a little crazy himself as the bodies start piling up.
Obviously made in response to the success of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), this summer camp slasher is one of the most popular and enduring of its kind, and it's pretty easy to see why. Entertaining, mean-spirited and frequently hilarious (hard not to laugh at all the loud, over-the-top, grating New Yawkers screaming vulgarities at each other for an hour and a half), this has many creative (though often utterly ridiculous) death scenes and a surprise ending that shocked many people back in the day... and continues to do so granted the viewer hasn't already had it spoiled for them. If you're one of those viewers who's a novice to this series, I wouldn't read any further into this review unless you want to ruin the film's best shock. I also wouldn't be doing any advanced research into the sequels.
As revealed during the big finale, the killer turns out to be Angela. That itself is hardly a surprise considering the film more-or-less narrows the killer's identity down to just two people, but some of the details involving the character actually are surprising. Raised as a girl by her disturbed auntie (who's played by a woman but is so camp she has 'drag queen' written all over her), Angela was actually born Peter and was partially raised by a gay couple. The flashbacks to Angela / Peter's childhood are bizarre to put it mildly. During one scene, Angela and her little brother spy on their two dads lovingly caressing each other in bed. This is immediately followed by a scene that strongly implies that the two little kids start touching each other as a result of what they've seen. And thus there's this warped implication (intended or otherwise) that being raised by same sex parents leads to sexually degenerate behavior. Though certainly wrong-headed, for better or worse, it's content in questionable taste like this that makes the film stand apart from others of its type.
Warning: Don't Let Gays Adopt!!
... will lead to this...
... which will lead to this!
Quite financially successful (especially on video), many sequels would follow. Unlike this original, which takes itself seriously for the most part, all of the follow-ups were tasteless horror-comedies. Rose was in college at NYU while Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers (1988) and Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasterland (1989) were being filmed in Georgia by director Michael A. Simpson, so Pamela Springsteen was brought in to play the part (and does a great job in doing so). Another actress (Carrie Chambers) played Angela in 1992's Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor, but the production was closed down shortly after shooting began. Footage from that shoot was later cobbled together for a worthless DVD release in 2012 featuring mostly recycled footage from the first three films. Rose and director Hiltzik would reunite yet again for the (terrible) Return to Sleepaway Camp, which was filmed in 2004 but not released until about five years later. Another film is planned, but hasn't been made yet.
The initial Media VHS release of the original film is uncut but, strangely enough, the Anchor Bay DVD's have been trimmed of some of the grislier moments plus some male ass when some guys go skinny dipping. The first three films were released as part of a "Sleepaway Camp Survival Kit" box set in 2002, with only the Best Buy version containing a bonus fourth disc containing the previously unreleased footage from Part IV.