Initially, this piece began as a review of 1983 horror classic Sleepaway Camp, but somewhere along the line it morphed into an analysis about having knowledge of the big twist in the film. Typically, before ever seeing a film, most viewers will staunchly avoid spoilers in order to keep that air of mystery and surprises under wraps until the actual viewing. I’ve been of that camp for a while, but I feel my experience with this film proves that knowing a spoiler of a twist doesn’t necessarily destroy the experience of watching the film. Just know, that from this point forward, I’ll be writing about major plot twists so if you’re unaware of Sleepaway Camp’s plot and hate spoilers go watch the film before continuing to read. I’ll be discussing how knowing those spoilery twists in advance altered my perspective while watching the film and how I think it was intended to be viewed. SPOILERS FOLLOW
Sleepaway Camp’s twist ending
Sleepaway Camp is a slasher flick directed by Robert Hiltzik. His entire film career consists only of the “Sleepaway” franchise. He wrote and directed the first film, and then wrote three sequels – the fourth of which was never made. In 2008, he had his second directing credit for Return to Sleepaway Camp. With the exception of the first one, none of the sequels were critically well received. Despite my lack of experience with the follow-ups, I feel comfortable in stating that Hiltzik is a one hit wonder. Sleepaway Camp works very effectively despite borrowing the setting and POV murder shots from Friday the 13th (1980).
The major twist of this film, and likely why it is still discussed today, is the secret held by the lead character, Angela Baker (Felissa Rose). She is a shy, young girl who was traumatized by seeing her brother and father die in a boating accident eight years earlier. Of course, she is actually the brother and the sister is the one that died. That’s right, Angela turns out to be a boy. The shocking final image is Angela standing naked and swaying in the wind, so to speak, being barely visible in the dark light as she has finally been caught and charged as the killer. It is at this time that a counselor exclaims, “She’s a boy.” As this revelation is made, the expression on Angela’s face and the creepy sound bellowing from her/his mouth makes the the scene even more traumatic.
I knew this revelation before watching the film, thus my viewpoint was completely different than someone who came into this movie with new eyes. From the opening sequence, when the boat accident occurs, I was able to decipher that the boy survived but was forced to pose as female. What I didn’t know was why the boy was made to be Angela. Late in the movie, however, that question is answered when Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) declares she already has a son, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). So, the POV shots, while I appreciated the techniques as a film fan, never held any mystery for me. I spent most of my film viewing not pondering the mystery of the killer as Hiltzik likely intended, but rather wondering when the audience would learn the secret I already knew.
The impact the ending had on my viewing experience wasn’t clear until after the movie was over and I pondered it that one thing was clear: Ricky is this film’s Red Herring. While watching the movie, I constantly thought Ricky was overreacting to everything that happened and that the amount of profanity his character spewed was superfluous. It seemed as though he was trying too hard to be a bad-ass with a goal of standing up for his cousin. Once Mel (Mike Kellin) really commits to believing Ricky is the mystery killer and explains that he saw murder in his angry eyes, it started to become clear why Ricky was the logical choice. If I’d seen this film without spoilers, I probably would have been with Mel in the belief that Ricky was the obvious suspect.
The debate on spoilers rages on
The debate is frequent regarding spoilers right now due to the boom of social media and the ease in which TV, movies, and such can be “ruined” by them. Anti-spoiler advocate almost seemed primed to create a PSA encouraging people to duck and cover under their desks in the event a show or movie has been released that you failed to see on the first available viewing time to warn people of the dangers of spoilers. I often avoid spoilers and for a solid year had boycotted watching trailers as the marketing companies seem to think it wise to pull content from the third acts of their upcoming releases. In this case, however, I’ve known this 34-year-old movie’s twist-ending for at least a decade.
While knowing the ending did impact the way I watched the film, it didn’t tarnish my enjoyment of Sleepaway Camp. In fact, in some ways I’ve spent more time breaking down the plot structure of this film than I probably would have if I’d seen it with unknowing eyes. There are several moments in the film that, had I not known the secret that Angela carried with her, would have made me question what her deal was. For example, the times she waited for the showers to clear out before using them, why she refused to go swimming, and how she generally would not participate in any activities. One of the oddest scenes that was positively affected by knowing the ending was a major flashback sequence. In that sequence Angela and her “brother” see their father and his boyfriend in cuddling in bed. That scene would mean little to the un-spoiled watcher, but knowing Angela’s secret in the first viewing shines a revealing light on the reason that scene is in the film.
Thus, spoilers can definitely affect how we perceive a film. Especially films that have major plot twists or reveals the twists late in the film. Yet, knowing doesn’t inherently tarnish one’s enjoyment of the journey. I knew where the story was going to end up, but I enjoyed seeing how the writer and director attempted to mislead the audience. Thus, I’d say the best course of action is to not be the one who intentionally spoils things for others. Also, don’t be the person who loses their mind when something is spoiled either. Instead, embrace the media and enjoy the ride. Whether or not you know how and when it’s going to end.