Origins: Summer Camp Horror Movies

Sleepaway Camp

Arriving in a new Blu-ray edition today courtesy of Scream Factory, Sleepaway Camp remains a summertime favorite for horror-movie fans. Originally released in 1983, the film might easily have been overlooked, since the market for slasher movies was swamped. Filmmaker Robert Hiltzik got back to the basics: serial killer + teenagers + summer camp in the woods. But Hiltzik added a new ingredient: Angela, an extremely shy and withdrawn girl, played by 13-year-old Felissa Rose in her film debut. She's a sympathetic character, which makes the ending of the movie a truly shocking experience. To understand better where Sleepaway Camp fits in horror-movie history, let's rewind.


Friday the 13th (1980)

Friday the 13th (1980)

Borrowing the idea of a serial killer stalking teens from John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), the makers of Friday the 13th moved the setting to a summer camp in the woods. They also upped the body count and placed more emphasis on the murder scenes themselves. Less commonly acknowledged, however, is the film's debt to a seminal Italian film.


A Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve; 1971)

A Bay of Blood

Acclaimed Italian director Mario Bava made arguably his most gruesome movie up to that point, a tale of multiple murders that, in part, follows a group of teenagers who venture to an isolated cottage by a bay, where one of them skinny dips and all of them end up dead in disturbing fashion. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) also featured a skinny-dipping scene and two murder sequences that closely followed what Bava had done a decade before.


Piranha (1978)

Piranha (1978)

Frankly inspired by Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975), producer Roger Corman empowered director Joe Dante and writer John Sayles to make a parody with bite. It's set at the Lost River water park and summer camp, where a school of piranha has been accidently released to feed upon unwary young people and adults; Spielberg called it the "best of the Jaws ripoffs." The 2010 remake moved the setting to Lake Victoria, Arizona, during spring break.


The Burning (1981)

The Burning

In the wake of the success of Friday the 13th, a veritable flood of filmmakers rushed to copy the formula, but only a couple have stood the test of time. The Burning is notable because it was an early release from Miramax Films -- Harvey Weinstein is co-credited for the story -- and because its young cast, including Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), and Fisher Stevens, all made their feature film debuts. On its own merits, the film is a nifty shocker with moments of genuine horror and tension, featuring effective gore effects by Tom Savini. Where could summer-camp horror go from here?


Stage Fright (2014)

Stage Fright

In recent decades, many copycat films followed the recipe without adding any new ingredients. That is, until recently. A cagey twist on an old formula, Stage Fright is set at a performing arts camp for young people, which becomes the setting for a series of grisly murders. Directed by Jerome Sable, the film deftly mixes horror tropes with full-bore musical numbers and a diabolical dash of humor. As twisted as it gets, Stage Fright still follows in the hallowed tradition of summer camp horror movies. Yet it also points the way forward, demonstrating that thoughtful filmmakers with fresh ideas can surprise and delight horror-movie fans who think they've seen everything. 


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