Other Worlds Orbiter presents SEX MADNESS REVEALED, starring Patton Oswalt and Rob Zabrecky. SMR takes the form of an audio commentary that plays out over the little known 1938 STD propaganda film SEX MADNESS (1938). The voice of a persnickety film blogger (Oswalt) interviews the descendant of the original motion picture’s director who harbors a nefarious secret.
Please join us, and director Tim Kirk, for the Texas premiere on Wednesday, September 19 (7:30PM) at Flix Brewhouse. You can get more info and reserve your tickets here. But first, OWA Programmer and Registration Director Reid Lansford considers sex and the slasher genre by looking back at a certain cult classic.
Sex and the slasher film go hand in hand. It’s been well documented by people much smarter than me (Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws should be on every film lover’s book shelf) and the evidence speaks for itself. Boil down the slasher film to its barest essentials, and you get this basic idea: you have sex and then you die. Those scholars have tried to figure out why this pretty downbeat, moralistic message was so prevalent. Was it just a simple formula that worked well? Was it a harsh reaction to the freewheeling, do-what-makes-you-feel-good 70s, now that we were in the decade that saw the rise of Ronald Reagan and his ilk and the first national awareness of AIDS? Was it both? Either way, the 1980s was the heydey for the genre, and provided several well-known classics and ones that didn’t quite stay lodged into popular culture. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) was one of the latter ones. **Fair warning, just stop reading now if you’ve never seen it and run to your local video store (if you’re lucky enough to still have one) and check it out. One way or another, it will be a memorable viewing experience.
I remember seeing it in bits and pieces when I was younger, when it seemed every weekend you could find good Horror and SciFi programming if you scrolled through the TV guide carefully enough, although it didn’t show up on cable or local syndicated movie airings as much as its more well known counterparts. This was probably for a couple reasons, as it wasn’t a box office success with a major studio behind it (like the FRIDAY THE 13THs or NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETs.) It lacks the slick production values of those series, and also doesn’t have a well-known antihero like Freddy or Jason hacking through its cast.
The plot, such as it is, is pretty standard-issue slasher stuff. A prologue shows a young brother and sister, Peter and Angela, enjoying a day at the lake with their father. One boating accident so poorly staged and shot that you can’t help but laugh later, and the Dad and the son are both dead. Years later, Angela is headed to Camp Arawak for the summer with her cousin Ricky. She is silent, withdrawn, and painfully uncomfortable around all the other kids, who cruelly taunt her. She eventually comes out of her shell after falling for Paul, one of the other boys at camp. And then the bodies start piling up. Like I said, so far this is nothing revolutionary, and the mystery seems to be pointing towards Ricky being the killer. However, the final moments reveal the twist: Angela is actually Peter, who survived the accident and was raised as a girl by her deranged Aunt Martha. The iconic closing shot of the film is a growling, blood splattered Peter (who has just decapitated Paul after attempting to seduce him) standing fully nude on the beach, while the counselors mutter “How can it be? She’s a boy!” Roll credits.
Where to begin? SLEEPAWAY CAMP is definitely a problematic film. It’s clearly transphobic, and also somehow manages to pull off being simultaneously homophobic in tone (Peter’s father is revealed to be homosexual, in a flashback sequence that is bizarre and genuinely uncomfortable in its staging and implications) and hysterically homoerotic (did guys actually wear shorts that short in the 80s?) It’s also ridiculously entertaining, from its inept direction to its over the top acting (everyone is playing to the balcony here.) “So bad it’s good” is a label I have grown to dislike, but it does apply here. If the only thing the movie had going for it was its ending, it wouldn’t have the strong cult following that it does. On its own merits, the movie does work, and it’s a great cinematic litmus test (if you’re lucky enough to meet someone who doesn’t know the twist.)
But for years, I didn’t truly grasp the ending. Why? Because I was watching it on TV. Basic cable was the enemy of the R-rated film, particularly the slasher genre. Sure, you basically saw the movie, but you lost the main selling points: the gore and the breasts. In the case of SLEEPAWAY CAMP, you also lost the climactic revelation of Peter’s penis. The editing in the movie proper is…not great…but when you add in the cuts necessary to clean it up for television viewing, the ending is incomprehensible. “She’s a boy!” What did that mean? It wasn’t until years later, when browsing a horror movie website, that I was able to deduce the actual ending, thanks to a plot summary and some grainy VHS screencaps. A DVD viewing of it years later (R.I.P. Anchor Bay) and I finally got the entire experience.
You probably couldn’t make SLEEPAWAY CAMP today (a remake has been rumored for years, but never advanced beyond that stage) given its treatment of gender and sexuality and reliance on them as plot devices. That’s probably for the best. But it will always stay with me, as for years I had the same reaction towards it that most people do when they see the actual, uncut film: “What was that all about?”