A classic in the Horror genre of films is the Slasher sub-genre. Anybody who is even fairly familiar with horror movies might recognize the concept of a slasher film: stalking psychopath terrorizes group of protagonists and viciously murders them, often in creative or convenient ways. This sub-genre itself has spawned many of the tropes and patterns often attributed to the horror genre as a whole, such as the whole “rules” concept presented in detail in the Scream series.
In the past, I’ve had to introduce friends and acquaintances to horror movies. I have watched an absolute ton, as horror is by far my favorite genre of just about any media, but not everybody has been so keen on horror for most of their lives, maybe occasionally seeing some mainstream fair but not much more. As such, I have an arsenal of films to introduce people to different elements of horror, from the seriously artful to the campy and ridiculous. When it comes to slasher films, there is only ONE clear choice as to which sadistic murderer needs to be the first one to stab their way into a newbie’s heart.
No, it’s not the tall man in the white Mariah Carey mask.
So long, Freddy. No thank you, Jason.
And hellooooooo Angela.
I’m talking about Sleepaway Camp, a movie that is simultaneously awkward and tense, uncomfortable and adorable. In my opinion, this movie is the perfect introduction to slasher films. It hits on many of the tropes of the genre, has the “whodunit” that made some of the early classic slashers exciting, has a creative and original approach, specifically one that includes ACTUAL children being (not actually) murdered, has a pleasant anti-bullying vibe throughout and has an incredibly disturbing ending that sits with you for days. I LOVE this movie and bring it out just about anytime somebody admits they haven’t seen it.
But why not start with the classics, like Friday the 13th or Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street?
The reality is Michael Meyers (ya baby), Freddy and Jason are all household names, but while their first films were solid, they didn’t really reach the tone that they’re each individually KNOWN for until later films. Halloween Michael was considerably less lumbering and remarkable at ambushing people than Halloween 2 and beyond, coming off as your typical escaped-from-an-asylum type and relying a whole lot on his victims generally being oblivious to danger. Freddy was a lot more menacing and less of a comedian in his first outing. Jason wasn’t even IN the first Friday the 13th (which is honestly my second favorite to show slasher newbies). In addition, with exception of parts of Nightmare on Elm Street, not many of the firsts for these guys were particularly campy, an element that people often expect in a slasher film, though it isn’t always there. If you drive someone into Slasherland on one of these three horses, you might run into a wall of them expecting something that isn’t delivered on screen. However, with Sleepaway Camp, you have a character that hasn’t achieved mainstream renown, leaving no character expectation in the way, while also delivering a movie that is delightfully campy at moments to fulfill that expectation without detracting from the overall vibe of the movie.
Similarly, the Scream series is an INCREDIBLE example of slasher fare. However, I don’t recommend starting with Scream since the movie is so incredibly meta. Scream by its nature REWARDS folks who have digested a handful of slasher films already. Many of the devices and jokes are better appreciated once you’ve familiarized yourself with the genre and its many nooks and crannies. Scream is just this beautiful Parody-Homage that is much better as a digestif to a buffet of slasher films than as an appetizer.
Now, to discuss the elephant in the room with the people that have already seen this film: YES, it is a bit dated. It carries with it themes of homophobia and transphobia, which by today’s standards are cringey at times. Just keep in mind that this movie was made in 1983 and carries with it a lot of outlooks and sentiments popular at the time. Granted, much of the various bigotry present is wrapped up in the bullying subplots, but it could still potentially be considered offensive to people sensitive to that sort of thing. I recommend understanding that the environment at the time was different and try to take anything offensive with a grain of salt. It’s kind of like watching Looney Tunes and seeing the awful depiction of black people. It’s not something everyone can overlook, but it’s there and it happened. It’s not like we’re defending the confederate flag here. In the end, if it offends you, don’t watch it. The LAST thing I want is for someone to be uncomfortable. Now, is my love of this movie supporting bigoted sentiment? No, not in any way. I don’t support this film because it chooses to express that sentiment, I support this film because it is a solid and often humorous film about an abused child getting revenge on bigots and perverts and bullies. Watch or don’t, different strokes for different folks.
Sleepaway Camp is a perfect introductory Slasher film, hands down. Is it the best ever? No, definitely not, mainly because so many films have come out since then and the genre has been redefined over and over and over again. Obviously, the classic three hold a place in everyone’s heart. For some, that should be a classic five, adding leatherface and ghostface to the list of most iconic slashers (possibly even taking it to six and adding Chuckie into the mix). There have been supernatural slashers (Jeepers Creepers), sci-fi slasher films (Predator[FIGHT ME]), Christmas slashers (Silent Night, Deadly Night) and even toy slashers (Child’s Play). In the end, the genre has tons to choose from and everyone should explore it on their own. However, for a film that acts as a perfect welcoming committee to the genre, Sleepaway Camp can’t be missed. You’ll thank me later.