A Sleepaway Experience with Felissa Rose
by Sean M. Sanford
Sleepaway Camp came out in 1983, and was written and directed by Robert Hiltzik, who had gone to the camp where it was filmed as a child.
Tony Maylam’s The Burning, and of course Sean S. Cunnginham’s Friday the 13th had both come out in 1981, spurring a new development in summer camp lore. But neither achieved quite the same waves that Sleepaway Camp would amongst horror fans, in part because of themes that were scarce at best amongst slasher flicks at the time.
Also, while The Burning is regaled by many to this day, it doesn’t come anywhere near the status of Friday the 13th, which itself would likely have been designated more as that fucked up Kevin Bacon movie about mommy issues had it not gone on to celebrate Jason in its sequels. Sleepaway Camp differs in that, while it did inspire sequels, those are rarely talked about in the same light as the achievements of the original.
This is in part because of one character, Angela, and the incredible job Felissa Rose did portraying her. Which was why I went ass over teakettle when I found out that Felissa Rose herself was going to be attending and supplying commentary for a screening of that very movie at my favorite movie theatre in San Francisco.
Holy shit. Nightmares really do come true.
I sat in the lobby at the Balboa Theatre, breath bated. A glimpse of my youth was fixing to manifest; images, first of a shelltoe impaled and bloodied, then of a child’s letter to mom and dad, speaking of unholy things (in a bad way) at summer camp: the back of the VHS rental that I would marvel at as a child at my hometown’s Downtown Video, then later at Movie World, when I was finally old enough to indulge.
I tried to relax. I smoked a joint outside and regretted having forgotten my mushrooms. Oh well, you’re only young twice. Wait, did I forget those mushrooms? I forget if I forgot. Anyway.
Camp Arawak was dusting the horizon. I could hear a concentrated buzz, like bees coming from the Men’s room. I tilted my head and realized that was the popcorn machine, warming up, the agitator spinning through salted grease and immature kernels.
I went to my seat, right up front so as not to miss a beat. The theatre filled up with vocally enthused tenants. Then, the lights dimmed, and the trailers began. As they were running, the theatre’s manager came up and put some water bottles and snacks in two of the vacant seats right in front of me. It looked suspiciously like a set up for a certain guest of honor. Felissa Rose, the one and only. My prayers began to echo
Sure enough, as the screen was barking about the new Top Gun iteration, she came and sat down, all full of smiles and glee. There she was, right in front of me, in the flesh. Holy shit! She had a partner who was apparently involved in the film in some way but I never retained how. He was funny though, as the duo stood up after the trailers to introduce Sleepaway Camp. They then held onto their mics and got cozy to narrate the movie as it came alive before us on the silver screen.
Felissa was so animated as she shared insights from the opening credits. It was clear that the experience brought up a lot of wonderful memories and she had only good things to say about the cast and crew. I realized how little I knew about this movie.
Turns out the movie had employed some peripherally A-list mofo’s.
Like Robert Earl Jones, brother to the very same James Earl Jones, who played the OG Darth Vader, amongst a whole cache of other incredible roles. Robert Earl played one of the Camp administrators, introduced by smiling and shaking his head at Artie, the proud pedophile who drools over the kids as they’re running through the camp in one of the movie’s opening sequences.
Felissa told us that Owen Hughes, who had played that horrific sexual predator, was actually very sweet and was a joy for her to work with. She said that in the kitchen scene, when Artie is drooling over her 13-year-old-ness, she had barely been able to film the scene because she was laughing so hard at Owen, who had been very friendly and funny to her when he wasn’t nailing the role of a vile pederast.
Her memories of Jonathan Tiersten, who played her cousin Ricky, were also very glowing. Turns out Jonathan had been her first love, and her first rendition of a relationship while they were on set. I loved hearing this, because Ricky was always my favorite character in the movie, and Felissa said his characterization wasn’t much of a stretch. He’d apparently ad-libbed a lot of his more memorable quotes in the movie, like “Eat shit and live” after being suggested to eat shit and die.
Their relationship had turned sour during filming though, and Felissa would point out scenes that had been especially difficult for her to film with Jonathan, because her wounds had still been fresh. Like in a scene where some girls in her cabin are playing volleyball. One of the girls in the scene was who Jonathan had started dating after Felissa, and she’d spent the shot dreaming of charging the court, opting to violently tango. Oh young love.
Also, get this, Ricky was supposed to die in the movie, at the end, when he’s alleged by another camp administrator to be the killer. That was taken from the script as they were filming though, and he ends up just getting his ass handed to him. This was one of very few changes that had been made as the movie went from script to screen.
Felissa said that Robert Hiltzik, the film’s writer and director, had been very personal about his creation. And very secretive. None of the actors (other than the killer) had been able to read the entire script until they finished filming. So no one on set knew who the real killer was, and everyone was hedging bets usually until their character got killed. Hiltzik was also reluctant to speak much about the movie after it was done, including any of his thematic intentions. The movie involves transsexualism, a homosexual couple raising kids, and more phallic imagery than you could shake an erect stick at. This was in the early 80s, when open talk of such things was typically either frowned upon or completely ignored. He also never spoke of his original inspiration behind the movie. Felissa said that when she asked him about his thought process in writing it, he had simply said, “I wrote a beginning. I wrote an end.” Holy shit what an end it is.
Felissa has also never been able to speak much to the man who provided the mind-boggling stunt cock. He had worn a prosthetic mask for the shot, and she said that he had been very effected by the experience, shedding tears after the cameras shut off. He’s refused to speak of it ever since.
After the movie was over she took the stage and opened the floor for a Q&A, where we learned all kinds of tidbits.
They had used real bees in the bathroom death, all orchestrated by a bee wrangler.
Felissa’s mother was with her the whole time, becoming set-mom for the entire cast.
Karen Fields, who played Judy, was their second choice for the role, after the original Judy turned it down when Hiltzik refused to revise her death-by-curling iron scene.
Felissa talked about bringing her whole 8th grade class to a screening of the movie when it came out. Now that’s my kinda field trip!
Sleepaway Camp also lead her to her husband, Deron Miller of skate-rock band CKY, who saw the movie as a kid and immediately wanted to marry Felissa Rose. They now have three teenage boys. She didn’t mention if he ever asks her to wear any, ahem, prosthetics.
She also discussed potential interpretations of the film, as Hiltzik has always continued to keep his cards so close to his chest. A lot of people are convinced that there were actually two killers, and the killer who is revealed at the end had an accomplice. Felissa discussed this theory and its articles of evidence. She got me pretty convinced.
I asked her if any other scenes had been changed during the filming, other than Ricky’s death being axed, and she said that her character (a 13-year-old mind you) was originally going to bare her breasts in a make-out scene she filmed on the beach. But, it being the 80s, the decision to opt out of this was due to inconsistencies in plot, not the ethics of showing a child’s nudity in a commercial motion picture.
After the Q&A she invited everyone to join her in the lobby, where she dressed up in her old Camp Arawak garb to sign autographs and take photos with her fans. I opted out because I’m 40 dammit, and I had a long bus ride home where I could then enjoy TV, beer and bed. And I’m shy. Plus, as much as I would have loved to talk to her and get an autograph, the film’s convincing plot was fresh in my mind and I didn’t want to end up headless on the beach down the street or dumped into a man-sized pot of water than was probably boiling in the concession stand somewhere.
And with that, I thank Felissa Rose, the Balboa Theatre, and horror fans nation-wide who help bring this wonderful movie to cult status. It’s made me one happy camper.
Felissa Rose IMDB:
Sleepaway Camp IMDB:
The Balboa Theatre:
Friday the 13th IMDB:
The Burning IMDB:
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