It Isn’t About the Dick: Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp

I first heard of Felissa Rose on The Last Drive-In.

Joe Bob Briggs had, during a “commercial” segment in his show, phoned her up and consulted her as a “mangled dick expert.”

Yeah. So, between her quips and her obvious charisma, I had to find out more about who she was.

I’ve mentioned on here before that I am not a horror expert. A lot of what I do here is me discovering the old classics for myself, or commenting on strange grindhouse, art, and mainstream movies and stories that speak to me in some way. Sometimes, I will just dissect, or reminiscence about my reactions toward them. Other times, I will create potentially bad revisions of the film stories for my experiments, or even outright homages (read: fanfiction).

But I was intrigued by Felissa Rose and her guest calls on The Last Drive-In. I figured out she was a legendary actress in the horror genre, and I had to check out the film in which she is most known: Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp.

Now, before I continue writing, I just want to say the following. When I started this Blog, I was going to begin small. Originally, I would look at some older, perhaps more obscure works, and give my takes on them. And then, Cannibal Holocaust happened. It side-swiped me. It hid in the jungle and blew a dart in me with a complex substance that I couldn’t suck out of my brain, or ignore.

And, in that same spirit, so did Sleepaway Camp.

Yes. Even before this death-dealer loving film returned to Shudder, I watched it. And I felt like I got trapped in the sights of that point of view killer camera angle.

Of course, as with most old films the ending was spoiled for me. As Joe Bob mentions in his interview with Felissa Rose that I finally got the opportunity to see not too long ago, I too believed this is where the origin of the “mangled dick expert” came from. But I, too, was wrong: just differently. You know a word or a concept can mean something ages before, and as time passes it changes. Sometimes, it transforms so much there are legends attached to it, even mythologies or tall-tales? This seems to be one of those times.

See, I’m going to spoil the ending to this 1986 film. I’m not going to do it right now, but when I give you the warning, and you want to watch this, run. This article will deal primarily in looking at this issue, and how it relates to the film.

But before we do that, I just want to say I actually enjoyed watching Sleepaway Camp. Felissa Rose plays a quiet, shy, awkward, and terrified thirteen year old girl named Angela Baker who goes to a summer camp with her cousin Ricky, and proceeds to get humiliated and terrorized by both her fellow campers, and some of the counselors.

So, here is your first spoiler warning, with a side of violent trigger warnings.

Angela Baker proceeds to kill everyone that has wronged her in the most creative, and brutal ways possible. It is bloody inspiring. We only, for ages, see through the camera as a first-person perspective. I can just imagine it as a video game like Dennis the Menace or Home Alone, except instead of escaping Mr. Wilson, or planting death-traps for Harry and Marv, you get to pour grease on a pedophile cook, stab a malicious counselor in the shower, shoot a child beater in the neck with an arrow, create a death by beehive situation to a counselor on the toilet, Anakin Skywalker some little shits with a machete that threw sand at you after nearly drowning, and introduce a particularly mean girl — intimately — to a curling iron.

Somehow, I don’t think that by even today’s standards, that it would be a game for children, even if it happened to them in this film.

Yes, you can tell how much I enjoyed this movie. Almost every person that dies in it, deserves their fate. And those whose fates you have conflicting feelings about, you can understand why they are killed. You actually emphasize with the killer. You feel bad for Angela, and towards the end of the film and looking back, I know I can totally root for her.

And then … there is the other revelation. So, this is where I am going to put spoilers up, with another trigger warning.

So, in 1975, before the film begins Angela is seen with her brother Peter with their father who gets into an accident due to some careless teenagers. As a result, there are some injuries and Angela is the only survivor. This is not the spoiler, however. What you find out is that Angela’s aunt, one Dr. Martha Thomas — who is so much more terrifying than Angela will ever be — decides that she has a son already, and wants to raise a girl.

To get back to the end of the film, we discover that Angela — who is extremely aquaphobic, has issues with burgeoning relationships and her body image, and won’t even shower with the other girls in her cabin — is biologically male. Essentially, the movie ends with one of the counselors finding Angela — this young, sensitive, introverted child you’ve been rooting for — with the decapitated head of the boy she liked, naked, and grinning like a maniac, with a low animal growl in her throat following the man shouting: “Oh my god! She’s a boy!”

… yeah.

There is Angela, who had been, or is still Peter, naked with a demented grin of utter torment on her face, and her penis is fairly clear with a body possessing visible chest hair.

So yeah. I walked right into this. And I was so sure, like Joe Bob, that Angela — and it is unclear to me whether or not good old Aunt Martha made Peter take his sister’s name along with her appearance in some good old fashioned misgendering for her sensibilities — suffered injuries from that accident, and perhaps this is why her Aunt and family influenced her to transition. And, thus, the origin of Felissa Rose’s moniker.

It turns out, we were both wrong.

A lot of reviewers have mentioned that the twist ending of Sleepaway Camp has not … aged well. And I see their point. The transphobic elements from the 1980s are pretty clear. Certainly, the fact that Angela and Peter’s father had been gay, or involved in a gay relationship before their accident adds some homophobia and the implication of this arrangement affecting Angela’s sense of identity adversely to this mix.

I don’t think at this point I’m telling you anything that you don’t already know, or can’t read elsewhere.

Personally, between you and I, I like other takes on this film. Certainly, BJ Colangelo, and more extensively her partner Harmony M. Colangelo on their Dread Central and Medium articles respectively, look at Angela Baker as a young victim of misgendering in a social system of transphobia and bigotry. Harmony M. Colangelo goes as far as to say that Angela is something of a Frankenstein’s creature: a symbol of transgender rage against a social order that maligns her because of her sense of identity.

Colangelo isn’t the only writer that identifies Angela as such. Daniel Sheppard sees Angela as a supposed antagonist that he identifies with as an LGBTQ+ man who had been a fifteen year old boy struggling with gayness. In addition, he ascribes to Angela something not out of place in The Queer Manifesto and Queer Ultra Violence: Bash Back! but draws the idea from Sam J. Miller’s “Assimilation and the Queer Monster.” Sheppard argues that the “queer monster” functions as a symbol of anger, and pain, and radicalism to which LGBTQ+ audiences can relate their anxiety and fear: something that the “normalizing” queer identity can erase for the sake of assimilation and hetero-normative comfort. In other words, the “queer monster” or ” queer radical” isn’t all about “gayness” as “happiness” but as a symbol of every terrible negative feeling an LGBTQ+ person is forced to feel in a system that is supposed to be “natural” or “no longer an issue.”

It’s easy, the argument goes, to claim that representation has been achieved, and there is no need for the radical another, but often the image of the radical or the “monster” makes you look at just how flawed society truly is: even when it seems to be “fixed” — and often isn’t. So when you look at Angela in that light, and consider her utter torment, and the discomfort of watching a young human being in their formative years twisted into something that barely resembles a human anymore, having sympathized with her and — literally — seeing her actions from her perspective, perhaps finding themselves complicit in the impetus that forced her to this point, in a dual juxtaposition that all comes together traumatically at the end of the film, it hits home just how utterly fucked up this situation truly is.

Did Robert Hiltzik and his crew intend this reading — this subversion — of transgender and LGBTQ+ exploitation? I don’t know. However, I was curious to know what Joe Bob and particularly Felissa Rose — who played Angela in every scene except for the murder perspectives, and the nude display of the character at the end — had to say about the issue.

It is already complicated. You have a cisgender girl playing what seems to be a transgender character, but when take away the time period and prejudices of the time in which the film is made, and you really look at the film: just what is Angela’s identity? How does she identify? Is she still Peter in her mind? Is he still there? Are they, beyond arguably functioning as a symbol of both “the danger of the queer infiltrating straight spaces” as Harmony M. Colangelo put it, or the radical image of LGBTQ+ pain striking back against “the heteropatriachal norm” as Sheppard states even transgender? What pronouns would they have? Do they even know? Does this character even know what, or who they are at this age where their aunt has proceeded to “convert” them into her perspective of the female gender?

Does this character, does Angela, like Arthur Fleck in Joker except from a gender identity slant even exist beyond working as a cipher for what others project onto, or see reflected in her portrayal?

Felissa Rose seems to think, from her interview with Joe Bob, that in that scene when Angela and Peter are facing each other after seeing their father and his boyfriend together, they are exploring their own concept of sexuality: a situation that gets disrupted with their father and sibling dies. It isn’t about the genitalia of Angela, or however or whoever this character identifies. Felissa corrects Joe Bob, and says that the character’s body is intact, which leads Joe Bob into making her The Last Drive-In‘s resident mangled dick expert. Rather, I would argue that what’s mangled is Angela’s mind and soul from a lifetime of trauma, and gender projection and enforcement.

Joe Bob says it best, I think. He tells Felissa Rose that he believes that it had been totally unnecessary to state that “She’s a boy!” That image of Angela, if you can even call her transgender — beyond any idea she may represent to audiences — growling deep in her throat, her face twisted into a death-head’s grin, her adolescent body covered in hair and blood, cradling the head of a boy she had confused and conflicted feelings about, is an image that will certainly haunt me far more than any ghost or spectacle ever could.

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