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Article: A Sleepawayer Awakens

Fangoria Magazine No. 222, May 2003
By Michael Gingold

Years after her "Camp" classic, actress Felissa Rose is back getting down and bloody.

In 1992, The Crying Game caused a sensation by making its "heroine" a girl with, let's say, something extra. This twist on gender perception caused quite a stir---but horror fans had seen it all before. Nearly a decade earlier, the slasher opus Sleepaway Camp startled fans not only be revealing it's killer to be the shy and gentle camper Angela, but by showing in the most explicit way possible that she was actually a he, a boy heretofore raised as a girl.

More then anything else, that finale won Sleepaway Camp a cult following that continues to this day, with two questions likely uppermost in the fans' minds: How was that climatic shot pulled off, and and what happened yo Felissa Rose, the young actress who portrayed the crossdressing little psycho?

This year, horror devotees will learn second query in a big way. Rose is coming back with almost as much a vengeance as she demonstrated in playing Angela, appearing in a string of independent  horror features, beginning with Andreas Schnaas' gorefest Nikos the Impaler (debuting on a Schnaas-produced DVD; see www.nikos-themovie.com for details). She also has a cameo role in Horror, the second film from Desecration director Dante Tomaselli, arriving on disc from Elite Entertainment May 27.

As for that first issue: So, did the actress wear a very special prosthetic, or ... "We've talked about it at conventions and things, but people still wonder,"  Rose says. "Just to set the record straight, Ed French, our make-up effects person, made a mold of my face with my mouth open [and screaming]. Then [director] Robert Hiltzik found a boy, a college student---he had to be 18 to do the nudity, but he had to be small because I'm small, and have a narrow face to fit my 13-year-old face cast. It was very difficult to find that boy, and I'm sure it would be difficult to find him again [laughes] ! He got really drunk, put the mask on and did the scene naked. All the close-ups are mine, and all the full-length shots are his.

Rose is flashing back to this memorable screen debut on the set of Nikos, in which she and Joe Zaso  play college professors contending with the titular reanimated barbarian cutting a bloody swath through New York City. Relaxing in the green room of a small Long Island soundstage while all manner of disgusting mayhem is prepped nearby, the actress recalls that her trip to Camp occurred "when I was 13, exactly 20 years ago, in upstate New York City. I wanted to be an actress and got a local manager, and he got a call from Robert Hiltzik, who had contracted all the New York agents, saying, "We'd like to meet as many kids as we can.' So I went in, and he and I immediately bonded. It was strange, like a brother-sister thing. He offered me the role, and I said yes."

But not before getting her parents' permission, which might seem easier said then done for such a graphic film. "They were really young---hey were my age at the time," Rose recalls, "and they thought it was a hoot for me to do a horror movie. They said, 'Sure, as long as you don't have to be nude or kill anybody.' " It was for another reason, though, that her hands in the murder scenes were doubled by actor Jonathan Tierston, who plays her onscreen cousin Ricky. "Robert wanted more masculine hands," Rose explains. "Mine are small and feminine, so ..."

All the bloodletting is Angela's revenge for the constant torment she suffers from fellow campers and counselors alike, but Rose recalls that her  experience on the set was far less traumatic. "I kind of wish I could say, 'Yeah, it was really tortuous,' " she laughs, "but I got along exceptionally well with everyone. We were only shooting a couple pages of dialogue a day, and when the camera stopped, I would laugh and play around with everyone. There's so much waiting around when you're making a film that you get really close."

Although the actress did meet with producer Jerry Silva about reprising the now sex-changed murderess for the direct to video Sleepaway Camp 2 and 3, Pamela Springsteen wound up taking over the role.  "She was awesome," Rose says. "Unfortunately, she and I have never met, have never spoken, and I'm a great admirer of hers. Maybe in the future we can get together and talk Angela."

Certainly, many other people have enjoyed chatting about the character, and Rose's on-line popularity helped lead to her recent career resurgence after her long stretcg away from the cameras. "I just didn't get any work, really," after Camp, she says. "I was a teenager, in high school, and I wasn't  pursuing [film] as much as I am now as an adult. I decided to go to college, got my BFA and did a lot of theater. I married a theater director [they have since divorced], mad he and I wrote a bunch of plays and did original productions in New York. And a few years ago, Jeff Hayes from Sleepawaycampmovies.com wrote me a letter saying, 'Hey, I just want to know where you are.' From there, I started getting e-mails from young directors who were fans of Sleepaway Camp saying, 'Hey can you do my film?' "

One of those admirers was Nikos actor and line producer Zaso. "He and I were in touch through e-mail, and we met in January. He told me all about the project and gave me the script [by Ted Geoghegan]. When I heard Andreas Schnaas was directing, I definitely wanted to be a part of it. I really enjoy the fact that he is so completely---I don't want to use the word 'obsessed'---but in love with the gore and blood. I've never been a part of a film that has so many killings. So I was fascinated by that, and wanted to be involved in a horror film of that type. I had yet to play sort of the co-star to the gore." 

There's certainly plenty of that to go around, as FX creators  Marcus Koch and Jesus Vega have contributed a seemingly endless supply of guts, other body parts and blood galore, with Schnaas committing much of the onscreen mayhem in the title role. "He was a lot of fun with the effects, " Rose says. "Everything from their creation down to having as much blood around as we can. I think we bought out the Karo syrup at local stores.

"I thought in the beginning that there would be a language barrier" with the German Schnaas, "and it was a little  difficult for me at first because I had never played this type of woman. She's a professor, very conservative, or smiley or sexy or anything, and I had to get my head into sort of downplaying  who I am, and I had to converse  quite a bit about that, and once  we started having that dialogue, I became very excited, and he directed, me well."

The straightforward gut-spewing of Nikos is a far cry from the surrealistic Horror, which begins with a demonic goat terrorizing a girl and switches to a group of youths fleeing a drug rehab center center and arriving at a farmhouse, where one of them kills a preacher who runs the place. Then things get weird. Very weird. So, Felissa, what's your take on this unusual (and very well shot by Tim Kaylor) film?

"My interpretation of Horror is that it is whatever you want it to be," Rose says. "Very much like David Lynch, Dante does not like to spoon-feed his viewers. He's  about allowing you to keep yourself open and enjoy the ride, and whatever you come out with is your own individual experience. I found the script to be exciting, because it was so original. We' ve spoken about other horror films that  are formulaic, and do what everyone else does. What I love about Dante is that whether you like it or you don't, or you get the story or you don't, it's completely it own kind."

The actress hopes to reteam with Tomaselli on Satan's Playground, in which she and The Evil Dead's Ellen Sandweiss would play sisters. In the meantime, she trekked to Florida last year to take another small gig in Jose Prendes' Corpses Are Forever, opposite a whole group of fellow genre actresses---Debbie Rocho, Brinke Stevens and Linnea Quigley, along  with Richard Lynch and Prendes himself . Of her femme co-stars, Rose raves, "I  grew up watching them and loving  them and being inspired by them, and I can't even  believe I've gotten the chance to work with them, So that was a great trip."

With a title like Corpses are Forever, you'd expect a spoof, but Rose notes, "No, it's played straight. It's based on a short Jose called Nerve that's been showing at film festivals, and this feature uses Nerve as a flashback. It's incredibly creative. He threw so many ideas at me  when we were just driving around during the day, and the film is going to be very exciting and unique."

She faced  further undead travails and a whole slew of B-film veterans in Zombiegeddon, shot in Kansas  City by writer/director Chris Watson. "That was an interesting cast," Rose says. "Everybody is in that, from Julie Strain to Robert Z ' Dar, Joe Estevez, Lloyd Kaufman, Lienna---it's an interesting cast," which  also includes Stevens, Tom Savini, Tina Krause, Edwin Neal, J.R. Bookwalter and Ariauna Albright. "That was a lot of fun; I play a cheerleader being chased by zombies. And I also did Scary Tales 2 in Florida with Mike Hoffman. We shot that through the night for a weekend, and that was cool."

In the midst of all this activity, the possibility arose of a Return to Sleepaway Camp  after all these years, with Hiltzik back at the helm and French slinging the gore once again. "We were actually in pre-production on that a little over a year ago", Rose reveals. "We had practically everything set, except that Ed said there was no way the effects could get done in time, and then 9 /11 [the tragedy of September 11th] happened. That was pretty during  our   first week of shooting. So we took the year  off, and tried to regroup. Now we're  getting back  on track, so I hope to get word soon that we'll be starting  to film again this film."

Should Rose reprise the role of Angela, it's not clear whether  the characters would be, let's say, postoperative, as she was in the first pair of sequels. But the actress will continue  a bit of identity-altering of her own."My real name is Felissa Esposito; Rose is my middle name,"  she reveals . "When I was cast in Sleepaway Camp, my manager said, 'OK, now that you're an actress, you need a to get rid of the ethnic last name.' To drop Esposito, which makes me really sad because that's who I am---I'm Italian-American. That's who I am, that's what I look like. People have said, 'Why don't you just add it back now?' and I'm thinking  about it. But it has been a while; I' ve been Felissa Rose for so long."

Certainly, her recent genre roles haven't been ethnic-specific. "In Nikos, I play the all-American heroine," she says. "And what is all-American? I'll never forget when I saw a Pepsi commercial with an African-American woman saying 'I am the American woman,' and she is; we all are. It's a melting pot. Thank God, you know, that we don't all look the same. I'm so fortunate that I can, hopefully, not be completely stereotyped, and be given the chance to play anything. It doesn't matter what the background is."

But if she should become typecast as a genre heroine, Rose doesn't seem to mind. "I love horror films," she says. "I'm a fan---I'm here [on the Nikos set] just to see the gore effects being filmed today. This has been a great ride for me, and wherever it leads me, I'm happy."



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