Written and Directed by: : David Prior
Starring: Ted Prior, Linda McGill, and John Eastman
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ďGentlemenÖI believe itís time we get pretty shit-faced.Ē
Another recent review caused me to ponder that the 80s (and early 90s) equivalent of the grindhouse would be the video stores that were littered with worn out tapes and beat up covers. If one really scoured the dustiest, dingiest corners (read: the horror section) of these stores, you would find a definitive representative of 80s horror: the shot-on-video flick. These movies sported the lowest of the low budgets and made their DTV contemporaries and descendents look downright polished by comparison. Perhaps not coincidentally, the SOV market boomed alongside the slasher craze, probably because both only required a few essential and easily attainable elements: a creepy location (a forest or an abandoned house/building), an ample cast, and buckets of blood. Believe it or not, though, the first flick of this type, Sledgehammer, also dared to be a little weird. And maybe a little stylish.
A guy and a married woman take off to a remote house so they can get to know each other better. The lady brings her kid along, but she disposes of that buzzkill by locking him in a closet. The two lovers donít even manage to get their clothes off before someone barges in and bludgeons them to death with a sledgehammer. Ten years later, a group of kids show up at the same house to booze it up for the weekend. They make a common b-movie mistake and perform a sťance in an attempt to communicate with the couple that got their brains bashed in. Instead, the sledgehammer-wielding maniac returns to continue his bloody work.
This one obviously approaches with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and is an unabashed body count flick with most of that genreís calling cards. That already requires a certain sort of appreciation, but the SOV nature will appeal to an even more marginal crowd. Itís an odd low-budget aesthetic if youíre not used to it--the picture is hazy, washed out, and resembles a daytime soap most of the time. Itís accompanied by one of those typical, droning 80s scores where it sounds like a guy pounded on a few keys on a Casio and called it a day. Most will call this crap, but others will call it charming. If youíre in the latter category, you will find a lot to like, as stuff like this carries a lot of nostalgic currency. And while that doesnít cover up its obvious flaws (poor acting and a non-existent plot), the feeling it exudes is distinctive. Little things like the opening credits (which have obviously been created by someone tinkering on a computer) will bring back a lot of memories for video store veterans.
Sledgehammer has its own brand of weirdness attached to it too. Director Prior uses slow motion with reckless abandon and fills the movie with all sorts of gratuitous padding--and not just of the blood and boobs variety. Thereís also unusually long establishing shots and numerous instances of opening, closing, and locking of doors. The movie even dwells on the kids unpacking the van for an unnatural amount of time. If you removed all this and the slow motion, Iím sure the already brisk flick would probably come in at about an hour long. Yet, somehow, it works. Iíll admit it almost lost me during one random interlude featuring a couple taking a (slow motion) countryside stroll set to some acoustic guitar pickings. But then the dude inexplicably used the chickís head as a coaster for his beer, and I knew the party was right on.
And indeed it was, as Sledgehammer mixes in some teen party movie elements before the heavy bloodletting gets underway. Most of the better slashers of the era thrived with this tactic, which usually manages to endear the characters to the audience in some fashion. Sure, no oneís going to accuse this one of boasting a stellar cast (Ted Prior is a face that will only be familiar to rabid B-movie fans), but the antics are kind of fun. Itís the usual sort of stuff--food fights, heavy drinking, and sex--you know, the things that get you killed in movies like this. Anyone who still likes to party like itís 1989 will also get a kick out of the 80s vibe and fashions: feathered hair, short shorts, Geraldo Ďstaches, and topless beefcakes abound.
All of that's just a prelude to the skull-crushing though, which gets started in earnest with the sťance. Itís an obvious rip of the infamous campfire scene in Friday the 13th 2 (and even directly lifts some dialogue from it), but I like that sort of urban legend junk, so it probably comes off more atmospheric than it should. From there, it turns into something that would be more aptly called a ďbasher,Ē considering the implement of death involved (fret not, hack-and-slash fans, thereís one especially rad instance of impalement). Our cast expectedly gets smashed and bashed with ample amounts of gruesome effects work; more unexpected, however, is the bizarre effectiveness of these scenes. The trademark slow motion is on full display here; when combined with the filmís general haziness and the depraved violence, it creates a hallucinatory nightmare effect. The last twenty minutes or so especially feel like some sort of half-remembered night terror that illogically moves from one weird scene to the next. A would-be victim teleports through a door, and the next thing you know, weíre looking at the weird aftermath of a Satanic ritual (complete with hastily scrawled pentagrams). Before we know it, we realize that our heroes might be running from a ghost.
Itís an odd turn of events, but an effective one that would make Sledgehammer stick out on an old video store shelf, assuming the box art was also cool enough. Of course, said art was pretty cool, and you can actually see it reproduced on Intervision's (who recently teamed with Severin) new DVD release of the film. Thatís just the beginning of the discís nostalgia trip, as everything from the FBI warning to the menus have been done up to resemble an old tape thatís been run through the ringer. Donít worry about needing a tracking button though, as the transfer has this one looking as fine as it ever will--its SOV origins are obvious and there are a few artifacts, but itís very watchable. The soundtrack is nice and loud--in fact, an on-screen message intones you to crank your system up to get the full effect. Special features include featurettes with Zack Carlson, Harlan Belove, and Tom Fitzgerald, an interview with director Prior (who admits he made this movie just to make one and bypass film school), and trailers for Things, A Night to Dismember, and The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer. It also boasts not one, but two commentaries: one with Prior and another one with Joseph Ziamba and Dan Budnik (the guys from Bleeding Skull). In short, itís probably more than even the most devout Sledgehammer fan ever thought theyíd get. If you count yourself among that crowd, the only thing thatís missing is the clamshell case. Buy it!
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