Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sledgehammer (1983)

DVD: Sledgehammer

(Unrated; 1983; 85 minutes; Intervision Picture Corp.; street date: May 10, 2011; SRP: $19.95)

Why me? Why DVD? But foremost of all, why SOV?

The flourishing home video market of the early 1980s saw more than a fair share of exploitation and cheapo horror pics making immortal conversions from 35mm to VHS through distributors like Vestron Video, Continental Video and, holding the most court in my nostalgia-addled mind, Media Home Entertainment. Amongst such drive-in gems as Demonoid, Hell Night, The Centerfold Girls, and Maniac, Media had Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Basket Case, which was my adolescent idea of the holy triumvirate. Even the legendary Twentieth Century Fox had gotten their hands on some of the titles in Avco Embassy’s library in those days, meaning you’d see their prestigious logo preceding such titles as Phantasm, Scanners and The Howling (if only they had the tenacity to release them to cinemas in the first place). Although nothing takes the place of a timely theatrical screening of these titles, at least you had 24/7 access to them by miracle of the videocassette. That comes in handy especially after you’ve drunk your weight in Surge.

But what was truly astounding about the VHS era was how it opened the floodgates for a whole new era of DIY filmmaking. That is where David A. Prior’s mad-slasher-on-camcorder opus Sledgehammer comes in, the second American film to be shot on video after Johnn Wintergate’s infamous demonic possession crap-sterpiece Boardinghouse from 1982, which could feasibly be re-titled and re-released now as Beyond the Room.

Boardinghouse, though, did not go directly to video, instead getting blown up to 35mm for a very limited theatrical release (the Alamo Drafthouse currently has one of the Boardinghouse cans in their possession). Taken as some form of disqualification, this means that Sledgehammer was the first SOV film to go DTV, before Christopher Lewis (Blood Cult, The Ripper, Revenge) or Gary P. Cohen (Video Violence 1 & 2) or Jon McBride (Woodchipper Massacre, Cannibal Campout) made their respective bloody splashes. And unlike Wintergate, Lewis, Cohen or McBride, Prior somehow went on to make cheesy movies using actual film stock (search Killzone and Deadly Prey on YouTube).

An unsung relic from the 1980s slasher cycle, mostly because it was distributed by a small label and never lucked out on a Video Treasures reissue in its wake, Sledgehammer begins with a flashback sequence that incorporates two of the film’s major crutches: interminably extended takes and even more grueling slow-motion abuse. A 20 second shot outside a farmhouse attempts to lull you into a sense of security before the camera zooms in and the soundtrack swells with heated screaming. I guess the investors got a good look at the finished product and Prior simply recorded their reactions so that the audio could be placed over the scene.

Inside the farmhouse, a harpy in a nightgown coerces her eight-year-old son to spend the night inside a closet so she can engage in some adulterous sex with a married man miles away from any suspicion. The simple act of bolting the door is stretched out via slo-mo for dramatic effect but is so ridiculously long that this sets off one of the great running jokes one can latch onto in the hopes of starting an “everybody wins” drinking game. Their little clandestine rendezvous doesn’t exactly end well, as a psycho with a sledgehammer bashes in the man’s head (the film’s earliest and juiciest kill) before bludgeoning the pleading woman off-screen (“Please, Hammer, don‘t hurt me”).

A decade later, seven terminal preppies are dropped off at the murder scene for a Budweiser-fueled getaway. Six of them seem to be paired off into couples, but much of their romantic dialogue consists of tedious anti-commitment discussions that had me nervously anticipating a roller rink organ would punctuate the ending of each exchange. The lead characters, beefy blonde Chuck (Ted Prior) and his subservient paramour Joni (Linda McGill), struggle with the notion of marriage betwixt long walks in the fields and impromptu food fights. As wiser men once said, only love pads the film, especially the former traipsing sequence, which is a speechless single-take clip whose only musical backing seems more suited to advertising slides on a theater screen. You’d likely sneak in a nap due to the fact that it goes on for infinity, but then you would miss the kicker: Chuck tries to balance a beer can on his supposed fiancée’s noggin. Why didn’t Ted Prior become the Ross Hagen of his generation, again?

Ted Prior is truly a renaissance man. In his brother’s debut film, he not only helped out with the gory FX sequences (credited using the Troma-style goof name of “Blood & Guts”), but he also created the opening title sequence (a bloodletting clay mold of the film’s title suddenly decimated by a trusty sledge) and designed the cover art, too. Also, we are treated to random shots of Prior doing a catastrophic Carl Spackler imitation, lazing shirtlessly around the front porch strumming his acoustic guitar (longtime Playgirl readers rejoice!) and, in the action-packed finale, dishing out a Swayze-approved beatdown on the film’s lurching killer as his brother Ted steals the iconic behind-the-mask POV shot from Halloween. Although all of the performances are as unpolished and inconsistent as you’re likely to encounter in anything shot on VHS, Ted at least goes the extra yard to give this one some camp value.

Sledgehammer eventually picks up once Prior Chuck unleashes the Furey (as in John Furey, for all the truly hip genre geeks out there) and decides to conduct a séance to communicate with the ghosts of the murdered philanderers. Although he and prankster bachelor Joey (Steve Wright) stage this mainly to freak out boorish ginger John (John Eastman), the unexpected result is that a phantom killer (Doug Matley) is awakened, decked out in a plaid checkered shirt, covering his face with a transparent half-mask that has plastic teeth above his upper lip, and, of course, dragging along his ungodly hammer. After dispatching Joey with a knife through the neck (huh?), he turns his attention to the most disposable of the couples, Jimmy (Tim Aguilar) and Carol (Sandy Brooke), who consummate their reluctant physical attraction with hot, barenaked, strategically placed comforter-assisted sex.

Had this been a video review, I’d not only point out that the surprisingly timid Jimmy looks astoundingly like John Oates, but I’d also sneak in a video clip from Patton Oswalt’s 2004 Comedy Central special No Reason to Complain. At one point, Oswalt lambastes reality shows and, in particular, one spotlighting those with such low self-opinions that they crave looking like celebrities over developing a genuine personality: "If that show had existed in the 1980s, there’d be guys walking around looking like Hall & Oates right now going ‘Yeah, I look like John Oates from Hall & Oates, I know...Life’s alright. I’m on a pussy train and it’s never derailing..." (Dig that photo to the left...he's modeling Southern Comfort shampoo well before Ke$ha ever thought of brushing her teeth with J.D.)

It’s only fitting I invoke the notion that maybe that show DID exist in the Me Decade by some miraculous satellite-induced time vortex, because Sledgehammer proceeds to make incrementally less sense as it goes along. I’ve watched this movie six times since I first bought it (don’t try this at home), and damned if I know exactly who committed the opening murders, especially considering the fact that a sledgehammer would be rather cumbersome for a eight-year-old to carry. The killer, who is as much of an apparition as his titular weapon, stalks the victims as both his younger self and his 10-years-older incarnation, which hardly looks like a young man in his late teens (ditto the main cast, some of which may be parents of the Evil Dead victims). The movie tosses in a skeleton in the closet and a blood-marked pentagram on the wall at one key sequence, which doesn’t provide any rationale to the proceedings. And what about the inconsistencies regarding the killer’s vulnerability to pain, whether he is stabbed, crippled or electrocuted? Even Jason Voorhees carried over his battle scars throughout the course of the early F-13 films.

With a script that could’ve been written on gum wrapper and obnoxious characters whom you root against, Prior relies on the tools of video filmmaking and editing, from chroma key filters, dissolves, freeze frames, and, of course, snail-speed playback, to give this movie a certain style. When the jersey-jockeying John, who asserts his alpha male status via vag grabs, swish cowboy impressions and triple-decker sandwich crams, ventures off in search of the killer, the result is unexpectedly nightmarish in tone and the flagrant illogic, including a surprise bit of teleportation as well as the aforementioned nods to skeletons and Satanism, creates some tension. More often than not, though, these choices only serve to stretch out a film that by all rights should’ve been 15 minutes (or maybe even an hour) shorter. By beating you over the head with these tricks (forgive the blatant analogy), the moments in which they work for the film are superceded by overkill. The opening flashback scene is even recycled mid-film with the exact same use of slow-motion in regards to a character bolting a fucking door!

I try not to read reviews of a movie I willfully searched out with intent to review beforehand, but Sledgehammer carries such a legacy amongst tape-collecting gorehounds that even I, an avid VHS junkie of the early 1990s, couldn’t resist. I found a lot of defense for this film’s surreal narrative disconnect and even invocations of eventual midnite movie sensations such as Troll 2 and The Room. Contrary to Theater Thoughts' John Carpenter’s blurb regarding Sledgehammer, the slasher movie equivalent of Troll 2 existed before this, and it’s called Pieces (although, if Sledgehammer had somebody randomly pissing during the food fight, I’d reconsider). David A. Prior admits throughout the DVD extras that he just wanted to make a movie, no film school training or apprenticeship required. After watching this enough times to reach a final conclusion, allow me to say that Sledgehammer may as well be the Manos: The Hands of Fate of the slasher renaissance.

The first thing you see after the DVD loads is the classic “flashing red FBI” warning screen typical of an FHE/IVE presentation from an 1980s videocassette. Mute the audio and you could’ve temporarily fooled me into thinking somebody sent me a VHS-to-DVD transfer of my lost Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 tape. The Intervision logo then appears in all its lo-fi glory, and in case you didn’t know, Intervision is now a subsidiary of Birdemic distributors Severin Films, having acquired the company after the passing of founder Larry Gold Sr. Their DVD library of traditional cult films is rock solid (Bloody Moon, Bloody Birthday, Santa Sangre, Hardware, Inglorious Bastards), but now they have a niche label for SOV titles. The previews featured as bonus features include a gory Maple Leaf of an oddity called Things, The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer and A Night to Dismember, which was previously released by Elite Entertainment and is directed by Doris Wishman, the Bad Girls Go to Hell/Let Me Die a Woman auteur herself.

Speaking of tape-to-disc conversion, I didn’t expect pristine definition from a movie whose master copy could have existed in a box labeled Fuji. The full-screen presentation is dutifully blessed with overscan lines at the bottom of the frame, and though the image fluctuates in regards to detail and saturation (the whites are unusually blinding at times), we’re talking a generally soft level of contrast and colors. I’ve seen worse quality on other digitally-preserved SOV titles, though, and Sledgehammer looks like it was sourced from a standard-play recording. The equally-handicapped Dolby 2.0 soundtrack could have passed as an audible mono mix, but Intervision cues you into raising the volume and bass frequencies into the red so that the myriad one-note synthesizer cues become even more discordant.

Sledgehammer “superfan” Clint Kelley moderates a commentary track with David A. Prior, whose basic, rather reluctant recollections of making his first film (or genuine lack thereof) offers more of a platform for Kelley to wax ecstatic about its perceived brilliance. There’s something about Kelley’s mad gushing over the film’s (im)perfections (the “clever” fake names, the “unique” deployment of slow motion, the “great character development,” Ted Prior’s “horror host impression” during the séance) and the Alabama-accented Prior’s frank responses to his gauntlet of questions/observations that makes this one of the more entertaining geek-oriented commentaries I’ve ever heard. One of the track’s highlights finds Kelley theorizing about who the opening murderer is and how the imprisoned boy became one himself, after which an amused Prior confesses that he didn’t have a back story and just wrote what was to be filmed. It’s at this point that Prior himself transmogrifies from an H.P. Warren to a P.T. Barnum.

Because one fanboy commentary is never enough, there is a second yakker that simply lets SOV enthusiasts Joseph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik at Bleeding Skull cut loose with a bottle of brandy and no pretense to providing movie-specific trivia. The duo takes Sledgehammer less seriously than Kelley but still are aware of its charms, thus allowing for some humorous familial connections to the characters and plenty of context for the film in regards to both gonzo cinema (a reference to H.G. Lewis’ Jimmy, the Boy Wonder) and their real-life experiences. Budnik has a more animated personality and a quick wit, as well as great stories of staking out video stores in his native Rochester. However, Ziembra gets all the best anecdotes, especially in regards to cultivating his VHS collection whilst touring with his band and usually at the expense of providing for himself and his former wife. They also give you a handy idea of just how rare this film’s initial video release was by remembering where they were when they first saw it, which was something Kelley overlooked.

Better still, Alamo Drafthouse programmer and Destroy All Movies! author Zack Carlson provides a reverent video interview in front of his own exhaustive, alphabetically-arranged VHS collection. Why, there’s that copy of 555 mentioned by the Bleeding Skull dudes! Give it back, Zack! The film’s premiere theatrical screening courtesy of Cinefamily’s Hadrian Belove and Tom Fitzgerald is remembered by the two in green screen-assisted interview segment which places them in Prior’s apartment/rooms of doom. Despite a month-long build-up, the event took place the day after Halloween in 2008, “a pre-hungover screening” at which about only 12 people showed up, all pretty much spent from the night before. Carlson and the Cinefamily tag team each proffer their perspective on what they enjoyed about Sledgehammer, with Carlson’s defense seeming the most definitive of all the participants, even David A. Prior, who gets the last on-screen interview featurette all to himself and once again seems to discuss the film against his will, sharing the same stories and production details mentioned in the commentary.

Bottom line: Sledgehammer blows, but that doesn’t mean it won’t blow you away. Significant for being the first SOV horror film made exclusively for the home entertainment market, it embodies all of the tedious flaws and occasionally some of the strange magic that came with the movement. The over-congratulatory if highly enjoyable DVD features butter up this movie more than one would a muffin, and David A. Prior seems cagey in the wake of all these testimonies. Almost an entire hour of the film made me glad that despite DVD technology having made tracking problems a thing of the past, they mercifully kept the fast-forward button. But by the time John Oates’ doppelganger takes a fatal hit to the chest post-coitus, Sledgehammer proceeds to smash you up into something that could be poured into a container and labeled “from concentrate.” It doesn’t so much deserve a recommendation as much as it commands a dare.

Movie grade: 1.5/5.
Video grade: 2/5.
Audio grade: 2.5/5.
Extras grade: 3.5/5.
Final grade: 2/5.


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