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Saturday, April 30, 2011

SLEDGEHAMMER -- DVD review by porfle

It's always interesting to come across an obscure, previously-unseen example of the classic 80s-era slasher flick.  Few, however, are as obscure as SLEDGEHAMMER (1983),  a super-low-budget chiller with the distinction of being the very first horror movie shot on video. 

Writer-director David A. Prior, who went on to churn out such films as DEADLY PREY and HORROR WORKOUT, chose for his debut feature to delve into the horror genre made popular by such hits as HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH.  After coming up with a screenplay that combined elements of those films with a few ideas of his own, Prior rented some commercial video equipment (thus avoiding the "camcorder" look of many later shot-on-video features), got some actors and friends together in his apartment, and managed to come up with something that a number of devoted fans are still watching and talking about almost thirty years later.

The story is pretty basic.  A prologue shows a "bad mommy" (the cute Mary Mendez) locking her little boy in a closet so she can have some private time with the sleazy lover (Michael Shanahan) she's just left her husband for.  But as they start to "get it on" in the livingroom, someone comes up from behind and bashes them to bits with a sledgehammer. 

Cut to ten years later, when a gaggle of frat rats and their ditzy girlfriends pull up in front of the same house (which is in the middle of nowhere, of course) and come bursting out of their van ready to PAR-TEHHH!  It doesn't take long for them to start getting killed off either one at a time or in pairs (right after having sex, natch) by a big scary-looking guy who wears a Halloween mask and wields a sledgehammer.  Things get interesting when the story takes a supernatural turn, with the killer, the little boy, and the sledgehammer itself appearing and disappearing all over the place, giving us something to ponder about while seeing which of the erstwhile party-hearty bunch will make it out of the house alive.

I couldn't wait for this gang of beer-guzzling idiots to start getting sledgehammered, yet their antics are so ridiculous as to be almost delightfully entertaining in a way.  While the acting isn't as horrible as it might have been and some of the players actually deliver dialogue fairly well, several scenes consist of nothing more than lengthy wide shots in which they all chatter away while engaging in drunken horseplay and, in the film's dumbest sequence, an utterly nauseating food fight at the dinner table. 

I don't know how many guys would actually pour a bottle of mustard on their girlfriend's head as a whimsical lark, but our hero Chuck (the director's brother, Ted Prior) does just that, which doesn't set well with Joni (Linda McGill), who hits him in the face with a pie, setting off a blizzard of flying food.  Later, our fun-loving dolts retire to the livingroom for alcohol-fueled activities such as pouring whiskey over their own heads, licking each other's faces, and falling out of their chairs.  Brawny Bluto-equivalent John (John Eastman), who earlier amazed his friends by stuffing an entire sandwich into his mouth, entertains everyone by acting "gay" and planting a kiss on the lips of lighthearted loner Joey (Steve Wright). 

Amazingly enough, there is some character development in the midst of all this.  Chuck and Joni have some serious scenes in which they discuss his reluctance to get married, while pretty blonde Carol (Sandy Brooke) desperately urges handsome Jimmy (Tim Aguilar) to have sex with her and can't understand (nor can we) why he keeps putting her off.  Perhaps Jimmy is aware of how dangerous it is to have sex in a slasher movie.  Meanwhile, Mary (Jeanie Scheer) simply wishes that Big John would stop licking her face and evolve into something more closely resembling a human being.

The first murder comes in the middle of a seance that Chuck has arranged in order to invoke the spirits of the couple who were murdered ten years earlier.  Here, both director Prior and his brother do some of their best work as Chuck dramatically recounts the creepy story (via flashbacks of the entire prologue) complete with some really good lighting and camerawork.  Nobody seems to notice the absence of their murdered friend, but the discovery of two more chums bloodily bludgeoned in bed clues them in that something is amiss.  In true slasher flick tradition, they decide not to flee the house but rather hole up in the livingroom until dawn, whereupon one of them wanders off alone and runs smack dab into the killer. 

This is where the fun really starts, with 6'7" tall Doug Matley stalking the narrow hallway of David Prior's cramped apartment with his sledgehammer, wearing that creepy mask and popping up wherever our heroes least expect it.  That pesky kid keeps turning up, too, and we're never sure what's going on with those two--are they both ghosts?  Is the big guy a grown-up version of the little guy?  David Prior doesn't even know.  Anyway, some fairly exciting mayhem ensues and there's some homestyle gore here and there, too.  Prior shows flashes of style at times and his actors rise to the occasion with some pretty enthusiastic screaming and groveling during the climactic scenes. 

How much you enjoy SLEDGEHAMMER will depend largely on your tolerance for such no-budget shot-on-video fare.  True connoisseurs of such VHS-era exploitation stuff will eat it up, while many viewers will find it unwatchable even though the video quality is good.  The best way to appreciate it is to consider the conditions under which it was made and glean what good things are to be found, while enjoying its entertainingly bad qualities as well. 

Prior does display some imagination in the supernatural aspects of the story, and his staging of scenes within the gloomy, white-walled confines of his sweltering apartment gives the film a strangely oppressive atmosphere.  Not so appealing are the many slow-motion stretches used to pad the film to feature length--while some are eerily effective, others seem interminable.  There is, however, a giddily perverse charm to Chuck and Joni's agonizingly slow romantic stroll in which it takes them two or three minutes just to walk twenty feet. 

The DVD from Intervision Picture Corp., specialists in this kind of old-style VHS fare, is in fullscreen with Dolby Digital sound.  A commentary track and a ten-minute interview both feature Clint Kelly of Riot Releasing patiently coaxing reminiscences about the film from a not-that-excited David Prior.  A second commentary track with Joseph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik of is unreservedly fannish and a lot more fun.  In addition to trailers for other Intervision releases, there are two brief featurettes--"Hammertime!" with Destroy All Movies!!! author Zack Carlson, and "Sledgehammerland" with Hadrian Belove and Tom Fitzgerald, whose big-screen showing of the film on Halloween 2008 garnered an audience of about twelve stalwart viewers.

While barely qualifying as a "movie" as most people think of them, SLEDGEHAMMER is actually one of the best shot-on-video cheapies I've seen and subsequent viewings have only increased my fondness for it.  If you're nostalgic for the good old days of going to hole-in-the-wall video stores to rent worn VHS copies of horror titles now lost to the depths of obscurity, this odd little artifact of a bygone time will probably be right up your dark alley.

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