Monday, August 27, 2018

"So Are You, But Who's Complaining?" - Sledge Hammer (1983)

We now turn to the 1983 shot-on-video movie Sledge Hammer, the directorial debut of David A. Prior. Firmly ensconced in the pantheon of 1980s horror films due to the fact that it was one of the first shot-on-video slasher movies, Sledge Hammer, for some reason, is not widely respected among the critics of your universe.

For example, reviewer Lee Eisenberg writes, "'Sledgehammer' - whose title basically explains the entire plot, if you can call it a plot - is truly the bottom of the barrel." Reviewer cyco7410 writes, "this one was just UNWATCHABLE." Critic Zbigniew_Krycsiwiki complains, "At one point, the filmmakers seemingly forgot they were doing a slasher film, and meander into a food fight, which lasts for nearly eight minutes."

Your universe must be dull indeed if an eight-minute food fight is not considered to be a spectacular addition to any movie! Read on to truly appreciate the high quality of Sledge Hammer (1983)...

The film begins with an artistic dissolve to the image of a small house behind a white picket fence. Defying the conventions of popular film, director David A. Prior holds on the image for exactly 32 seconds before zooming in to the house and beginning the story, which involves a woman in a nightgown yelling at her son and locking him inside a closet—with a deadbolt.

The woman then goes to the living room of the house, which disorientingly bears no resemblance to the house in the establishing shot, and shows off her nightgown to a man sipping a drink. “What do you think?” she asks. “Sexy enough for you?”

“What do I think? Damn. You look great.”

“I know,” she replies.

During a session of lovemaking that involves a great deal of skin being squeezed, we see the silhouette of someone carrying the titular sledgehammer.

The man is killed by a graphic blow of the hammer to the back of his head, and then the woman pleads for her life, to no avail. She is murdered as well, her blood spattering the wall.

Ten years later, a van drives slowly to the house.

The van is full of partying twenty-somethings who begin their vacation by tossing all of their belongings out of the van and into a pile on the front yard while saying random words like “stereophonic” and “garbage bag.”

The middle-aged van driver drives away, explaining the absence of the van in somewhat Grinchian, though more erotic, terms: “Don’t worry about your van. I’ll have the transmission shifting gears better than a good woman on her honeymoon night.”

The main character is Chuck, played by the musclebound prolific actor Ted Prior, brother of director David A. Prior. Chuck his having trouble with his girlfriend Joni because he has cold feet about marrying her, but he believes having a few days of fun will help their relationship.

Of course, everything at the house is not all relationship-building through slow-motion walks through weedy fields accompanied by hair-pulling (though this does occupy many, many minutes of screen time). Sinister goings-on are going on, signaled by tense synthesizer music.

The group parties in the living room, a party that mainly consists of the men showing off what they can do with beer cans, gay panic jokes, a man eating an entire sandwich in one bite, and a horrific food fight.

After the food fight, the girls complain. Joni says, “Do you believe that Chuck? He poured mustard all over my head. I could have killed him right there.”

“I think they’re all crazy, if you ask me,” says her friend. “Every last one of them.”

“I guess that what makes them fun, though,” says Joni.

At this point, in a skillfully meta twist, a microphone pokes up from below the frame to catch the dialogue.

Eventually, the camera’s POV stalks Chuck as he serenades Joni outside with a guitar, but nothing happens as a result.

In another cleverly meta scene, a girl prepares to take a shower. The shadow of the boom microphone appears on the wall in the upper right corner of the frame; the shadow slices in and out diagonally toward the girl, a clever reference to Psycho (1960).

Meanwhile, a ghostly sledge hammer fades in and out in a hallway.

The group has another party by playing 45 r.p.m. records on a tiny, child’s record player.

The songs are interrupted by Chuck, who suggests they conduct a seance. “You know, talking to ghosts and goblins, raising the dead, stuff like that.”

“That stuff’s a bunch of crap,” one of his friends says.

“So are you, but who’s complaining?” replies one of the girls.

“If you want to hold a scene, that’s fine,” comes the reply.

“It’s a seance, stupid. A sceance.”

“That’s what I said. A scene.”

Like most seances, this seance begins with a candlelit ghost story. Chuck tells the story from the prologue, in which the cheating mother and her lover are killed with a sledge hammer. This allows us to see the opening scene again, mostly in slow motion (proving the man was correct earlier, and this is not just a “seance” but a “scene”).

Chuck explains that the child who was locked in the closet at the beginning of the film was probably taken by the sledge hammer killer and is now probably dead, but some people say the boy is waiting to get revenge on his mother’s killer, who was probably the woman’s husband, the child’s father. “No one knows who did it. No one. He just might come back,” says Chuck ominously. “Tonight.”

Playing against expectations, the ghost story does not end with a loud jump-scare.

The seance involves Chuck commanding the spirits to rise. This results in a lock opening. It also results in a sound played by a boom box in another room by Chuck’s cohort Joey. Unfortunately for the tricksters, Joey is soon murdered, confusingly not with a sledgehammer but with a knife.

The most complex of the character plots in the film involves a woman trying to seduce her mustachioed boyfriend, who is reluctant to be with her because, most likely, he is gay.  They make love by lying on top of each other and kissing, but they are watched by someone in a creepy translucent mask. Prefiguring the central tension in Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), the couple is killed before we find out definitively if the boyfriend is gay or not.

Unfairly, the killer is able to fade in and out at will.

One of the partygoers finds the two bloody victims. “Jesus,” he says. Then he adds, to be more specific, “Jesus Christ.” He also finds a real sledgehammer in the corner of the room and takes it to use as a weapon. He shows the hammer to his friends and says, “Crazy bastard used it to tear them to pieces.”

They argue about what to do. The two remaining men try to comfort the two remaining women, who are both hysterical. They decide to stay where they are until morning. “We gotta stay here,” says Chuck. They all go to sleep.

The killer fades in and out in a hallway, but does nothing, though the protagonists’ sledgehammer disappears.

While the others sleep, one of the men grabs a knife and climbs upstairs to stalk the killer. There ensues a cat-and-mouse chase in the small upstairs hallway, one that ends with the partygoer dissolving through a door and eventually discovering a tableau of the original murdered couple from years earlier.

He reasons that it was the kid who killed the lovers originally. His discovery is made too late, however, as the now grown-up kid attacks him with the sledgehammer, though he dies, somewhat confusingly, by being stabbed in the back.

The others find their dead friend, and also the child, who stabs one of the women, leaving only Chuck and Joni alive.

The boy slaps Chuck, knocking him down. Then the boy transforms into the grown-up killer. Chuck and Joni are, understandably, terrified of the transformed man.

Chuck is beaten up by the killer, but Joni manages to subdue him by beating him with a baseball bat. Of course, he is only temporarily inconvenienced, being a ghost. His real weakness is electricity, which Joni puts to good use by wiring a doorknob to an electrical outlet. Unfortunately, this ghost is also immune to electrical attacks.

Fortunately, Joni is saved by an inexplicably shirtless Ted Prior, who is now able to beat up the killer, perhaps due to his shirtlessness. Mr. Prior uses the ghostly sledgehammer to dispatch the ghostly killer.

Chuck and Joni leave the house, but they do not see the killer in the window upstairs.

Little more can be said about Sledge Hammer, but I will attempt to list its innovations, in addition to it being a very early shot-on-video slasher. For one thing, the film has a great deal of innovative slow motion shots. I'm sure most film critics would agree that slow motion is used far too little in film. However, works of art like Sledge Hammer and Devil Times Five (1974) show that slow motion can be used effectively if repeated enough. Sledge Hammer shows us, once and for all, that turning doorknobs and walking down hallways can be rendered highly suspenseful and dramatic if they are presented in ultra-slow motion. A second innovation in Sledge Hammer is the use of repeated footage, which occurs several times during the movie. Scenes the audience saw a few minutes earlier are repeated, sometimes transparently over current footage. Such cinematic techniques not only allow the viewer to better understand what occurred previously, but they also provide a great deal of information about what is occurring currently. Very few films repeat footage as well as Sledge Hammer, which is almost in the same league as The Boogeyman films.

Fortunately for cinema audiences worldwide, Sledge Hammer was only the first of many collaborations between director David A. Prior and star Ted Prior. We will look at more of their collaborations in the future.

You are indeed welcome.