Wednesday, June 22, 2011

DVD Review: Sledgehammer (1983)

The year is 1983.The VHS craze has taken the nation by storm, and a tape-happy public writhes and squeals in its insatiable hunger for MORE MOVIES. Though the Big Studios try their best, demand still far outstrips supply. An insufficiently entertained public takes to the streets. In Washington, three thousand people march on the capitol demanding greater funding for dubbing centers. In Alabama, a video store proprietor is lynched when he fails to stock enough copies of The Last Unicorn. Television stations lay under siege, a skeleton crew protecting their precious tape libraries. Beta Players are detonated in protest. Riots are threatened. Anarchy seems imminent.*

Then, when all seems darkest, a savior appears. In his left hand he grasps a clumsy, dinosaur-sized video camera that must weigh nearly half as much as its bearer. In his sturdy right hand, he clutches a holy relic, the solution to the national crisis. His name is David A. Prior, and the treasure he offers is the first Shot-On-Video slasher filmed exclusively for the home video market,** SLEDGEHAMMER.

*Not really.
**According to the Intervision Pictures Corp. website.


What It Says on the Tin
The film opens with an unnamed Mother (Mary Mendez), doing her best to enjoy her lustful, presumably extramarital tryst at a cabin deep within the woods, romantic miles and miles from anywhere. Unfortunately she was unable to secure Adulterous Daycare for her also unnamed Son (Justin Greer), and so has brought him along. Not one to let maternal instincts get in the way of a right hard rogering, Mom locks the boy in a closet and threatens violence if he doesn't keep quiet! Then she slinks into the next room in her floor-length negligee to meet her similarly nameless Lover (the scrawnily sleazetastic Michael Shanahan). He asks about the boy, and Mom sneers, "Don't worry--I took care of that little bastard!" Harsh, but I guess she would know.

Unfortunately for our fornicating friends, before they can get it on they are visited by the grim spectre of DEATH, this time wielding not a scythe, but a 20-pound sledge! The unseen assailant does to the Lover's head what Gallagher made a career of doing to overripe melons, with comparable results.  As blood splatters the walls and a deep bass buzz fills the soundtrack, we watch the opening credits roll. The fate of the kid and the identity of the killer are left, for the moment, tantalizingly unclear.

Of course it's a law of nature that a long-abandoned cabin with a bloodstained past cannot stay empty during the vacation season, and so a decade or so later we find a crew of twentysomething teenagers rolling up to the house with fun and frolic on their minds. The leader of the pack is golden boy Chuck, portrayed by the director's brother and future SOV legend Ted Prior. Also in attendance: Chuck's love interest Joni (Linda McGill); musclebound oaf and winner of the 1981 Arn Anderson Lookalike Nationals, John (John Eastman); John's slightly harpyish girlfriend Mary (Janine Scheer); stereotypical jokester Joey (Stephen Wright); the requisite blonde nympho Carol (Sandy Brooke); and Carol's boyfriend, 70s-style studmuffin Jimmy (Tim Aguilar), about whom a little more later.


Hetero As Fuck
In a flurry of feathered hair, porn-staches, and empty beer cans, the group of young(ish) people pile out of their van, then surprisingly (read: stupidly) hand the keys over to The King of the Hoboes--or else just some local yokel, it's hard to tell. Though it's running like a dream, apparently the van needs some minor work done during the vacay, so Chuck wisely decides to send it off with Goober for a tune-up while they make drunken carouse at the Murder House--because if there's one thing they're sure NOT to need while partying at the scene of a decades-old double slaying, its a quick way to get (the fuck) out of there, AMIRITE?

It doesn't take us long to discover that each of the couples has its own set of problems. Chuck is feeling rather commitment-shy about his relationship with Joni, a situation just possibly related to her spiky femullet and penchant for wearing baggy sweater vests. John drinks too much for Mary's taste, but he is the patient sort, having been circling Mary in a promised-poontang holding pattern for two years, with no result. (No wonder his forearms are so well-muscled!) Carol and Jimmy have the opposite problem, as despite his magnificent man-mane and Van Nuys-ready flavor-saver, Jimmy is shockingly reluctant to take the lustful lass to bed. Also, one of the girls apparently had (has?) a thing with Joey, but found his twisted sense of humor too much to take. ("He wears a mask to bed!" "How do you kiss him?" "He doesn't wear it on his face!" )

"Look, I know I have more fabulous hair than you do, better fashion sense, and bigger boobs, but...wait a minute, what were we talking about?"
Putting all their problems aside--or pulling them right out in the open, take your pick--the group quickly gets shitfaced old-school, the girls gabbing and dancing while the men perform feats of strength (seriously) before everything devolves into a massive food fight! As the men pound beers and liquor in the living room, Carol heads to the shower (naturally) and is shocked to find Joey hanging dead from the nozzle! But not really, it's just his fiendish sense of humor. Someone turns on the Fisher-Price record player and the girls start dancing, which leads Arn/John to exclaim, "I've got a throbber, man!" Of course this can only go on so long before someone suggests the entertainment that no party in the early 80s was complete without.

"LET'S--
"--GET--
"--HAMMERED!"
That's right: Necromancy.

"And from the bottom of the stairs the boy heard a whisper....Whooooo's got my giant pecs?!"
So they start the séance, and Chuck reveals he knows quite a bit about the previous owners of the house: so much, in fact, that he's able to narrate a very long, slow-motion section of footage from the beginning of the movie, telling us about what we've already seen! We do learn that the couple's bodies were found later by a couple of hikers...who, I don't know, dropped by to use the bathroom or something? Anyway, it's the first of many instances of recycled footage, so you might as well get used to it.

Things might have been okay had Chuck not broken the cardinal rule of party séances*, which is "Never invite the dead to come back, but NEVER." Since he's not a pussy (nor particularly smart), Chuck rather exhorts the dead to "Awaken on this night of vengeance, and walk among the living!" Which, as we all know, ALWAYS works out well. In Chuck's defense, he is trying to pull an elaborate prank on his friends, as jokester Joey is in the next room, playing a tape recorder of ghostly moaning. Unfortunately the dead take Chuck up on his invitation, announcing their presence by shoving a kitchen knife through Jimmy's neck and dragging him out of the room by it!

*Apart from the BIG rule of party séances, which is of course, "Don't fucking have one, dumbasses!" But no one ever follows that one.

Kind of a Drag
While that's a nice bit of low-rent gore, and there's more of that to come, it's at this point the movie really starts to show its thread count. Every opportunity is taken to stretch out the running time, sometimes in entertainingly silly ways, but mostly not. Freeze-frames between edits that stay a few seconds too long, repeated dialogue, pointlessly recycled footage, and lots-- I mean LOTS--of super slow-motion sequences that might have built suspense if not overused to the point of desperation. The cast go at it gamely, taxing their clearly limited reserves of skill and ability, but charm and energy only get you so far, particularly in super slo-mo.

Still, as the night wears on and the fecal matter gets closer to the wind-stirring apparatus, there's fun to be had. The reluctant Jimmy gives in to Carol's advances at last, and we're treated to some slow-motion sexy time that is one of the cinematic high-water marks for hipbone-and-moustache fetishists around the world. About this time Chuck and Joni find Joey's body; Chuck, always solid under pressure, instructs his shocked girlfriend to "Go get the others, but DON'T TELL THEM ANYTHING!" (Why? I'm sure he has his reasons...) Meanwhile The Killer (Doug Matley), an absolute GIANT of a man in a surprisingly creepy half-mask and curly killer mullet, interrupts the hip-grinding lovers by breaking Carol's neck and then giving Jimmy 20 pounds of steel to the sternum!

Nailed, then Nailed Again
Things take a turn for the weirder as Arn, Mary, Chuck and Joni see a little Kid--also in a creepy half-mask--running through the house laughing. Arn discovers Jimmy and Carol's bodies--the fact that Jimmy is clearly still breathing can be explained by post-mortem reflex, I guess--and arms himself with first a crowbar and then an extra sledgehammer the killer left lying around. Sneaking up on a locked room, Arn is suddenly teleported through the door! While Chuck nearly knocks himself unconscious trying to beat down the flimsy paneled door (really, the violence Prior does to himself and the wood in this scene is breathtaking), Arn faces his fate in a room suddenly cobwebbed and full of pentagrams, skulls, and the magically clothed bodies of his dead friends.

That all sounds exciting, but MAN is it slow, thanks to the editing job sponsored by the National Molasses Board. Eventually Chuck and Joni have to face both the killer and his masked-kid alter-ego, more deaths occur, and there's a final showdown between an inexplicably shirtless Prior and his Andre-the-Giant-sized enemy. More teleportation, a Home Alone-style booby trap, Fun with Dead Bodies, and some grody home-made gore round out the festivities, leading to a satisfyingly cheesy but far-too-leisurely finale.

Loves His Job
As the first of its kind, I can appreciate that Sledgehammer really had nothing to model itself after, and in fact I can clearly see its influence on the subsequent SOV offerings that flooded the video market in its wake. The pacing and editing were atrocious, but the largely non-professional cast betray a certain charming naivete in their performances that I found winning. Though everyone's clearly having fun, everyone is also serious about the craft of moviemaking, even if the results of that craft are less Macrame Tapestry than Popsicle-Stick Dreamcatcher. And Ted Prior shows flashes of the musclebound enthusiasm that would later make him the star of one of the greatest cinematic achievements of his or any decade, Killer Workout (aka Aerobicide, appreciated by your ever-lovin' Vicar here).

On the plus side, there's some fairly respectable gore effects, particularly when the killer pops the Lover's head early on. There's also hilarious 80s clothes and hairstyles, endearing technical gaffes and continuity errors (such as the ubiquitous crew shadows, or the way the sledgehammer magically changes from silver [metal] to black [rubber] whenever it gets swung at a living actor), and a woofer-abusing, droning bass soundtrack that will have Sunn O))) fans turning up the volume and lying down on the floor. And while the plot has its unanswered questions (How was the killer able to fade in and out of reality and teleport? Was he a supernatural being, or an abandoned child grown up feral? Were he and the kid the same or astral-projected aspects of the same ghostly personality? What's with the Satanist symbology? Where can I get a smoking jacket like the Lover's?), trash movie fans will likely count those plot holes as pluses rather than minuses.

Pre-School Pimp-Slap

Intervision Pictures Corp.* has given this historical flick a fantastic presentation in their recent DVD release.  The sound mix is on Philip G. Slate's soundtrack is good, particularly if you're a Drone/Doom fan.There is also a plethora of extras, including commentary from directory David Prior, bonus commentary by Joseph A. Ziemba And Dan Budnik of the Vicar-admired site Bleeding Skull, two featurettes and a director's interview. However, it has to be said that the transfer, though probably the best available, is still pretty terrible; be ready for tracking lines, artificacts, and periodic tape-jumps. Still in all, a great package.

*Intervision provided a copy of this film to MMMMMovies for review purposes.

As for the flick--as a movie it's entertaining if a little slow, but as a historical artifact it's absolutely invaluable to trash movie fans everywhere. 2.25 thumbs, and recommended from me to you. If anything in this review gave you a throbber, please check it out.

"Get ready for the hurting."
A few more images from SLEDGEHAMMER (1983):

"Ladies."

Chuck performs his heartfelt folk tune, "The Sun Never Sets on My Pecs."

"I know what it looks like, but...yeah, it's pretty much that."

"Ladies."

"OMG! Look at the color of that carpet!"

One Shining Moment

10 comments:

MarkusWelby1 said...

It's too bad those days are gone now that you'd be standing in the video rental store holding something like "Sledgehammer" in your gore loving hands. With no internet to go on, it was certainly a risk reward proposition. Actually a movie like this rewards you with sweet 80's slasher bliss no matter what!

Al Bruno III said...

I used to raid the video store every week back in my college days. My hot redhead girlfriend and I would watch said film. If the movie was good it was good, if the movie was bad we had sex on the couch.

That of course was also good except that now the memory of one of my greatest sexual experiences is combined with memories of the film BLOOD HOOK.

Anyway- I will keep my eye out for this film. That mask is pretty creepy isn't it?

Samuel Wilson said...

So when does this one get added to the National Film Registry where it so rightly belongs?

J. Astro said...

I skipped the meat of this review because I have this sitting, unseen, in my Amazon cart. But it seems to receive a glowing enough recommendation and I'm pretty excited to go back and finally catch up with this one.

And @ Al Bruno III - BLOOD HOOK is awwwwesome, what a fantastic movie to have intertwined with great, uh, romantic memories...you lucky dog. Muskie Madness!!!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@MarkusWelby1--thanks for the comment, and for all your other recent comments! Glad you found us. :) You're right about the risk/reward proposition of old-school video stores. Luckily the risk was usually small (a buck or two), and the possible payoff huge. so a worthy risk!

@Al Bruno--Talk about a win-win situation! And yes, that mask is super creepy, esp. on a 6 1/2-foot behemoth like the killer here! As for your BLOOD HOOK memories, don't worry--I get aroused every time I see the cover of the Dan Aykroyd DRAGNET, for much the same reason. ;)

@Samuel Wilson--Let's get that petition started!

@J. Astro--I hope I haven't oversold it; bear in mind it IS extreeeeemmmmely slow in parts,most of it clearly for padding purposes. But the parts in between make up for it. In fact, if you just played the slow-mo sequences at normals speed, you'd probably have 45-50 minutes of pure distilled awesome. :)

Stephen Langlois said...

Awesome review. I'm a huge fan of the Priors since seeing Deadly Prey and Killer Workout. Will have to check out Sledgehammer.

I actually found you guys recently when searching for info on Savage Weekend. Really enjoyed your review of that film and was glad to see someone else who could look past its obvious flaws and see its charms.

Wondering if you'd like to share a link. Here's my blog:

http://thefiftymoviepackproject.blogspot.com/

Already added you to my link list. Thanks for the great writing.

douglasmatley said...

This is The Killer, Doug Matley in Sledgehammer 1983. Thank you for the stills of me. I got so little recognition. In my place and all those people, would you not want to do the same and put them out of my misery. I am all of 6' 9". Doug Matley, weight around 270 lbs.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Wow, Mr. Matley, thanks so much for stopping by to comment! You were such an imposing presence on the screen here, it really added a lot to the flick. I think you're right about the weekend guests needing to be put down, too!

Thanks for your work in SLEDGEHAMMER--you are a part of video history, and I'm hereby inducting you into the MMMMMovies Killer Hall of Fame!

Thanks again for stopping by! All my best wishes, The Vicar

LMcGillJensen said...

Joni Here! I loved reading this review. Even the part about my hair! I can't believe what a cult favorite this film has become. It was a blast to film it with all my friends and I have to say a couple of times I thought Doug was really trying to hit me with that Sledgehammer!LOL I never got paid for doing this film but it will go down as one of my fondest memories. (Except for the hair!) Thanks again for the laugh and the memories of a bygone era, Linda McGill (aka Joni)

The Vicar of VHS said...

Hi Joni! Thanks so much for stopping by to comment! And for being such a good sport about the hair comments. ;) (To be fair, I think everyone had questionable dos in the 80s...you should see the pictures of MY magnificent mullet from that era!) It's a shame you didn't get paid, but at least you have the memories, and the knowledge that you were a part of video horror history. Thanks for all the pleasure this flick gave me, and again, thanks for reading!

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