Shot on video. Man, that right there is kryptonite to me. I cannot tell you how many times I have passed on some horror movie cheapie because word circulated that Movie X had been captured for all time on some kind of video camera, professional grade or otherwise. There are dudes in the horror filmmaking community who made their names in SOV circles but I just couldn’t be bothered to take a look. Videotape handles light so much differently than film and I find the effect jarring. Watching a movie shot on film, even lower grade, outdated formats is like looking at the world with your own eyes but videotape adds this intensity to the light that makes edges too sharp, oversaturates colors and additional frames in the playback make motion seem a little too fluid for comfort. I just don’t care for it.
There are exceptions to this rule, however. If you’re dealing in a product that is just weird enough to pique my interests, I may set aside my prejudices and take a look. Case in point: Sledgehammer. The 80’s is that era most closely associated with slasher pictures but the real gold rush of slashers took place in the early part of the 80’s following the success of Friday the 13th. Low budget slasher movies raked in huge box office returns and everyone wanted in on the action. So much in fact that they were willing to let just about anything slide even if that meant filming some nonsensical body count flick on a VHS camera and sending it straight to market as a relic for the video store age. When crap like Sledgehammer started to slip through the cracks is it any wonder that the slasher wave crashed as quickly as it gained momentum?
Here’s a familiar scenario. Young people roll up to a remote house in the country with a van full of beer and condoms. Their plan is to spend the weekend partying their asses off. Just their luck, years prior to their arrival some kid is stuffed in the closet of that very same house and his horny mother and her lover are bludgeoned to death by a hulking maniac with a sledgehammer. Connection? Probably. Sledgehammer is just full of surprises when after a lengthy period of not much happening apart from beer drinking, ass slapping and food fighting, either a hulking maniac or a small child starts knocking off the partying guests who just happen to be stranded in this place and what’s worse, the killer, either the kid or the maniac, seem to be the same entity since they frequently shape shift into one another. The titular murder weapon also has a spectral quality to it and nothing is ever explained.
There are bad movies and then there’s Sledgehammer, a film so patently horrible that its director, David Prior, seems nothing less than ashamed of it in interview features that accompany this inexplicable DVD release of the VHS horror era’s most easily forgotten titles. Sledgehammer, a capitalist piece of Art Brut, makes absolutely no attempt to do anything of any real value, instead piling on scene after scene of absurd bullshit stocked with exceptionally terrible and weird characters. Our cast, a group of body builders portraying what is usually a group of teens or early 20-somethings, is a loathesome bunch of assholes who don’t seem to like each other much, nor do they seem to know each other very well. The guys all seem to drink to excess, bicker and grope their female companions for a solid hour of the movie’s running time before anything horror seems to happen and when it does, look out!
See, Sledgehammer is a slow moving piece of amateur filmmaking that was used as a stepping stone for director Prior to make his way to features and somehow it fucking worked. He would go on to direct a lot of schlocky b-actioners that you’ve never heard of with the exception of maybe Deadly Prey, a fucking hysterical combination of Rambo, The Most Dangerous Game and cut-off denim shorts. While that movie is a work of pure hilarity, the goings on in Sledgehammer are a serious head scratcher. Our killer, a shapeshifting ghost in a translucent mask, is never explained. Ever. There isn’t even a hint of his background here. Is he the kid from the closet at the beginning of the movie? Did this spirit exist prior to that? Just how does a hammer blow to the chest leave a bloody wound anyway? The entire movie is this forceful piece of gonzo filmmaking that begs to question, did anyone involved in the production know what they were doing? It’s not even clear if Sledgehammer even had a script since most of the time, the cast, directed to fraternize and party, seem to be shouting over one another in order to be heard. Every now and then, the killer shows up and knocks someone off with a mighty blow from his hammer.
Obviously, it sounds like I’m shitting all over Sledgehammer and while I certainly can’t say that there’s anything genuinely likable about it, it is the kind of movie that appeals to fans of exceptionally terrible movies. Intervision has entered into a diabolical partnership with Severin Films to add to their swelling library of movies so bad they threaten to destroy the fabric of space and Sledgehammer is a mighty entry into that library. It isn’t nearly as fun as The Room or Birdemic but it has such a spectacularly shitty quality to just about every aspect that it becomes a party movie gem, every frame begging to be heckled. What’s best about it is that the seeming dead weight of its run up to the kill scenes, a nearly interminable parade of talky scenarios, is the best part about it. Everyone is so particularly stupid and goofy that their behavior is on par with persons suffering from brain damage or mental retardation. To supplement this, the ultra-bizarre kill scenes are nerve wracking, claustrophobic affairs for all the wrong reasons. Mostly it has to do with the movie being shot in the Kubrickian labyrinth of hallways that impossibly exist in Prior’s own apartment. Stalk scenes are shot in tight quarters from a low angle and our killer follows the slasher movie rules to the letter, in particular, walk don’t run.
Sledgehammer is making the rounds in cult film circles now thanks to enthusiastic support from a few influential fans. DVD extras on this Intervision release would have you believe that what you’re watching is some kind of lost treasure of the Video Paradise but one viewing makes it clear why this movie faded into obscurity. It’s fucking awful. Even by b-movie horror standards. Sledgehammer is peppered with moments of inspired madness and the weirdness goes a long way to save it but let’s face facts here. Sledgehammer is a really bad movie made by people who had no business making a movie in the first place. There is nothing that approaches a narrative and the strange, unexplained nature of the killer accidentally suggests so much but Sledgehammer winds up being an artifact for collectors of genuinely niche cinema rather than a sensational bad movie.