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It didn’t occur to me, when Intervision’s DVD of
SLEDGEHAMMER was first announced for release this week, that there was specific
timing involved. But while I was watching the disc, it suddenly, er, hit me:
It’s coming out to capitalize on the release of another movie in which the lead
character wields a mighty hammer!
Beyond that, of course, there’s no comparison between the
two flicks. One of the first indie horror features to be shot on video (whether
it was the very first is open to debate, including by the participants in this
edition), SLEDGEHAMMER is about as cheap as movies get—and, at many points, as
slow too. It’s not a promising start when the opening establishing shot of a
farmhouse lasts about five times longer than it has to, and if all the movie’s
overextended takes were cut and its unnecessary slow-motion played in real time
(and an equally unnecessary flashback reprising a scene in slo-mo again was
excised), it’s likely SLEDGEHAMMER would run less than an hour.
The story concocted by first-time writer/director David A.
Prior begins with an adulterous couple, getting it on after the woman has
locked her young son in a closet, being brutally slain, with the guy receiving
a head-bashing with the titular implement that stands, by default, as the
movie’s best special effect. Years later, a group of hard-partying friends (led
by Prior’s often shirtless brother Ted, who went on to be a Playgirl Man of the
Month) arrive at the scene of the crime and are themselves sequentially
dispatched by a towering dude wielding that same hammer. But is the killer (and
his weapon) real, or a ghost? And if it’s the latter, how does a spectral tool
cause the physical damage it does?
The fact that writer/director Prior never concretely defines
his menace gives the movie a touch of—likely unintended—surreal nightmare logic
that has won SLEDGEHAMMER some admirers among fans of grassroots genre cinema.
I’m a devotee of such movies too, but the appeal of this one eludes me; lacking
even a rudimentary sense of style, it’s also missing the go-for-broke insanity
that can make something like BOARDINGHOUSE entertaining in spite of itself. Of
course, it probably plays better in a room fully stocked with friends and beer,
with the potential for any number of drinking games. The fullscreen transfer
looks no better than it has to, or probably could under the circumstances,
though the audio is pretty sharp; before the movie begins, Intervision
“recommends increasing the bass frequencies and overall volume of your home
sound system,” the better for the grating synthesizer score to assault you with
A number of the aforementioned HAMMER-heads contributed to
the DVD, starting with “superfan” Clint Kelley, who moderates a commentary by
filmmaker Prior. And let’s just say, methinks Kelley doth overpraise too much,
as he gushes over the “great claustrophobic feel” and “great character
development,” and calls Ted Prior’s performance and the edits in a fundamental
stalk-and-kill scene “absolutely amazing.” There’s something kind of charming
about all this enthusiasm, though, especially as it’s interspersed with such
malopropisms as Kelley referring to the cast’s “maneurisms” and asking Prior if
there was any “improvision” during shooting. For his part, Prior doesn’t sound
entirely convinced about the classic status Kelley tries to confer upon his
first screen effort (from which he went on, rather improbably, to have a busy
career in 35mm features). Instead, he admits that he did indeed employ all that
slo-mo to boost the runtime to feature length, and that all the “farmhouse”
interiors were lensed at this apartment (with fake doors applied to a hallway’s
walls for several shots), while dropping odd factoids, like the fact that DP
Salim Kimaz was an extra in the original HALLOWEEN.
A second track has Joseph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik, curators
of the VHS-horror-appreciation website Bleedingskull.com, expressing a more
reasoned appreciation of SLEDGEHAMMER’s “merits.” Asserting that they’re not
interested in trivia-oriented commentaries, they instead gleefully catalog the
movie’s absurdities, dissect the onscreen relationships and try to figure out
the house geography, while offering background on their site and their
histories of tape collecting, to which this writer—and no doubt anyone who’d
purchase this disc—can very much relate.
The extras also include a brief on-camera interview with
Prior, which doesn’t cover anything not also addressed in the commentary,
though he says here that most of the actors were friends, when he states
otherwise on that track. Finally, retrospective programmers have their say via
a pair of featurettes: In “Hammertime,” the Alamo Drafthouse’s Zack Carlson
makes a case for SLEDGEHAMMER’s uniqueness among shot-on-tape horror, which
“SLEDGEHAMMERland” has CineFamily’s Hadrian Belove and Tom Fitzgerald recalling
their staging of the movie’s only—and trippy-sounding—theatrical screening.
DVD/ Blu-ray Reviews
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