The Film: 3/5
First released in 1983 (though the copyright on the movie lists the year as 1984), Sledgehammer has the distinction of being the first horror film shot on video exclusively for the then-thriving VHS rental market, but while they’re have been SOV fright flicks that were absolute shit there’s something special about the one that started this short-lived trend. Something not of this world. Something deranged. Something that must have compelled Intervision Pictures Corp., a DVD distribution company that puts a lot of money and painstaking effort into looking like a low-rent 1980’s video label, fitting given Sledgehammer’s origins. The director and, ahem, writer of this sleazy enterprise is the one and only David Prior, the man whose filmmaking resume includes such esteemed titles of Skid Row cinema as Deadly Prey, Killer Workout, and Night Trap (a.k.a. Mardi Gras for the Devil). The man knows how to churn out a hunk of quality crapola, and his entire storied career began with Sledgehammer. Prior’s movies have a strange habit of falling through the cracks of psychotronic film history only to reemerge decades later thanks to some shrewd film buff or festival programmer, like the good people at Cinefamily or the Alamo Drafthouse. How does his debut measure up against every other micro-budgeted slasher flick ever made? It doesn’t really. This movie is a mad, brain-damaged beast all its own.
The movie opens with a young boy being locked in a closet so his miserable bitch of a mother can have some quality time with her gentleman caller. Just as the lascivious lovers are about to get down to business a hulking maniac wearing a plastic mask and dressed in the same clothes as the boy slaughters them both with a sledgehammer. Surprised? I mean, it’s not like there was any clue in the movie’s title or anything that the killer’s choice of weapon would be a sledgehammer, but sarcasm aside I digress. Anyway, cut to several years and a small group of people descend on the same house where the killings we just witnessed took place for some quality time, and by that I mean food fights, gay jokes, lousy impressions, and hundreds of cans of Budweiser imbibed. Also the hero Chuck (Ted Prior, the director’s brother and a man of many trades on this particular production) takes every opportunity to walk around shirtless and swigging a beer, and yet he never gets drunk once. Chuck brings everyone together for an impromptu séance so he can tell them the horrific story of the first five minutes of the movie and then play a prank on them, but unbeknownst to our intrepid cannon fodder the real killer is still hanging around the joint and soon decides he can’t take anymore of the food fights, Chuck’s refusal to wear a shirt, and tripping over empty beer cans everywhere he goes. Thus the killing spree begins. Like that wasn’t going to happen anyway. This is a slasher movie after all, except this killer has some very unusual and unexplained supernatural powers like the ability to transform at will from a little boy into a masked maniac and teleport his victims through pesky doors and walls. Also, his sledgehammer can vanish and reappear when needed, not that it’s needed much.
Got that? I hope so because I sure as shit ain’t repeating any of that. I can hardly believe I just typed those words. What kind of world am I living in anyway?
Unlike most flicks shot on video during the 1980’s (Boardinghouse and Cannibal Campout come to mind) Sledgehammer has a certain sordid charm about it that simultaneously has you doubled over on your living room floor with insane laughter and questioning the mental stability of the filmmakers. There’s a stream of conscious quality to the film that ensures you will rarely take your eyes off screen, but most of the time you might find yourself bored stiff with the endless party scenes and overextended romantic montages that Prior, in his infinite wisdom, decided to let run on for several minutes at a time. The group scenes in particular seem to be improvised because the actors simply ramble on about things that have nothing to do with the rest of the movie or advance the plot in any time. Then again if those scenes weren’t created on the fly then that would confirm the existence of an actual screenplay, and despite the fact that Prior is credited as having wrote the film there’s no way I can believe this movie was actually planned out in advance on paper. Of course it’s been said that some of history’s poorest ideas were only attempted because they “looked good on paper”, such as Crystal Pepsi, the Gallipoli Campaign, and giving Jason Alexander not one but two sitcoms of his own.
Prior clearly started this movie off wanting to capitalize on the burgeoning slasher movie craze of the time but somewhere along the way couldn’t take the pressure of making a simple cash-in and decided that instead that he, David Fucking Prior, would make a horror film that basically said “Fuck It!” and made up its own rules as it proceeded from beginning to end. After all if Michael Myers can take six shots from Dr. Loomis’ revolver, fall to the ground, and then get up and walk the fuck away then why can’t a little boy morph into a strapping dude with a Gino Vannelli hairstyle and the wardrobe of Al Borland with ZERO explanation? Because….fuck you that’s why! If there’s one moment in the movie that I could say actually frightened it’s a scene where the camera cuts to a wide shot of the outside of the house of death and the shot remains still and quiet for what seems like almost a solid minute, and then it cuts to a party scene back inside the house so suddenly the transition made me jump a bit. That’s about the extent of the genuine horror to be found in Sledgehammer, but then again I doubt it was Prior’s intention to make an actual horror movie. After all that’s been done to death. I mean if this was a real horror flick, particularly one shot on the ultra cheap (in his DVD interview Prior mentioned a budget of less than $10,000), then there would be buckets of blood and gore flowing and nude and nubile female flesh on display every five minutes. You won’t find such things in Sledgehammer. There is a righteous skull pulping at the beginning and a brief tit shot before one horny buys midway through a rather chaste rutting session but other than that the movie could almost be show unedited on ABC Family and no one would get offended. The killer doesn’t even get to use the titular but a few times and it’s mostly to swing and miss at a potential victim….oh but wait he put a hole in the wall with the sledge. Right on baby!
For a shot-on-video flick almost three decades old the picture quality on Sledgehammer is not bad at all, but that’s about as good as it can get. Retaining some of that faded, VHS-dupe-of-a-dupe look works in the film’s cheese ball favor. The mind-melting synthesizer soundtrack is given a kick by the two channel audio and most of the dialogue (recorded on location) comes through clear but when the killer’s little kid form speaks it’s so muffled you have to wonder if the young actor was recorded with the mask on.
Intervision provides a healthy selection of commentaries and short interview features that may, depending on how you feel about the movie, either enhance your appreciation of the movie or prolong your agony. Director David Prior sets down for a commentary, moderated by “Sledgehammer Super Fan” Clint Kelly of Riot Releasing, and a fresh 6-minute interview where he shares stories from the SLEDGEHAMMER shoot and lays out what he believes works and doesn’t work about the movie. It’s not the best track in the world but Prior’s honesty and healthy perspective about his directorial debut, prodded on by Kelly’s incessant questions, make the commentary worth at least one listen. Joseph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik, the creators of the cult and horror movie website Bleeding Skull, contribute a fan commentary where they get to express their great admiration for the movie and occasionally share a bit of what knowledge regarding the movie they’re watching they actually know. In “Hammertime” (8 minutes) Zack Carlson, Alamo Drafthouse staffer and author of Destroy All Movies!!!, discusses the appeal of Sledgehammer after all these years and some personal observations of the movie and how he came to the films of David Prior. “SledgehammerLand” (6 minutes) sits us down with Cinefamily programmers Hadrian Belove and Tom Fitzgerald and lets them talk about how they helped to introduce Prior’s slasher debut to a new generation of cult movie fans. The disc closes out with trailers for some upcoming Intervision releases: The Secret Life: Jeffery Dahmer, A Night to Dismember, and Things. The latter trailer also plays before the main menu when you load the DVD.
SLEDGEHAMMER is what those in the industry would call a “feathered fish”. It fails miserably as a straightforward piece of early 80’s slasher trash but it does (barely) succeed at being one weird and nonsensical flick. You could rename this movie WTF?!-THE MOTION PICTURE and it would actually make more sense.