Director: David A. Prior
Intervision Pictures Corp.

SLEDGEHAMMER, the very first shot-on-video slasher film (if you consider BOARDINGHOUSE to be more of a demonic possession film), has made its digital bow in this labor-of-love edition from Intervision Pictures Corp.

In the requisite opening flashback, a mother (Mary Mendez) brings her eight-year-old son (Justin Greer) with her to a farmhouse in the mountains. She locks the boy in the closet for a quiet evening with her lover (Michael Shanahan), only for the two of them to be pounded into pulp by a sledgehammer-wielding assailant. The boy was never found. Ten years later, seven pals (three couples and one practical joker) are chauffeured up to the isolated house for a weekend of partying and screwing. Chuck (Ted Prior, KILLER WORKOUT) and Joni (Linda McGill) are arguing over his reluctance to get married. John (author John Eastman) and Mary (Jeanine Scheer) are oversexed, while Jimmy (Tim Aguilar, NIGHT WARS) and Carol (Sandy Brooke, NIGHTMARE SISTERS) are bafflingly undersexed. Joey (Steve Wright) is just along for some false scares. It’s all fun and games – drinking, an eating contest, a food fight, ghost stories, charades (seriously, how old are these people?) – until John pulls a sledgehammer Excalibur-style out of a pile of debris in the barn. When Chuck suggests a séance to contact the murdered couple – Joey having rigged up some sound equipment – a hulking sledgehammer-wielding psycho starts stalking the cast (he actually takes the first one out with a knife, although it’s pretty neat how he does it). By the time Chuck and Joni discover the first body, it is all too late. Jimmy has finally relented to Carol’s overtures and they’ve shed their clothes for a little bedroom action (the comforter so strategically-placed it’s comical) and the killer is no longer concerned about lurking around unseen, especially since he can take multiple forms.

Picture a dream (or lukewarm nightmare) fevered by the tail end of a caffeine buzz, in which the tone shifts between creepy and mediocre and back, in which the random piling of happenings somehow coheres into something filmable and marketable (however amateurish). First-time director David A. Prior chose to learn filmmaking by making a film rather than going to film school. Taking a look at the market of the time, he chose to do a horror film (although he was not a fan of the genre). He struck a deal with a TV commercial company that would provide the camera and editing facilities, while his former Playgirl centerfold brother would act and provide the make-up effects and additional music (employees of the commercial production company served as crew members under pseudonyms). The resulting World Video VHS release has become quite a coveted collector’s item among horror and VHS collectors (keeping with the spirit, a limited run of 100 new VHS copies will be available with the DVD release). Other shot-on-video horror features followed in the interest of exploiting the then-burgeoning video rental market. While the still-active VCI (formerly United Home Video) has kept their SOV horror output (BLOOD CULT, REVENGE, THE RIPPER, TERROR AT TENKILLER and THE LAST SLUMBER PARTY) in circulation on tape and disc since their original releases, many of the others have fallen into sometimes-justifiable obscurity. Sites like Bleeding Skull and Hysteria Lives have encouraged the rediscovery of some of these titles (a DVD of another quite rare SOV horror film 555 is also rumored to be in the works).

While Prior was inspired by “the Jason movies” (as he refers to them), SLEDGEHAMMER cannot be said to be a rip-off, or even particularly derivative of any particular slasher film, despite some familiar elements. Prior threw in several elements (maybe not “everything but the kitchen sink”) and came up with something consistently unpredictable, quirky, and even creepy. Somehow, the “nightmare logic” or lazily-scripted illogic sticks. Early on, the acting is expectedly uneven but neither inappropriately over-the-top (they are drunk) nor distractingly stiff. Ted Prior comes across well during the improvised parts, but is pretty laughable when dramatics are required (he has collaborated with his director brother on 25 features, including the not-yet-released Bigfoot horror pic NIGHT CLAWS with Sherri Rose, Frank Stallone and Reb Brown). Brooke is most consistent performance-wise (she also shows the most female flesh), although McGill makes a pretty good terrorized heroine. Performances suffer when serious drama is required, but at that point in the film, it hardly matters since Prior keeps piling on the weirdness.

Director David A. Prior appears on the first commentary track, moderated by filmmaker Clint Kelly. The director is pretty frank about the origins and execution of his first film and is a bit bewildered about its cult success. He also points out that his brother Ted sculpted the SLEDGEHAMMER title graphic out of clay. The film was cast with friends (which he admits is a freshman filmmaking mistake) and shot in seven days using his own apartment for all of the interiors (they only filmed around the farmhouse exterior for a day). Kelly does more than prompt Prior; a big fan of the film himself, Kelly offers up his interpretation of the film’s supernatural force and informs Prior that he has a treatment for a sequel. The second commentary track featuring website Bleeding Skull’s creators Joseph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik is NOT a trivia-based commentary. Ziemba and Budnik have stated that they are not interested in the real stories behind such films, as they will no doubt compare poorly with what their imaginations have concocted (the essays and reviews on the Bleeding Skull website are highly recommended reading, particularly Budnik’s appreciation of Byron Quisenberry’s SCREAM/THE OUTING). Their comedy runs a bit thin and there are some digressions, but they do point out some nagging details (for instance, the intimacy issues of Jimmy and Carol) and express a genuine fondness for the film. They describe how each of them first discovered SLEDGEHAMMER, and how each of them first obtained the highly collectible World Video cassette release. Late in the commentary, they mention some other recommended shot-on-video flicks, but the track could have been planned better. An overview of shot-on-video horror would have been useful (including discussion of how SLEDGEHAMMER differs from others of its ilk).

The “Hammertime” featurette (8:10) with DESTROY ALL MOVIES! Author Zack Carlson’s more succinct appreciation of the film’s virtues (which includes its limitations), while “SledgehammerLand” (6:08) features Cinefamily programmers Hadrian Belove and Tom Fitzgerald (both green-screened into some of the SLEDGEHAMMER location interiors) describing the hungover audience reaction to the post-Halloween night “party movie” 2003 theatrical screening of the film. Director David A. Prior appears in a short interview (5:53) which overlaps some information with the commentary (it was shot before the commentary and is referenced by Kelly), but it comes across as fairly comprehensive. Trailers for JEFFREY DAHMER: THE SECRET LIFE, Doris Wishman’s A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER, and the Canadian bargain basement horror pic THINGS round out the extras (the THINGS trailer also appears as a start-up trailer). (Eric Cotenas)