Sledgehammer – USA, 1983

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Sledgehammer is claimed to be the first shot-on-video horror film made specifically for the home market (1982’s BoardingHouse having actually played in a few cinemas!). How true this claim is is open to debate, yet if not actually the first, the film is certainly one of them. And while SOV might not seem such a big deal now, back then it was a no-no for any professional filmmaker, simply because of the quality – or lack of it.

Even TV broadcast cameras were several notches below even 16mm in terms of quality, and Sledgehammer wasn’t shot on TV broadcast cameras. Neither was it exactly a home movie though, as the cameras used were borrowed from a training video company. The resulting picture is sharper than you might fear, but still full of that 1980s video soft focus (i.e. blurred) look and flat style.

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Director David A. Prior shot on video through necessity – he wanted to make a movie but couldn’t raise the cash to shoot on film. Seeing the increasing popularity of home video (which took off to a mainstream audience a couple of years later in America than in the UK, but by 1983 was commonplace), he decided to shoot a slasher movie on tape, inspired by Friday the 13th and other movies. Of course, by 1983, the genre was past its peak, but Prior decided there was still enough money to be made – especially if the costs required to be recouped were so low.

He gathered together a cast of friends, including body-building brother Ted (Playgirl Playmate of the Month for March 1984) and crafted a story that mixed slasher tropes with supernatural elements, alongside plenty of incoherent nonsense. With a bit of gore (the best bit early on) and some mild nudity, all the elements for a successful slasher film seemed to be in place.

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The final movie is, however, a breathtaking disaster if looked at strictly as a horror film. It makes the likes of Nightmares (in a Damaged Brain) and Madman look positively sophisticated in comparison, both in terms of production values and narrative structure. Yet, if you watch Sledgehammer with an open mind – and possibly employ a drinking game where you chug a beer every time the characters do – then you might find that the film holds a strange attraction, from the fantastic opening titles (the word Sledgehammer, clumsily carved out of something and drizzled with blood, is smashed by… well, you can guess…) onwards.

In classic slasher style, the film opens with a flashback, as a Bad Mother locks her small son in the closet so she can be free to do the dirty with her weasly-looking illicit lover. But their bland love-making is interrupted by a sledgehammer attack that smashes the weasel’s skull open (a spectacular bit of gore that falsely suggests the whole film will be a splatterfest) and beats Mom to death. Who is holding the sledge? We never know. The inference – and the rest of the film – might suggest it’s Junior, however any analysis of the scene says it’s not. Never mind. It doesn’t matter.

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Ten years later – of course – a van load of 30 year-old college jocks and chicks turn up at the house to PARTAY. As they spill out of the van, goofing off and throwing their luggage around, you can’t help but hope that violent death awaits just around the corner. And indeed it does, but it’s a very long corner, and before that, we have to sit through about 45 minutes of the most ill-defined characters you’ll ever see – I’m not entirely certain that some of them even had names – acting badly and doing very little besides drink. The action highlight of this first half is a food fight.

We do, however, see muscly Ted (playing Chuck) and his presumably long-suffering girlfriend Joni discussing their relationship issues before taking a long, and baffling walk in the meadow in slow motion. While the opening scenes had some slow-mo, I’d assumed it was a stylistic – if unsuccessful – effect to raise tension. Now, I realise it’s just there to pad out the running time, and we get a lot of it. I mean, loads. The best bit comes when we get a slow-mo turning of a door handle, which becomes so pointlessly tedious that it actually becomes oddly compelling.

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Anyway, everyone gets together, drinks, argues and the brain-melting synth soundtrack drones on and on, building up to scares and shocks that don’t arrive. Oh, and Big Beardy John finds a sledgehammer in the woodshed, which might be the catalyst to something or other, or might not. Chuck gathers everyone to tell the story of the original murder – which includes a flashback of the whole damn scene – and then they hold a séance to contact the victims. Some other instantly forgettable character has snuck off upstairs to play a tape of demonic threats to spook his pals, but while doing so gets a knife in the neck. After everyone has a good laugh (and several more beers), Chuck finally notices that his partner in spookery is missing, replaced by a lot of blood (we have to take Chuck’s word for this, as we never see it). Meanwhile, the sledgehammer is fading in and out of view – it’s a HAUNTED WEAPON!

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Anyway, after what feels like hours, the traditional masked killer shows up, kills a John Oates lookalike and his girlfriend mid-sex and then starts picking off the rest – wrestling with Big Beardy John, who seems to win but then mysteriously has a knife in his back, and then turning into a child to stab away at another nameless woman before delivering some vital plot exposition.

Sadly, having 1983-era video audio recording a child in a mask renders this possibly vital information entirely incoherent. We do get to see body builder Ted punch a kid in the face though, which is worth a few laughs (for the record, his punch is useless against this supernatural force, so I’m not being callous). The evil brat then grows – in a special effects moment that will leave you stunned – into the adult killer. He’s unstoppable, with electric shocks, knife stabbings etc unable to slow him down, but this doesn’t stop Ted from trying to punch him to death. Hey Ted, your punch didn’t even phase a seven year-old, what use will it be now? There’s obviously only one weapon that can stop this supernatural killer – can you guess what it is?

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Sledgehammer makes no effort to explain what the hell is going on at any point. We have a killer who can apparently magic himself and others through doors, yet still fumbles with handles, a magical hammer and some sort of Satanic connection, all of which seem to be randomly thrown in with no explanation at all. We don’t even really find out if the killer really is the kid, or just some other force, and who the hell killed the first couple?

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None of this actually matters of course, as Sledgehammer exists in its own parallel universe of weirdness, where the jaw-dropping soundtrack constantly reaches a crescendo of intensity for no reason whatsoever, where a houseful of entirely unsympathetic characters who don’t seem to even like each other wander around doing nothing for ages, and where the men all seem a lot more interested in each other than their alleged girlfriends (seriously: at one point, I was sure Sledgehammer had a sly homoerotic undercurrent going on, but the film was too generally incoherent for me to pursue this line of thinking, my focus being on trying to work out what the hell was going on most of the time).

Bizarrely, it has moments of revelation – when Chuck suggests the best course of action, having found their friends murdered, is not to split up looking for the killer but to stay together in one room until sunrise, you realise he is the smartest character ever to have appeared in a horror film. Sadly, Big Beardy John is just too gung-ho to listen and so it all ends badly for them.

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Sledgehammer is, despite having a hugely derivative plot, as unique a film as you’ll ever see. A perfect storm of piss-poor quality equipment, bad actors, a first time director learning as he goes (Prior went on to have a long career making action films, often starring Ted) and a plot that meanders all over the place, it manages to astonishingly awful, incredibly dull and weirdly compulsive all at the same time. Truly remarkable, and everything that the inept cover art promises it to be.

David Flint, MOVIES & MANIA

Other reviews:

” …the level of incompetence lends the movie an odd charm and I can’t bring myself to give this movie the shaft completely. While it’s not the top-tier choice for your next bad movie night, I’m certain you’ll find yourself chuckling at what’s going on on-screen, like when a supposedly locked door is flopping about as characters attempt to break it down…” Evan Romero, Pop Horror

Related:

BoardingHouse

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