SLEDGEHAMMER – 13 Days of Shot on Video! (#12)

With 13 Days of Shot On Video I’ll be reviewing a new shot-on-video horror film every weekday for the last two weeks of October. You can view all entries HERE.

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For me, Sledgehammer is the title I most associate with the 80s SOV wave. Maybe because it’s the only SOV title I remember hearing tossed around during my nascent horror years, or perhaps because it’s the one SOV VHS box I recall actually seeing with my own two eyes at the video store as a kid. (And what a box it is!) Categorically speaking, it is technically the first SOV horror movie made specifically for the home video market.  So to me, Sledgehammer is the epitome of pure shot-on-video slop. And yes, it’s taking a lot of effort restraining myself from making a Peter Gabriel joke.

Watching a shot-on-video horror movie takes a special type of viewer — not one who necessarily enjoys these types of films or even appreciates them for what they are (though that helps) — but simply one who can go with the flow. One who can watch with a certain naïveté. SOV horror flicks are oftentimes more endurance test than movie, and the patience of the viewer is usually at a breaking point by the third act. I mention all of this because I consider Sledgehammer the litmus test for deciding whether you, the audience member, can truly tolerate SOV horror movies. If you can make it through this one, you can make it through any of ’em.

Sledgehammer begins with a small child being locked in a closet by his abusive mother. She’s almost cartoonishly mean to him, calling him names and forcing him into the dark, locked wardrobe. We never find out why she hates him so much, but then again we never find out a lot of things in Sledgehammer; in fact, logic seems to matter very little with this movie. The main goal seems to be just make it to the next scene by any means necessary. Anyway, the kid somehow breaks free, kills his mom and her lover, and boom — it’s suddenly 10 years later.

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Just some rambunctious teenaged 30 year olds.

Now it’s the present and a group of late-20-somethings pull up to a secluded house for a weekend full of drinking games and foods fights, and wouldn’t you know it? They’re staying in the house where the murders occurred a decade earlier! Why are they staying in this random house instead of renting a cabin? Like, why this group and this house? This is never touched upon. Also the house seems abandoned, yet oddly very well maintained. Again: logic is of little value here.

So, the motley crew unloads their van and heads inside. It’s immediately clear the interior of this place is no bigger than a shoebox because not only do we the viewer instantly recognize the rooms as the rooms we saw at the beginning of the movie, but these same 3 rooms (hell, I’d argue the same 3 shots) are repeatedly recycled throughout the entire film: living room, upstairs hallway, upstairs bedroom, repeat. I understand this was director David A. Prior’s debut and was shot on a microbudget, and filming interiors in interesting ways is difficult. But it’s impossible not to notice. Over and over.

Anyway, once the group gets settled, there are really only two things that happen for the next half hour of the movie’s runtime: they drink a shitload and they play grabass with each other. That’s it. That is all that happens for 30 minutes. And boy, you are very aware of every one of those minutes. Adding to the film’s drag factor is Prior’s fascination with shooting every other scene in slow-motion. Even ones where slow-motion doesn’t heighten or emphasize anything. Like when the crew is unloading their bags from the van and tossing them in grass? Slow-motion. Combine this with Prior’s other fascination — cross-fades — and the fact that the whole movie looks like it was shot through gauze, and you wind up with an utterly unique final product. I can honestly say I’ve never seen another film that looks like this. So, kudos to Prior? What the hell, why not.

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Is it gauze or vaseline on the lens?

With a little less than an hour left of the film, it finally gets down to business: one of the guys among the drunken group suggest they hold a seance to communicate with the spirits that inhabit the house. Now, was the whole group always aware of this knowledge, or just this lead guy? Is that why they decided to stay in this house? To contact the dead? It’s never explained.

It doesn’t matter because it turns out the guy is holding the seance as a joke: another one of the drunken crew mates is in on it and sneaks away upstairs and starts making sounds to freak the group out. However, while he’s up there, he’s actually killed by the now grown-up ghost of the child, who’s wearing a super creepy mask and lugging a sledgehammer. The funniest part about this is no one cares to look for the dead guy even after the seance is over and he doesn’t come back downstairs. Again, this is a very small apartment and the crew is only 8 people deep. You’d notice if someone had suddenly vanished.

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Seance!

Eventually two more of the group are killed upstairs, and at that point the rest of the group notices how small they’ve been whittled down. The bodies are soon discovered, and the survivors know there’s only one thing they can do: stay in the house and nap. That’s right: instead of leaving or calling the cops, or really doing anything, they decide to stay in the house (in the living room, a setting the viewer is well acquainted with at this point) and just kinda nap. Soon a few more are picked off, and after a very repetitive game of cat and mouse, the survivors finally put an end to the killer ghost…or do they? And then the movie concludes.

The last half hour is brutal. Since the setting is so cramped, the characters are forced to run upstairs into a bedroom, run out of the bedroom back downstairs into the living room, and then repeat the process. I stopped counting after the fourth time it happened.

Now, what Sledgehammer lacks in talent, pacing, logic, and budget it more than makes up for in goofy charm. Sure, I kept checking my watch to see when it’d be over. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t chuckling and guffawing at the lines the actors were spitting out. In fact, most of the dialogue feels improvised and it adds to the natural (albeit totally weird) camaraderie of the group. They’re a charming bunch, to say the least.

The one thing about Sledgehammer that actually disappointed me was not making their killer more of a character. Sure, he lumbers and stalks around the house (in slow-motion, naturally), but I felt they could have done more with him. As a horror villain he’s absolutely terrifying: super tall, frazzled hair, creepy mask. He’s like a mix between Jason Voorhees and Leatherface. I only wish they’d given him more to do.

One final thing to note: the lead actor Ted Prior (brother of director David A. Prior) loves putting things on his girlfriend’s head in the movie. Twice we see him put a beer can on her head and a little later (during the aforementioned food fight) he pours mustard on her head. Like I said: charming bunch!

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