Home video was a great equal­iz­er in the hor­ror gen­re dur­ing the 1980’s, in a few ways.  The first was that it made it pos­si­ble for lesser-known titles from indie stu­dios to be seen far and wide by fans who would nev­er get to see them in a the­ater.  The sec­ond was that it made it pos­si­ble for peo­ple with­out the tools or con­nec­tions to make a fea­ture film to enter the hor­ror mar­ket through mak­ing shot-on-video films.  The lat­ter trend opened the flood­gates for an infu­sion of home­spun splat­ter­fests into the mar­ket that were allowed to occu­py the same shelf space with bet­ter known pro­duct.

One of the first SOV hor­ror flicks to storm the VHS gates was Sledgehammer — in fact some say it is the first (Boarding House from 1982 tech­ni­cal­ly came first but film prints were struck of that for lim­it­ed the­atri­cal book­ings so some dis­count it for that rea­son).  How much you get out of this film will depend on your love for the “out­sider art” appeal of SOV hor­ror but there’s no deny­ing that Sledgehammer is a true expe­ri­ence.

The gar­bled plot takes its cues from the slash­er sub­gen­re, at least in its setup.  In a rural home, a mean mom locks her kid up in a clos­et so she can canoodle with her also-mar­ried lover.  In no short order, an unseen killer bran­dish­ing the title weapon mash­es them to a bloody pulp.  Years lat­er, a gang of par­ty ani­mals and their girl­friends come to the place for an all-par­ty­ing vaca­tion.  Their lead­er is Chuck (Ted Prior, broth­er of writer/director David Prior and a Playgirl cen­ter­fold).

The first part of the movie is dom­i­nat­ed by sub–Animal House/Porky’s hijinks of this crew, includ­ing a tru­ly dis­gust­ing food fight.  However, things change when Chuck leads an impromp­tu séance and informs the gang of the house’s blood-drenched his­to­ry.  It’s done as a joke but unfor­tu­nate­ly for every­one, it unleash­es the house’s evil.  Pretty soon the child from the begin­ning returns — only now he can trans­form into a bemasked, Jason-style giant who swings a gore-soaked sledge­ham­mer.

Sledgehammer has all the hall­marks that would come to be asso­ci­at­ed with SOV hor­ror: log­ic-impaired writ­ing, hor­ri­ble act­ing, an indif­fer­ence to cin­e­mat­ic tech­nique, etc.  It’s also a ruth­less­ly padded affair: no less than 9 min­utes of the 85 min­ute run­ning time are devot­ed to syn­the­siz­er-drenched cred­its sequences.  The padding also extends to an intense abuse of slow motion, includ­ing an unfor­get­table scene where Chuck and his lady love walk across a field for two min­utes in slo-mo, com­plete with flute & acoustic gui­tar library music.  These aspects will scare off many view­ers and it’s easy to under­stand why: the gap between what the film wants to achieve and what it actu­al­ly does is fre­quent­ly too stag­ger­ing for most mor­tal minds.

However, the brave cul­tur­al anthopol­o­gists in hor­ror fan­dom will be reward­ed if they man­age to stick around for the final 35 min­utes of the movie.  This is where the indif­fer­ence to/inability to under­stand cin­e­mat­ic rules plays out in Sledgehammer’s favor.  People get sucked through walls, the killer keeps chang­ing size and the buzzing syn­th score shreds your nerves raw.  It’s also worth not­ing that Prior shot the film in his Venice Beach Apartment and tried to dou­ble its hand­ful of rooms and one hall­way for an entire house (with­out doing any spe­cial set dress­ing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the rooms) so the grind­ing rep­e­ti­tion of white-walled rooms with no fur­nish­ings and the same end­less­ly recy­cled hall­way just enhances the night­mar­ish vibe.  This seg­ment of the film often feels like you’re watch­ing No Exit rein­ter­pret­ed as an SOV slash­er flick.

There’s one oth­er aspect of the film that deserves dis­cus­sion: the act­ing of Ted Prior.  His non-per­for­mance in Sledgehammer could be one of the all-time great­est in SOV hor­ror.  He’s the flesh and blood embod­i­ment of the film’s dement­ed sen­si­bil­i­ty, cre­at­ing the kind of char­ac­ter who responds to his girlfriend’s request to dis­cuss their fal­ter­ing rela­tion­ship by giv­ing her “coun­try noo­gies.”  He’s always doing what­ev­er he does with a 110-per­cent lev­el of enthu­si­asm and com­mit­ment that is win­ning, even when his act­ing chops are neg­li­gi­ble.  Best of all, he puts up a real fight with the killer dur­ing the finale, includ­ing jaw-drop­ping sce­nes where he bat­ters the hell out of a locked door and then tack­les the killer hard enough to bust down anoth­er door.

To sum up, Sledgehammer gets a qual­i­fied rec­om­men­da­tion: mileage will vary depend­ing on your patience and lev­el of obses­sion with 1980’s SOV eccen­tric­i­ty.  However, if you can stick with it, the final third offers a real smörgås­bord of trash-hor­ror delir­i­um. Either way, it’s a gen­uine mind-alter­ing sub­stance in video form, par­tic­u­lar­ly if you watch it late at night while tired (and be sure to watch the epic end cred­its all the way through for the joke names in its crawl: “Mike Hunt” is just the tip of the ice­berg).

SLEDGEHAMMER (1983) Excerpt — “Behemoth Rising” from Severin Films on Vimeo.