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).