Sledgehammer – DVD Review

There has never been a time I’ve wanted to have an unlimited supply of money more than right now. Instead of writing a review on Sledgehammer, I would rather just buy everyone a copy of their own, because this is a slasher film that one has to see to believe. David A. Prior’s 1983 Sledgehammer is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it demands to be seen over and over again.

Sledgehammer is the first shot-on-tape slasher film to be made for the home video market. This was considered “unacceptable” at the time, but Prior simply wanted to make a movie, and shooting on tape was his only option. Released by Western World Video in 1984 – after the initial success of Prior’s second film, Killzone (shot on 35 mm film) – Sledgehammer has become one of the rarest slasher films of the ’80s, and one that has garnered a respectable cult following. Though Prior set out to make something that was typical to the other “Jason slasher films” of the day, Sledgehammer ends up being one of the most memorable films I’ve ever seen because of one, hyphenated word: slow-mo.

In Sledgehammer, seven friends get together to enjoy a crazy weekend in the mountains, drinking and partying to their hearts content. The house they rent for the weekend, though, is keeping a dark secret: years ago, a young boy murdered his mother and her lover inside the house. Unbeknownst to the group, a shape-shifting evil still lurks within the walls of the secluded mountain home, waiting to be unleashed.

The first day at the house, after being dropped off by a driver, John (played by John Eastman, who, according to Prior on the director’s commentary, is now a spy novelist) goes searching through the garage for no discernable reason. He finds a sledgehammer and takes it. This is the key that unlocks that evil spirit, and the fight for survival is on.

It is important to understand that Sledgehammer is a terrible movie. In fact, it is, bar none, the worst film I’ve ever seen. What sets Sledgehammer apart from films like Hyenas, though, are the bold choices the director makes. Even though most of these choices are laughably bad, they help make Sledgehammer unique, memorable, and funny, which is why fans of the film are frothing at the mouth over this new DVD release.

The worst choice that Prior makes is the use of slow motion. He admits in the commentary that the only reason he used all this slow motion was to extend the runtime to make it a full, feature-length film. There is a slow motion scene at the beginning of the movie that is literally two minutes and twenty seconds in length that shows nothing except Chuck (Ted Prior) and Joni (Linda McGill) walking through a field of flowers. Nothing happens, and the plot doesn’t advance, but Prior shows this for over two entire minutes. Slow-mo scenes are used for doors opening, doorknobs turning, women screaming, killings, and even while a character plugs something into an electrical outlet. These parts, along with overused still shots to end scenes, are tedious to watch and kill the pace of the film.

The funniest part of Sledgehammer has to be the acting. Literally every actor in the film is dreadfully bad, which makes every moment cringe-worthy. Anyone who enjoys laughing at movies with terrible acting will find none better than Sledgehammer, and I found myself laughing out loud for the majority of the movie. It’s blatantly obvious why virtually no actors in Sledgehammer went on to film careers (aside from Ted Prior, who has collaborated with his brother – director David Prior – on over 15 films).

Even though Prior abuses slow motion effects, the script is terrible, and the acting is piss poor, Sledgehammer is worth watching because it never takes itself too seriously. Prior understood that the slasher genre was made up of ridiculous situations and stupid characters, and he delivers both in copious amounts with his first film. From food fights to séances, the 80s supernatural slasher is alive and strong through every second of Sledgehammer, and cult genre fans looking for a laugh will surely get a kick out of it. No matter how much time I spend critiquing the merits of Sledgehammer, I couldn’t possibly do the film justice; it simply must be seen to be believed.

Being the first shot-on-tape slasher film, Sledgehammer’s video quality is only up to VHS standards. It is presented in a full screen format with the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It looks like my grandfather’s home movies from the late ’70s/early ’80s because it was basically shot on the same equipment. This movie will never look better than this DVD release, and even here it doesn’t look great. Just remember that Sledgehammer was shot on tapes to be watched on tapes.

There is no information given on the DVD about the sound option used, but I have to guess it is the 2.0 mono option that the original employed. I did enjoy the little message at the beginning of the movie that recommends viewers turn up his or her bass levels and volume to best enjoy the sound experience of Sledgehammer, which consists almost entirely of ’80s synth music. There are small moments where the dialogue is lost to the music, but for the most part I could hear what was being said.

Audio Commentary with Writer/Director David A. Prior, moderated by Clint Kelley of Riot Releasing: Clint Kelly is a self-titled “super fan” of Sledgehammer, and it is obvious throughout this entire commentary. Kelly asks Prior an endless amount of questions regarding shooting, and the tricks he used to create some of the effects. When Prior is able to remember specifics, the commentary is great. Sometimes he admits that he just cannot remember some things, which is forgivable seeing as this was shot nearly 30 years ago. There are moments where Kelly’s “fanboyism” takes over (like when he praises the acting and character development of the movie, which in reality is non-existent), but the guy gets to do a commentary with the director of his favorite movie, so these moments get a pass. Overall the commentary is an excellent look at how Prior handled the low-budget, and Kelly asks some insightful questions about the making of the movie. At the end it sounds as if Prior is ready to join forces with Kelly to make Sledgehammer 2, which would be incredible to see.

Audio Commentary with Bleeding Skull’s Joseph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik: These two guys run Bleeding Skull, which is a website dedicated to oddball, shot-on-tape horror movies, and were some of the first people to talk up Sledgehammer online. Their depth of knowledge about low-budget, shot-on-tape movies is intimidating, and they share a lot of information about the movie itself, as well as some funny anecdotes about their personal lives. The commentary felt more like a podcast than any other commentary I’ve heard, and I would love to hear more from these guys. This is a great track that works in excellent contrast to the Director’s commentary. Both are great additions for the DVD.

Hammertime: Featurette with “Destroy All Movies!!!” Author Zack Carlson (8:11): Carlson talks about how impressive some of the scenes in Sledgehammer really are, given how and when it was made. The man sits in front of his VHS collection, which is huge, and is obviously a shot-on-tape connoisseur that knows a lot about the genre. He is a fan of the movie, and calls it one of the more “ambitious” shot-on-tape movies. Carlson genuinely admires the work done by David Prior, and sheds some great insight on the movie that some may not have considered.

SledgehammerLand: Featurette with Cinefamily programmers Hadrian Belove and Tom Fitzgerald (6:09): Cinefamily is a group of movie lovers located in Los Angeles, California dedicated to showing unusual movies in a social setting. In 2008, Cinefamily played Sledgehammer in their theatre, and these two men discuss what the experience was like. They make it sound like a great time, and something any cult horror fan would want to be a part of, but this doesn’t add any information about the movie itself.

Interview with Director David A. Prior (5:54): Prior begins the interview by saying that his only real inspiration for Sledgehammer was to “learn how to make a movie, and it was either film school or make a movie, and [he] decided to make a movie”. The interview exposes a lot of interesting facts about the film, but it is a bit awkward to watch. Prior looks put out to be talking about the movie, and as if he doesn’t want to be there. His demeanor changes during the commentary, so it may just be that he is uncomfortable on the other side of the camera. Awkwardness aside, Prior tells a couple funny stories, talks about the budget on the film (which was under $10,000), and about what he learned through shooting. Fans of the movie will enjoy what Prior has to say, even if a lot of it is repeated in the Director’s commentary.

Trailers (17:13): Trailers for The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer (8:08), A Night to Dismember (5:54), and the “Canuxploitation” film Things (3:11). The Dahmer trailer plays twice, once normal, and a second time with the tracking messed up, as if one was watching a VHS tape. The other trailers look like perfectly terrible horror films that cult fans would eat up.

Sledgehammer is the most fun I’ve ever had watching a terrible movie, but it is only for genre fanatics who enjoy micro-budget slasher romps. As I’ve been writing this review, the fifth viewing of the film has been playing on my TV in the background, which should say something about how much I enjoyed the absurdity of Sledgehammer. The DVD itself has been loaded with some excellent special features, more than any micro-budget 80s horror film probably ever deserves. The audio and video quality is on par with the best VHS tapes, which will be what fans of the film have come to expect. Anyone who has enjoyed this cult movie in the past should absolutely run out and buy this DVD because Sledgehammer is the perfect movie to watch with close friends and as much cheap beer as humanly possible.

Intervision Picture Corp presents Sledgehammer. Directed by: David A. Prior. Starring: Ted Prior & Linda McGill. Written by: David A. Prior. Running time: 85 minutes. Rating: Not Rated. Released on DVD: May 10, 2011.