Keep repeating to yourself: Sometimes a movie is
only a movie... sometimes a movie is
only a movie...

Severin's 2011 DVD of Sledgehammer came to my attention through Dan Budnik of Bleeding Skull. Dan and Joseph Ziemba, both from Bleeding Skull, provide one of the commentary tracks on the DVD. Though they go out of their way to warn the listeners that their remarks are their own personal musings, rather than (say) a scholarly discussion of the movie, they do manage to give a good idea of where Sledgehammer stands in relation to the legions of camcorder horror flicks that followed. From their combination of riffs, personal reminiscences and occasional nuggets of fact about the sub-subgenre, it's clear that shot-on-video horror is close to their hearts; and their genuine affection for this movie in particular is everywhere in evidence. The other DVD commentary track is done with the movie's director, David Prior, and it does go into detail about the circumstances behind the film (once the interviewer manages to drag the information out of him). But if you're going to watch Sledgehammer three times — once on its own, and once with each commentary — then you'll need something like the Bleeding Skull commentary to keep you from losing your mind.

Because Sledgehammer is one of those rare movies that really will crawl into your head and fester, leaving a permanent scar in your brain. I mean that in a good way.

As it happens, I'd been avoiding Sledgehammer for years. There used to be a little Mom-and-Pop video store1
I should explain to my younger readers: "Mom-and-Pop video stores" were small, privately-owned shops where you could go to rent "VHS tapes" — those big black rectangular things on the shelf at your grandparents' house.

"VHS" stood for "Very Horrible System" — partly because of the picture quality, and because of the way the tapes would stretch, break, gum up the works of the player, or eventually get moldy and become unplayable. VHS originally had a competing system called "Beta", which is Greek either for "not the Head Dog" or "not ready for official release".

This may come as a surprise to the generation accustomed to the big rental chains, from Blockbuster to Netflix to Red Box... but most Mom-and-Pop video stores had special sections in a curtained-off back room for Adult Movies. In fact, it was the porn sections that kept most of these small shops in business.
in my area, next to the Caldor2
For my younger readers, I should probably explain that... oh, the hell with it.
, that had an extensive collection of horror movies. If you watch the DVD's interview with Zack Carlson (Destroy All Movies!!) and look at the shelves of movies behind him... that's pretty much what our local store looked like (minus the DVDs, of course). Back then, I was more interested in old-school European horror than anything else. In order to find obscure Euro-horror flicks, I had to comb through all the old clamshell-case tapes on the shelf, looking for the films I wanted amid box after box of bizarre retitlings and botched descriptions.
Having subjected every tape in the horror section to such intense scrutiny, I found that certain movie boxes had their own distinct personalities. For instance, there were boxes that really invited you to take them home, even though you knew the movies inside were going to be excruciating: The Dead Pit was one of those, with its 3-D zombie on the cover whose eyes lit up when you pressed his chest. Another was 555: it had an eye-killing magenta cover; and under the title was a still from the movie of a guy getting his head ripped off. Remember, the box was bright magenta, and it stood out from a long way away... so if you were a little kid over in the Disney section across the way, and you happened to look across to the horror movies, what was the first thing that caught your eye? A picture of a guy getting his head ripped off. Cool!

But then, there were some videos that seemed to scream, "DO NOT RENT ME!" Among these were the Andy Milligans — naturally. With their lurid, badly reproduced cover art, you felt as though you could get some strange venereal disease just by handling the cases. The there were the Regal Video boxes, which you quickly learned you could not trust. Take Alien Massacre, for instance, with its illustration of a scantily-clad woman holding a ray gun, and its tag-line: "Blood flows like water!" The movie turned out to be the irritatingly stupid pseudo-gothic anthology film Gallery of Horrors from 1967; there was no blood flowing like water, no scantily-clad woman, no alien and no massacre. Or consider their cover for the shot-in-Florida, anti-drug, born-again Christian turkey monster flick Blood Freak, the art for which suggested the movie was a Jess Franco Euro-gothic from the early 1970's.

And then there was InterVision's Sledgehammer.

Seriously: just take a look at the DVD cover, which (except for the "DVD" logo in the bottom corner) is a replica of the old video box:

Sledgehammer box

Consider it carefully: the artwork... the tag line ("Flesh tears / Bones shatter / The nightmare has begun")... the curious watermelon texture of the title. Is there anything about this that suggests Quality Entertainment? Hmmm?

Evidently most other people in my area felt the way I did about it. Sledgehammer sat gathering dust on the shelf, untouched... until a few years later, when the store went out of business and sold off all its tapes for five bucks a piece. By that time my taste in movies had deteriorated a long, long way; nevertheless, even though I picked up a couple of Herschell Gordon Lewises and Bert I. Gordon's The Cyclops from the wreckage, I left Sledgehammer studiously alone.

Now, approaching the movie over 15 years later — and having savored an awful lot of junk cinema in the meantime — I still found myself wary of it. After all, it's not only a direct-to-video horror film... it's the first direct-to-video horror film. In a category known mostly for cheapness and ineptitude, being the groundbreaker is not necessarily a recommendation.

Well, it turns out the joke's on me. Sledgehammer is one of the most unique and uniquely disturbing horror films ever made. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a good movie — especially not in its non-sequitur first half — but I do think it's one of the best-kept secrets of the genre.

Keep repeating to yourself: Sometimes a movie is
only a movie... sometimes a movie is
only a movie...

Writer/director David Prior had a very simple plan for Sledgehammer: he wanted to make a quick and inexpensive horror flick, based on the then-popular slasher film model, solely for the sake of getting a First Movie under his belt. He had the great good fortune to hire a team of commercial videographers to shoot it. With their help (even though the movie has its share of mismatched shots and visible boom mikes), Prior was able to avoid some of the pitfalls of early video.

First of all, the lighting is often reasonably good — which alone is enough to separate Sledgehammer from the bulk of video productions which followed. For example: with the video equipment of the time, the image had a tendency to wash out or flare in the presence of strong light. But this potential problem is actually turned to the movie's advantage: the peculiar glow of the candle in the Ghost Story scene adds an eerie effect; while the dead white light in the dead white hallway where the killer stalks his prey makes the movie look like a community theatre production of No Exit... in Hell.

Next, the camera work is really pretty good overall: Prior, in the commentary, laments the lack of "coverage" in the scenes (which refers to the variety of angles and perspectives used in convincing visual storytelling); but in the last half of the movie, when Prior needs to suggest that his set is much bigger than it is, he succeeds brilliantly with his setups and his edits.

Furthermore, there's the movie's judicious use of special video effects. Used improperly, these kind of effects can make a movie nearly unwatchable. The first feature film to be shot entirely on video was Frank Zappa's 200 Motels, and for that film Zappa used a handful of video effects that (at the time) seemed striking and effective. But as video became more familiar, these same effects lost their novelty, to the point where they seem hackneyed today. And these days, anybody with a halfway decent camcorder and a computer can add effects to their home movies that far surpass Sledgehammer's for technical sophistication. But whoever supervised the video effects in Sledgehammer — whether it was Prior or his videographers who came up with the various fade-ins, fade outs, fades to red and other techniques — was uncommonly careful with most of them. The result is a movie that isn't just a pale imitation of a film movie, shot on video: it's a movie that's really, seriously made for video, exploring the capabilities of the medium and generally succeeding pretty well.

(Of course, the exception to this overall success is the movie's [ab]use of slow motion. Perhaps this was a deliberate ploy to extend the flick's running time to a respectable hour and twenty four minutes. But even this, which makes the movie so unbearable the first time through, becomes part of the movie's hypnotic appeal by, oh, about the seventh or eighth viewing.)

Even beyond the surprising watchability of the movie — or at least the last half of the movie — one of its greatest strengths is its absolute refusal to explain itself. Its plot seems relatively straightforward on the surface: a group of young people come to party in a haunted house, and an evil entity starts killing them off. But in spite of such a clichéd premise, Sledgehammer exits the known universe at about its halfway point, and gets really, really weird. Its killer is simultaneously a little boy and a seven-foot-tall grown man, who may or may not be the same person. He's both supernatural and — in his choice of weapon and his method of using it — appallingly down-to-earth. The little red house he haunts seems normal enough on the outside... but on the inside, it's an improbable labyrinth of identical bone-white corridors that seem to change their layout from scene to scene. Doors, rooms, even bodies appear and disappear... Once the killings begin, time itself begins to fragment: in one scene, it takes the killer so long to get from the doorway to the middle of the room that his victims have fallen asleep by the time he gets there. The movie steadfastly avoids making sense, until even the final scene contradicts itself. Basically, Sledgehammer plays like a home movie of a bad dream. If that doesn't sound like a recommendation, then this movie just isn't for you.

Keep repeating to yourself: Sometimes a movie is
only a movie... sometimes a movie is
only a movie...

Hmmm. It seems that in spite of the all the pointless personal reminiscences and other padding, this review has come out a lot shorter than I thought it would. Well, then: while I'm at it, there's something the guys from Bleeding Skull bring up in their commentary that I'd like to clear up. Early on, they mention what they describe as one of the abiding mysteries of Sledgehammer. It involves a character they call "The Oates", for his resemblance to 80's singer John Oates.

The Hall

The Oates
(That's him above, in the lavender shirt. By the way — the interference at the bottom of the screenshots isn't a problem with my image manipulation... that's in the DVD video. Apparently the original movie looked this way. It's part of its seedy charm.)

The mystery is this: whenever The Oates is clowning around with the other guys in the party, he's happy and extroverted. But whenever his girlfriend tries to get physical with him — or even says Hello, come to think of it — he gets all withdrawn and sulky. Why on earth would this be?

Well, I think there's an answer to this question, and in fact it goes along with what I've identified as the Hidden Message of the Movie. In order to explain, I'm going to have to give a brief synopsis, weighted especially toward the ludicrous first half of the flick. The fact that Dan Budnik has stated he can't stand synopsis-driven reviews of movies has absolutely nothing to do with this. Really.

So here it is:

Once upon a time there was a mother who wanted a little (ahem) "alone time" with a man who was not her husband. So she dragged her son across their drab, sparsely-furnished house and locked him in a closet, and then went off to do... well... those things that grown-ups do.

Now, it could be expected that when a Mom — clad in her negligée and screaming abuse — locks her little boy in a closet before schtupping a strange man, her actions will have some consequences later in the child's development. You might not expect the consequences to show themselves in minutes rather than years... Still, that's exactly what happens here: the couple is interrupted in their canoodling by a sledgehammer-wielding maniac who can only be the little boy.

How did he get out? Where did he get the sledgehammer? How did he grow into the powerful giant that stalks the last half of the movie? Sledgehammer never provides any real explanation. Apparently there is a weird Satanic presence in the house that is able to latch onto the little boy's misery and use him as an instrument of evil. All we can say for certain is this: being locked in the closet by his sex-crazed mother has made the boy suddenly grow big, and now he's taking his mother's lover from behind with his enormous tool.

Keep repeating to yourself: Sometimes a movie is
only a movie... sometimes a movie is
only a movie...

Ten years pass since the night the woman and her boyfriend were mysteriously murdered. The case has never been solved, and the little boy has never been found — and in all the intervening years nobody's ever thought to take a look in the locked closet. Go figure. Anyway: the dreary little house in the middle of nowhere has stood empty and abandoned for all that time... until all at once, a van — packed like a clown car with people and stuff — pulls up.

Actually, "clown car" is pretty appropriate for this gang of idiots: they're so intent on tossing their luggage out of the car they don't even notice when they "accidentally" throw one of the guys into the luggage pile. Oh well — in the heat and excitement of the moment, I guess it's OK if a man tosses off another guy. Hey, it was the eighties... we all did things we came to regret later.

We quickly find out our nominal hero is the guy called Chuck. First of all, he's played by the director's brother3
Chuck is played by Ted Prior, who (like his brother) was just beginning his long and varied career. We learn from David Prior's commentary that many of the best (or at least most memorable) things about the movie — from the opening title sequence to the special effects to the (cough) impressive video cover, and even some of the music — were Ted's contribution; he's also easily the best actor of the group, though that's not saying much.
. Then, too, he's the only one of these partyin' fools (emphasis on fools) who has some kind of emotional back story: he's having issues with his girlfriend Joni. At first glance, I thought their problem was that they were brother and sister: except for the fact that Chuck is taller than Joni, they look disturbingly alike. But it turns out their real problem is that Chuck is getting cold feet about their impending marriage.
No, I take that back: the real problem is that Chuck is an immature jerk, who's put off by the thought that Joni's the only woman he'd going to give noogies to for the rest of his life. And no, "noogies" is not a euphemism for anything more intimate... Chuck is an emotional ten-year-old. We're treated to a horrifying sequence in which he goes for a romantic stroll with Joni — in slow motion, accompanied by (bleagh) tender flute and guitar music — but just when things threaten to get too sentimental and sticky, Chuck reverts to form and tries to balance his beer can on Joni's head. Trust me, it's not just Chuck who should be worried about the marriage.

But Chuck is a model of stable adulthood compared to the rest of the group, who quickly get down to some serious boozing. The most obnoxious of the group is named John; he's the one with a beard4
Her name is Mary.
. John gets drunk, gets loud, tears up beer cans with his fists, and then (I wish I was making this up) starts licking his girlfriend's face. He also stops the show with his impression of a gay cowboy, at the climax of which he pretends to smooch one of the other guys.

(At least we think he's pretending: the other show-stopping party skill he displays is the ability to eat an entire Dagwood-style sandwich in a single gulp... and when a man as suspiciously macho as John shows he can take that much meat in his mouth — and swallow — you can forgive us for wondering5
Actually, John Eastman, the actor who plays John, is a genuinely tough ex-Marine who will probably beat the shit out of me for this joke.
So anyway: we get half a movie's worth of inebriated party shenanigans, including a particularly messy food fight. While the boys are cleaning up the ruined dining room, the girls go off to change clothes; the Oates's girlfriend Carol complains that she just can't get anywhere with him. But once everyone's cleaned up again, Chuck announces he wants to hold a seance. By the light of a single candle (and the reflected glow of a flashback to the opening footage), Chuck tells the others about the horrible history of the house they're in. Unbeknownst to the others, though, Chuck has arranged with Joey — the only unattached member of the group — to sneak off in the darkness and run some ghostly special effects on tape from one of the bedrooms.

The seance, complete with eerie interruptions from Joey, goes very well. Maybe a little too well... because when Chuck pretends to call up the spirits of the dead, the familiar locked closet at the far side of the house suddenly unlocks itself. An enormous shadow comes stomping slowly down the stairs, dragging a sledgehammer. And there's poor Joey, the one person in the group least likely to be missed for a while, hiding alone nearby...

I've already hinted at what happens next: the best and most effective part of the movie. I own a sledgehammer myself, and I can tell you it's an extremely effective tool for demolishing anything you want thoroughly demolished. You don't even have to be particularly strong to get amazing results. So — as our hapless young people learn in short order — if you're faced with an enormous, hulking brute of a killer (with or without supernatural powers), and he's wielding a sledgehammer... you're applesauce.

But what I really want to do with the rest of this space is address the question: what's up with The Oates? True, he does eventually get into bed with Carol in the movie's only sex scene; and true, as required by slasher movie conventions, he and Carol get killed immediately afterwards.

But we can't overlook the barely-concealed subtext that's been confronting us from the very beginning. We've got a bunch of guys — all fitness buffs, all watching the days of their carefree youth slip by — who go off on a retreat with their girlfriends... yet seem much more interested in each other's company. They enjoy hearing exaggerated tales of each others' sexual escapades — much more than actually indulging in any new escapades with the womenfolk. In spite of their talk, though, they clearly have no idea what to do with a woman: they seem to think the way to a girl's heart is through licking her face, or giving her noogies, or balancing beer cans on her head. They do gay cowboy impressions and demonstrate how much shaved meat they can put in their mouths. Could the Freudian interpretation be any more apparent? Do I need to mention the lavender shirt again?

Bluntly, then, this seems to be the message of the movie:

Nothing breaks apart a couple
with more violence than
when a guy isn't allowed to
come out of the closet
as a young man.

What could be more obvious? Seen this way, Sledgehammer emerges as a much different film: a heartfelt cry for tolerance that, had it been properly understood in 1983, could have helped avert a profound tragedy that's impacted the gay community up to the present day: the modern Republican party. Talk about your sledgehammer-wielding closet cases...

Or, I could be entirely mistaken. In spite of the fact I haven't made a single statement about the content of the film that wasn't factually accurate, I could be entirely mistaken.

To misquote Freud: Sometimes a movie is
only a movie... sometimes a movie is
only a movie...

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