It Came from the Camcorder: Sledgehammer

David A. Prior had a dream. He wanted to be a Hollywood screenwriter. According to the internet, so it must be true, Prior decided to help that dream along by making a shot-on-video horror flick that he hoped would demonstrate his potential as an employable screenwriter. And, you know what? It didn’t work! Instead, his movie was a springboard to a career as a screenwriter, AND a director, AND a producer. This was the first, and only, movie that Prior shot on videotape. After this flick, he hit the b-movie big time, shooting on 35mm film and working with production budgets in the six figures.

This flick also marks the start of one of the most prolific familial collaborations in shitty movie history, as David’s brother, Ted, one of the stars of this movie, went on to appear in twenty of David’s films. That’s not a Polonia-level partnership, but what could be? The Polonias were twins. The only way they could have worked more closely together than the Polonias was to be joined at the hip. Anyway…

Sledgehammer tells the story of a group of friends who travel to a house somewhere out in the country for a weekend of drinking. That’s really all they aim to do, guzzling copious amounts of Budweiser and Old Crow.

Unfortunately for them, the house was the site of a pair of grisly murders a decade before, as viewers will see in an introductory scene.

A mother and her lover were murdered with a sledgehammer, after mom locked her young son in a closet so she could get down with her man in peace. The question hovering over the movie is whether or not the sledgehammer killer, played by Doug Matley, is a mortal slasher, or one of the supernatural variety. Viewers do find out as the film goes along, but Prior wasn’t much of a storyteller, being self-taught, so the whys and wherefores are a bit jumbled and confusing.

Back in the present, the group, after some excruciating scenes involving a food fight and more drinking, holds a séance, led by beefcake Chuck (Ted Prior). He knows the history of the house, and conspires with another in the group to scare friends and girlfriends. All it really does is release the spirit of the slasher, or something, to appear Sledgehammer 1983 VHS boxand winnow down the cast Halloween-style. Matley even wears a mask — one of those clear ones that thrusts the wearer into the creepiest depths of the uncanny valley.

What follows is a predictable slasher, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Some of the best horror movies ever made are indistinguishable from each other as far as scope and plot are concerned. What makes this movie something of a chore is Prior’s bumbling and stumbling freshman approach to filmmaking, which he would acknowledge later in his life.

The main offense against the art of film is the shameless padding of the running time. It’s the most dominant feature of the movie, overshadowing the murder, the gore, the poor acting, the nonsensical plot, the look of the videotape, etc. Prior took a movie that should have topped out at around 60-70 minutes, and added another half hour by lingering on establishing shots, overuse of slow motion, and lengthy sequences where he tasked his overmatched cast with improvising being fun people.

This would be a very tough watch, even for shitty movie veterans, were it not for how ridiculous it is. The cast, the men of which appear to have been recruited from whatever gym Ted was working out in, are a hopeless joy. It’s hard to look away, because one becomes curious if they can hold the bad acting throughout, or if they occasionally stumble into competence. They do not.

This movie is a train wreck, and yet it rises above the Stygian depths of something like Birdemic or House of the Dead, and I cannot figure out how it does so. I should hate this movie, but I don’t. Rather, this movie is required viewing for those who are into SOV horror. It’s a true trailblazer in the subgenre, having been released in 1983.

Despite lingering reservations, I have to rank Sledgehammer much higher in the Watchability Index than its objective quality would suggest. And I have to praise Prior for persevering, making his movie, and jumpstarting a fine career in the world of b-cinema. Sledgehammer slots into the middle of the Index, displacing Bride of the Gorilla at #242. Check it out.

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