Widely regarded as one of, if not the, first shot on video horror movies, David A. Prior's 1983 epic Sledgehammer begins with an unusually long opening shot of a house. Once we stare at the house for far longer than we want to, the camera takes us inside where a woman (Mary Mendez) locks her son (Justin Greer) in a closet so that she can spend some alone time with her beaux (Micheal Shanahan) without kid-ly interruptions. Instead, they're interrupted when a psychopath with a giant sledgehammer shows up and pounds them into goo, and the boy is never heard from again.
Fast forward ten years to the present day (of 1983) where an odd group of young adults are piling out of a van for a weekend of drinking and food fights in the very same house we saw in the opening scene. Here we meet Chuck (Playgirl model Ted Prior, also the director's brother) and his girlfriend Joni (Linda McGill) are debating the seriousness of their relationship and balancing cans of Budweiser on her head (for real) while a giant guy named John (John Eastman, who wrote this thing) and his lady-friend Mary (Jeanine Scheer) are only interested in heavy petting and getting it on. On the opposite side of that spectrum are Daryl Oats lookalike Jimmy (Tim Aguilar) and Carol (Sandy Brooke), who seem to be wrestling with intimacy and physical compatibility issues. Another guy named Joey (Steve Wright) just seems to be sort of hanging out and along for the ride. Their weekend seems to be going okay at first - Chuck takes his shirt off and plays guitar, balances beer on his girlfriends head and gets to hang out with the dudes;, they guys all have a wacky-ass food fight that involves a lot of people yelling 'WOOOOOOO' as loudly as humanly possible and everyone has their sense of humor about them.
It all heads south very quickly though when they hold a séance to communicate with whatever dead spirits might be hanging around the old farmhouse. Though the guys initially set up a prank to try and scare the girls, it turns out that the joke's on them and before you know it a guy in a plastic face mask is running around killing people.
Seemingly made with no regard for logic or narrative at all, the movie's first hour or so is, once we get past the opening murder scene, made up of little more than the goofiest looking group of 'young people' you're likely to ever lay eyes on. Maybe this was inspired by the vanload of people Tobe Hooper put through the ringer in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe it was inspired by Scooby-Doo but either way, the characters here are just flat out dopey. We don't get to like them, we don't really want to tolerate them, and we certainly wouldn't want to hang out with them what with their tendencies to balance full cans of cheap beer on each other's heads and their love of food fights (which, I might add, no one seems keen on cleaning up!). All the better than that, once someone commits the carnal slasher movie sin of getting' it on, they start to drop like flies.
Sledgehammer, like so many of the shot on VHS horror films of the 80s, is more concerned with murder set pieces than structure, pacing, cinematography, good acting or an interesting story - so it's a good thing that it does get those right. Our killer looks creepy enough in his plastic facemask and the gore effects are handled far better than they should be considering the film's microscopic budget. Prior (the one behind the camera, who presumably kept his shirt on) actually manages to create a bit of effectively eerie atmosphere in the last fifteen minutes or so, and while this one won't send you screaming through the aisles of your home theater, it might just unsettle you a little bit. But only a little bit, because most of this movie is so flat out wacky and incomprehensibly awful that you can't help but want to take pity on it and give it a hug.
Sledgehammer was shot on VHS and so it looks like a VHS tape - which is fine and all, just know that going in so you're not scratching your head anymore than you will be based on the movie's qualities alone. So with that said, the image here is only going to look so good - expect it to be soft, expect colors to fade a bit, and expect detail to waver accordingly - but overall the whole thing is perfectly watchable. There aren't any compression issues to note nor are there any problems with tape roll or tracking lines. The source used for the transfer was obviously in pretty good shape and the movie winds up looking about as good as you can realistically expect it to.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono sound mix is on par with the video transfer in that it's probably about as good as it's going to get. Some background hiss is present and levels occasionally shuffle around a bit but the amazingly horrible synthesizer score comes through loud and clear, so there's that. Generally the dialogue is pretty clear and there aren't any major problems here, but again, keep in mind that the source for this release is what it is and as such, isn't on par with anything aside from the tape on which it was originally made. There are no subtitles or alternate language options provided.
The best of the extras on this disc is a commentary track with David A. Prior moderated by Clint Kelly in which the director speaks quite frankly about making this picture and the various oddball qualities it contains. He discusses casting the film, the inspiration for the movie, making a movie without film school training, locations used (well, basically just the house), special effects work and even how the film was distributed. Kelly manages to keep Prior on topic throughout the film and if you, like so many others, have found yourself laying awake at night pondering how and why this movie got made, this commentary will help you rest a little easier at night. A second commentary is also found, courtesy of Bleeding Skull writers Joseph A. Zirmba and Dan Budnik who, quite understandably, take a slightly less scholarly approach to the movie and instead deliver some humorous observations as it plays back and share some interesting stories from the boom years of shot on VHS/camcorder horror films.
Additionally the disc includes an eight minute on camera interview with Zach Carlson, author of 'Destroy All Movies' in which he provides some interesting insight into the film and offers up some amusing critical observations. Prior shows up again in a six minute interview that covers much of the same ground as the commentary but which at least lets us see what the man behind the masterpiece looks like - always a plus. A third interview puts Hadrian Belove and Tom Fitzgerald, Cinefamily programmers, in front of a green screen with footage from Sledgehammer playing out behind them while they wax nostalgically about the movie at hand. All three segments are quirky enough that you'll want to check them out.
Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other upcoming Intervision classics (Things, A Night To Dismember and The Secret Life Of Jeffrey Dahmer), some awesome menus and chapter selection.
A movie that could only have been made in the eighties, Sledgehammer is shot on video crap of the highest caliber, a veritable disasterpiece of a movie that anyone curious as to how low cult movies can go really ought to see for themselves. Horrible in every sense of the word and endlessly entertaining for all the wrong reasons, Intervision's DVD will definitely be seen as a Godsend to a certain segment of horror fans, and for that segment, those troopers who are unafraid to delve deep into the barrels of obscurity, the disc comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.