John Landis' Slasher isn't a return to the genre roots he left behind in An American Werewolf in London or the zombie-fried music video for Michael Jackson's Thriller. Nope, despite all the talk of chainsaws and slashing in the movie, this is a documentary, the first Landis has helmed. The director follows Michael Bennett, a Huntington Beach-based semi-independent contractor nicknamed 'the Slasher'. For a tidy five-figure sum at each stop, he spends almost every day trotting around the country helping dealers ditch their stockpiles of used cars. Slasher watches Bennett as he masterminds a four-day sale at Chuck Hutton Toyota in Memphis, the bankruptcy capital of the United States. His tactics are closer to P.T. Barnum than Joe Girard. Bennett's sales are an event, the goal being to stir people unfortunate enough to wander onto the lot into such a frenzy that excitement takes place of better judgement, and within a matter of minutes, they're sputtering out of the dealership in an exceedingly used car. He whips out the usual gimmicks -- giveaways, balloons, blaring music, pretty girls -- but what really draws in customers in such an impoverished city is the $88 car. The idea is to get people to guess which car is secretly $88, using that as bait to switch them over to something substantially pricier. That turns out to be a double-edged sword: the promotion brings in a lot of traffic, but few people are interested in paying more than a hundred bucks for a car, and those that are rarely have the credit to pull it off.
Bennett is a whirling dervish, energetically bounding around with a cigarette, a bottle of beer, or a microphone invariably in hand. There's rarely a moment when you can't hear his gravelly voice -- he's always chattering away, and he has enough swaggering confidence to know precisely what to say to close the deal. He leaps into a drunken, profanity-laced tirade about how a real salesman doesn't need to resort to lies, but his whole act revolves around duping people into getting their guard down and believing the overinflated price they're paying is a deal. At the same time, there's more to him than just the stereotypical sleaze. He genuinely seems grateful to have a loving family waiting at home for him and regrets only being able to spend six days a month with them. Bennett doesn't harbor too many false illusions about his chosen profession either. He's a strangely fascinating guy, and he makes the first half hour or so of Slasher immensely entertaining. We're introduced to Kevin, who acts as Michael's DJ but can barely tolerate being in the same room with him. They also import "mercenary salesman" Mud, and they stagger around Memphis, wolfing down barbeque and running into beer-chugging goats. One of the best scenes has the three of them interviewing potential "Slashettes", prospective eye candy that looks like they're on their way to a shift dancing at the Joker's Wild or something. "It's bombshell, bombshell, bombshell...mud puppets. Who invited them two girls? 'I work at Chili's.' No shit." In between musing about what's festering in the mystery baggie in the back of the $88 car, the Slasher and company plot their scheme for the four days to come.
Bennett's legendary status as a salesman would probably leave some guessing that the movie doesn't really begin until he steps foot on the lot on the first day of the sale. Unexpectedly, that's when the movie starts to drag. The Slasher has apparently refined his tactics over the years and has stumbled upon a comfortable groove. The small but lethal arsenal he's assembled may convince prospective buyers to sign on the dotted line, but it gets stale quickly as a movie. Hearing Bennett's raspy voice continually shout the same phrases and relentlessly spout off numbers killed off my initial enthusiasm. Capturing a four-day used car blowout for a documentary sounds good on paper, but very little happens throughout the course of this particular sale, and Slasher strains to claw towards that 90 minute runtime. Rather than pad the movie with more of the same, that time may have been put to better use by offering an alternate view of Bennett. We know where he is now, but a stint in the pokey aside, not what brought him there. There's no background -- how did he earn this reputation? How long has he been doing this? Bennett talks frequently about his family, but they're only briefly seen on-screen. I would've been curious to hear even a couple cursory sentences from his wife and kids on what they think about their distant Daddy's day job. I was also left wondering why a guy who can pull in twelve grand for a few days' work lives in such an exceedingly modest home. There isn't much conflict either, which diminishes what dramatic elements are peppered throughout the documentary. For instance, it would've been interesting if one of the miffed customers saddled with a lemon returned to the lot. Bennett gets a tongue lashing from one of the chiefs at the dealership who's extremely unhappy with his overinflated promises and dismal performance, but that concept is never really revisited by any of those employees until the very end, when everyone is suddenly "tickled" by the outcome. Slasher makes it seem that things get progressively worse rather than better, so I'm not sure where that drastic change of heart rears its head. I also don't understand Landis' fascination with the FedEx planes frequently flying overhead, but that's another story entirely.
John Landis states that 109 hours of footage was taped for this documentary. "It's just, you shoot enough material and be in the right place at the right time, you're going to get amazing stuff." Landis is right, and he does get some amazing stuff..."some" being the operative word...but either didn't tape enough or wasn't in the right place to fill up a feature-length documentary. As great as Slasher is in its early moments, it just can't sustain it for an hour and a half. Although the really great moments are sparse once the sale begins, there are still more than enough of them throughout Slasher to make this DVD worth checking out. It's just disappointing that there aren't more of them.
Video: Slasher is letterboxed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is not enhanced for widescreen displays. The documentary has a quick-'n-dirty digital video look, by design free of elaborate staging or meticulous lighting setups. There are no glaringly obvious flaws like macroblocking, but the nature of the source material limits how good this DVD can look.
Audio: Slasher includes a utilitarian Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kbps) track. The doc's participants are all clear and intelligible, outside of a pre-flight squabble near the end of the movie. The Stax-heavy soundtrack boasts a respectable presence. Sorry, documentaries don't typically make for incredibly compelling audio reviews, but Slasher sounds fine. There are no subtitles or closed captions.
Supplements: The featured extra is an audio commentary by director John Landis, producers Chris Kobin and Gary Depew, and editor Martin Apelbaum. In the first few minutes, you hear, "this is gonna be one of those 'long pauses' commentaries." That's a fairly accurate description at first, but they settle into a little more of a groove after a while. It's not the most talkative commentary: they fall into the trap of watching the movie sometimes, and they're more prone to quick sentence-long responses instead of lengthy stories. It's a friendly, lightly chatty commentary that's great to have playing in the background. They talk about the origin of the project, the differences in shooting a documentary vs. a 35mm feature film, the Slasher's confidence in his invulnerability after a Mud-scarring car wreck, spotty John Landis impressions, and a pants-slipping uncle trimmed out of the final cut. It also helps to have a former slasher in the mix, explaining the code scrawled on cars and some of the other tricks of the trade.
The eight minute "Inside IFC" featurette is pretty promotional, geared more towards people who haven't seen the movie than viewers tearing through a DVD's extras. Alongside many clips from the movie are comments by John Landis along with a bit of behind the scenes footage. Eleven deleted scenes can either be viewed individually or played all at once. They include tales of self-immolation, Mikey's tuxedo-clad alter ego, other salesmen at the dealership debating who customers like more, a peculiar off-the-street request for a photo, and a discussion about soothing Yanni tunes and how far Mike can be tossed. The best of the bunch has the Slasher shopping for bargain-basement giveaways, subtly attempting to catch a break on the price at every turn. Most of the clips are pretty short, with the footage for all eleven scenes running just under nine minutes total. There are also biographies for John Landis, Chris Kobin, Martin Apelbaum, and Gary Depew. Finally, Docurama provides a bit of background information on their company as well as a list of their full catalog, some of which include trailers.
The DVD features a set of 4x3 static menus, and the movie's been divided into twelve chapters. The disc comes packaged in a keepcase, and the only insert is a catalog for other Docurama releases.
Conclusion: Like its namesake's sales, Slasher is light on substance, preferring to focus on the flash. It's similar to the four sets of people featured in Chris Smith's Home Movie: the appeal lies in its strangely compelling lead character and the off-kilter life he leads. There are no deep insights or revelations into Bennett or the used car industry. It's the flavor of documentary meant more to entertain than inform, and at that, Slasher mostly succeeds. Despite what his reputation might suggest, the Slasher is more entertaining when he's not hocking used cars, and the endless footage of him incessantly barking the same spiel over and over quickly grows tiresome. Although I think Slasher would've played better with a leaner runtime or if Landis had cast a wider net, I enjoyed it enough to highly recommend this DVD as a rental and recommend it as a purchase.