Genre movies from the early 80s were characterized by two distinct cultural events. First off, there was a glut of slasher films trying to capitalize on the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th. A lot of these copycat movies found a home in the burgeoning home video market, theatrical run be damned. That same VHS technology was now available to the layperson, allowing them to basically shoot and cut their own movie with tapes you could buy at a Radio Shack. This confluence of newly-available tech, a thriving home video market, and a collective cinematic bloodlust was the perfect storm that bore Sledgehammer, a compulsively weird Friday the 13th rip-off shot on VHS for next to nothing, and for good or ill, does nothing to camouflage it.
The film’s story line is fleshed out just enough to have it count as a plot. In a cabin in the woods, a mother locks up her child in a closet so she can consummate her affair with a man known only as “the Lover.” The child busts out and kills them both with a sledgehammer, the Lover in particularly fakey/chunky/gooey/awesome fashion. The action then cuts to a decade later, where there’s been a rash of killings around the same area. This geographical proximity to recent killings doesn’t seem to affect the rowdy yahoos who descend upon the very same cabin for a weekend of drinking, partying, and casual misogyny (that sounds like a joke, but the women here are subjected to so much alpha-male nonsense here that it almost feels like a commentary on how poorly women are treated in slasher films). The beer-fueled shenanigans come to a grinding halt when the now-adult sledgehammer killer decides to make an appearance after being summoned via seance, or “scene,” as one of the characters insists on calling it. If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Sledgehammer has one of the thinnest, most unoriginal plots imaginable. The story could generously be called “archetypal,” and derisively be called “a tepid rehash of genre tropes.”
Sledgehammer was the first film by no-budget legend David A. Prior, probably best known for the sublime First Blood knock-off Deadly Prey. While that movie had a visual leanness that matched its no-frills premise, this one is hampered by Prior’s inexperience. In fact, Sledgehammer has several instances of puzzling formal bloat. The first shot of the film, an establishing shot of the cabin, is held for what feels like an eternity for no apparent reason. There’s an interminable romantic interlude between lead meathead Chuck (played with knuckle-headed brio by Ted Prior, the director’s brother) and his girlfriend Joni (Linda McGill), complete with soft-edged frame and light, recorder-heavy score. Stuttering VHS slow motion is used excessively, in one instance stretching out the turning of a doorknob to last nearly an entire minute. An entire sequence is recycled for emphasis. Prior clearly wanted, or more likely needed, to pad out the already-short running time, and tried to do so in an unobtrusive way. He failed.
When it isn’t slowed down to a crawl or doubling back on itself, Sledgehammer chugs along at a steady clip, not wasting time on fancy things like B-plots or characterization. In fact, for a while, it’s almost as if the movie forgets it’s a slasher, preferring to dangle the threat of imminent death over the characters’ heads while they’re just farting around and/or being obnoxious. Once the killer’s spirit is summoned, though, the film becomes a brisk home invasion thriller, though it still maintains plenty of its gonzo form and energy. For example, Ted Prior reacts to a stage punch as if it was thrown by George Foreman, then the film goes to slow-mo on impact, while the whole thing is scored by Carpenter-esque synth gurgling. It’s all very silly and very fun.
That’s just one of the eccentric choices that succeeds in giving Sledgehammer a unique texture and tone. Between VHS’s signature lo-fi fluidity, the cheap special effects (provided by a company called, unsurprisingly hut awesomely, Blood & Guts), and the boozy 80s haze permeating the whole film, Sledgehammer has the feel of the world’s most messed-up home movie. It’s as if someone at America’s Funniest Home Videos decided to pull a very dark joke on everyone, splicing grizzly scenes of backwoods murder into the footage of people getting pied in the face or kicked in the crotch. This tonal hodgepodge elevates Sledgehammer from mere ersatz slasher to a genuine genre curio, consistently baffling and compulsively watchable.