Sledgehammer (1983)

Flesh Tears. Bones Shatter. The Nightmare has Begun.

Cover image to 1983's Sledgehammer

An unfit mother locks her young son in the closet so that she can enjoy a romantic evening with the man she left her husband for. That night, they are both beaten to death by a madman with a sledgehammer. Ten years later, a group of young people rent the house for a weekend of drunken revelry…and guess who returns to swing his mighty hammer once again?

Murder scene from 1983's Sledgehammer

Plodding and heavily padded, SLEDGEHAMMER might have made a better short film. But not all that much better. It is highly illogical, with annoying characters that we can’t wait to see die and supernatural elements that don’t make a lick of sense. There are some cool POV shots and a few minutes of dread, but unfortunately they’re spread so far apart that they scarcely even matter.


Obnoxious partiers from 1983's Sledgehammer

The partygoers are, presumably, supposed to be young but they’re really pushing the limits of that word. It’s three couples and a seventh wheel—they have names, but really, their names don’t matter. There’s not much in the way of characterization here, as these folks are just fodder for the slaughter, and you’ll be cheering for it to happen. The whole lot of them are abrasive and obnoxious jackasses, guzzling beer and hooting like lunatics. As far as annoying characters go in slasher films, these guys are really top tier material.

I’m not quite sure if the identity of the killer is meant to be a mystery or not, but it’s pretty easy to figure out that it’s the child from the opening sequence. After ten years, he’s grown into a hulking brute of a man with an unruly mop of hair and a translucent Halloween mask hiding his face. His true nature is the mystery, though, and one that is never explored, much less answered. He can appear and vanish at will, and transport his victims from one room to another, as well. Occasionally he reverts back to the child he was. He may be a ghost, but if he is, when did he die? As a child? Then why does he normally appear as a grown man? And if he grew up before he died, then how did he die?

I could easily spin whole paragraphs posing these sorts of questions, and weaving a theory of some devise, but it would be as pointless as these characters names. I don’t think the creator put this much thought into the movie, so we probably shouldn’t either.

SLEDGEHAMMER was a relatively early entry in the slasher subgenre, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a shining example. Aside from the two-dimensional and annoying characters, and the nonexistent mythos surrounding the killer, the main problem here is the pacing. There’s enough of a story to fill out 45 minutes of running time—maybe an hour. The filmmakers knew that they didn’t have enough footage for feature length, so they padded it out to an almost unforgivable degree.

The killer from 1983's Sledgehammer

Right off the bat, we’re shown an establishing shot of the house, which is all fine and good except for the fact that it lingers on and on beyond all comprehension—as do all of the establishing shots of the house that we cut to throughout the movie, for no obvious reason. The entire movie takes place in a single location—it’s pretty easy to keep track of where we are without being constantly reminded.

Worse than the lengthy establishing shots, though, is the blatant abuse of slow motion. A single kill in slow motion, when executed properly, can be a pretty great thing; but when every kill scene is in slow motion, it wears a bit thin. Tack onto that the slow motion sex scene (not nearly as sexy as you’re imagining), all the slow motion walking, and just about every other activity that could conceivably be slowed down, and it really starts to negatively impact the pacing that the movie might otherwise have had.

And remember that opening scene, where the woman locks her son in the closet, and then she and her lover are beaten to death with a hammer? No? Don’t worry, it’ll play again, almost in its entirety, a mere 30 minutes into the film as a flashback.

I don’t mean to tear SLEDGEHAMMER to shreds. That’s not what I’m here for, and there were some aspects that I enjoyed. First and foremost, the opening ten minutes or so, starting with the creepily overexposed opening credits right up until our cast of beer-guzzling victims were introduced, was something akin to lo-fi perfection. A sense of cruelty and dread was captured here cheaply and succinctly, even if it never managed to be replicated again later.

The killer using a blunt weapon as his tool of choice rather than an edged one may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a rarity even today. It goes against the very term slasher film, becoming more of a basher film (to borrow a phrase from the underrated 2007 movie METHODIC). His supernatural presence, though never examined, is also quite interesting, as were the occasional POV shots shown through the eye holes of the very mask he’s wearing.

There are some surprisingly effective moments in the musical score, too, from the reverb-heavy stinger that punctuates the thrills to the synth-laden theme that plays over the closing credits and sounds like modern-day Sinoia Caves. And for what it’s worth, I completely believed that the movie was filmed in a sparsely-furnished house somewhere, and was rather surprised to learn that the entire thing was shot in a small apartment. So kudos to the craft of misdirection.

Ghost stories by candlelight in 1983's Sledgehammer

SLEDGEHAMMER was reportedly only the second feature film to be shot entirely on video, and boy does it look it. Early VHS doesn’t exactly hold up when compared to the digital images that we’re used to, and this movie is blurry, murky, and muddled. Considering the era and subject matter, though, that might actually serve the aesthetic, so I won’t be holding this against it. This is a product of its time, through and through.

This movie was the first feature written & directed by David A. Prior, and served as his training ground for a number of cheap genre films that followed, most of them action, but he occasionally returned to the horror genre where he got his start. Fans may want to check out KILLER WORKOUT (1987), DEADLY PREY (1987), NIGHT WARS (1988), THE LOST PLATOON (1990), LOCK ‘N’ LOAD (1990), RAW NERVE (1991), DOUBLE THREAT (1993), NIGHT TRAP (1993), and MUTANT SPECIES (1994)—all of which brush against the horror and thriller genres to various degrees. David’s brother Ted Prior played leading man Chuck here, and also appeared in a goodly number of David’s other films.

None of the other cast members exactly set the screen on fire after working on SLEDGEHAMMER, but Sandy Brooke, who played Carol, can also be found in PRISON SHIP (1986), TERROR ON ALCATRAZ (1987), and NIGHTMARE SISTERS (1988).

Doug Matley, who played the killer, was never seen again.

He’s still out there. Somewhere. Waiting to swing his hammer again.

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