May 12, 2011
One reviewer on IMDb’s Sledgehammer page describes the 1983 shot-on-video classic thus: “Look, don’t make me waste your time trying to explain how awful this movie is. It’s not even entertaining. Just avoid this grade-Z atrocity at all costs.” Another writes that he adored Sledgehammer so much, he based his D&D character on the film (high, nerdy praise).
These reviews indicate the extreme reactions that David Prior’s homegrown horror flick inspires. Much like Robert Mitchum’s preacher from Night of The Hunter, it’s caught in the midst of a critical battleground between love and hate. Audiences seem alternately enamored of its charms, or emphatically appalled. There’s very little middle ground with this divisive work — you’re either for it, or against it.
Simultaneously, there’s an ambition — as Destroy All Movies!!! author Zack Carlson describes it on the new Intervision DVD audio commentary — that distinguishes Sledgehammer from its low budget brethren. While most homegrown horror flicks shot on the cheap attempt to copycat mainstream movies, Sledgehammer instead borrows from those films’ familiar tropes — filtering these elements through a strange mix of supernatural thrills, slasher gore, satanic imagery, and art film sentiment. Prior’s lo-fi cauldron stirs up something unique. The details of the movie’s plot are unimportant here — just dive in.
Although the film’s cast is clearly comprised of a group of friends (having a food fight!?), his unique compositions and dramatic lighting display an unexpected forethought and craft. Sledgehammer’s surreal, nightmare logic and slow-mo minimalism, buttressed against its low-budget gore and amateur thespians creates a dual aesthetic that transcends its origins. The bizarre, somnambulistic haze of Prior’s soft lens lull transports you inside a shape-shifting world, where synth noise and the vanishing ghost of a killer transports you into an unlikely universe.
Queasily bobbing between the polarities of outsider art and horror, perhaps it’s this unpredictable oscillation of the film which provokes such passionate factionalism. Whether you’re a convert or a skeptic, Sledgehammer seems as comfortable projected on the walls of a gallery, as it does lurking inside a well-worn VHS sleeve.