Judge Ike Oden's DVD player is a top loader with auto-tracking.
Flesh tears. Bones shatter. The nightmare has begun.
Stop me if you've heard this one: A group of teenagers played by forty-something actors (led by Playgirl model Ted Prior, Future Force) rent a farmhouse for a weekend of hard partying, only to find themselves being picked off one-by-one by a malevolent force…with a sledgehammer.
That's the logline for Sledgehammer, and while the simplicity of the story makes it easy to synopsize, there's a lot more to it than that. The film confusingly blends a child abuse back story with a purely metaphysical villain. The villain is inexplicably personified by a big dude in a mask and flannel shirt wielding a sledgehammer. Said villain's main adversary is a dumb jock protagonist whose most admirable quality is an atrocious Bill Murray impression. Their struggle and, well, every second of the film is set to an ear-bleeding synth score and padded with prolonged sequences of slow motion that border on madness inducing. Now take these elements and cap 'em off with some of the most hilarious line readings you'll ever hear, and you have Sledgehammer. A film guaranteed to bash your brains in…intellectually!
Once every few years an obscure move resurfaces that redefines everything film buffs think they know about bad filmmaking. In the last ten years we've suffered through resurged popularity in Troll 2, Showgirls, Rock N Roll Nightmare, and The Room. These films returned with a vengeance, building internet word-of-mouth into midnight screenings becoming lavish DVD releases. Sledgehammer downright smashes this competition as one of the best worst DVDs to ever be released.
In terms of cinematic quality, Sledgehammer has nothing going for it. From the fuzzy VHS stock it's shot on to the porn-worthy performances of the cast, Sledgehammer represents an endurance test of bad movie making. No amount of drugs or alcohol or snarkiness will save you from the film. It extends a firm grasp on your brain like a shot-on-video migraine. You laugh through all 87 minutes just to keep from losing your mind. Then you take a series of cold showers to wash the memories away, but like any traumatic event, you can't shake it. It will haunt you to your dying day.
So, yeah, it's pretty awesome.
I'm exaggerating more than a bit. The film is palatable, pushing audience alienation just far enough not to skate over the edge of unwatchable. It helps that there are a few genuine bright spots that make you sit up and go, "Hey, they actually pulled that off really well!" These include couple of nicely composed shots and consistently competent lighting. Said aspects of the film work within the filmically disabled context of the movie, making the audience take note that, yes, there is some raw talent behind the camera.
Then the slow motion kicks in and everything goes to hell. There are so many slow-mo sequences, static set-ups, and prolonged establishing shots that the film often borders on experimental; landing somewhere between a slasher movie, an underground art flick and a landscape film. The running time is 87 minutes, but I'd say only 50 of those minutes are actual movie. The rest is slow…motion…action…lasting…f…o…r…e…v…e…r.
If you can take the tedium that goes with these sequences, there's a lot of fun to be had with Sledgehammer. The film is so innocently and consistently incompetent that it is hard not love. Too often audiences forget that even the worst movies take a lot of work. The unintentional hilarity we derive from great bad movies comes from a combination of hard work, tenacity, and general lack of know-how; all three of Sledgehammer has in spades. It feels like a labor of love by everyone involved. Director David Prior (now a prolific direct-to-video filmmaker) tries his best and really wants to scare you, but, like a child playing with a VHS camera, comes off as awe-shucks endearing instead. That said, Sledgehammer is very endearing, on the whole, and deserves the attention of bad movie fans the world over.
The DVD is great. The image quality is on par with the best of VHS, as it was shot on VHS. It has been cleaned up a bit, though some minor "tracking" effects have been added to up the kitsch value. The stereo mix is so low a title card demands you crank up the volume and bass on your sound system. I did and it worked out fine for me, though I doubt if my neighbors appreciated the full effect of the droning synth music.
Extras are where the set really shines. There are two audio commentaries. The first features BleedingSkull.com creators Joseph A. Ziemba and Dan Budnik. Their website is devoted to trumpeting the greatness forgotten exploitation films, the sort of stuff that occupied video store delete bins back when video stores still existed and rented videos. As such, Ziemba and Budnik are experts on all things shot-on-video, and were among the first to trumpet Sledgehammer online. They show their love and knowledge of the film here, waxing philosophic and poking fun at the film simultaneously. Of all the critic commentary tracks I've heard, this is among the best.
Next is a commentary with director David Prior as moderated by Riot Releasing's Clint Kelley. My experiences with moderated commentary tracks have never been great, but Kelly keeps the track afloat by pumping David Prior with a nonstop array of questions that keeps the information flowing. The track bounces back and forth between self-deprecating (on Prior's part) and over-congratulatory (on Kelly's part), but is informative and interesting throughout.
Intervision also treats us to three featurettes:
Hamertime is an interview with Destroy All Movies!!! author Zach Carlson, a talking head defense that analyzes the significance of the film in the shot-on-video subgenre. It borders on pretentious in some instances, but Carlson does a fine job talking about the film.
Sledgehammerland is a bizarro segment interviewing Cinefamily programmers Hadrian Belove and Tom Fitzgerald. The filmmakers utilize green screen to create the illusion that Belove and Fitzgerald are being interviewed in the confines of Sledgehammer's fuzzy VHS reality, a nifty effect that is ultimately subverted by a rambling interview that focuses on the film's effect on a hung over audience. If you dig your bad movies with copious beer or bourbon, this one's for you. If not, I recommend skipping it.
The third and final featurette is an interview with David Prior. This segment is substantially drier than the commentary track, giving a crib notes version of Sledgehammer's origins. Prior seems to be visibly bewildered about Sledgehammer's success, which makes it all the more fun to watch.
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