It was Friday June 4, 2021. The days were getting brighter. America had a President. The Great Plague had been raging for over a year, with relief in sight as vaccines for one terrible mutation had been discovered, and distributed throughout various parts of the world.
Unfortunately, another mutation was about to occur.
We should have seen the signs. Season Three of The Last Drive-In had been … different. It was more than just the celebrities, literally, on TV above humanoid effigies, than the new cabin setting that had been established during the Specials after the Second Season. Nevermind the presences of Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Campbell, and the others.
It was the films, you see. The films were … different. Oh sure, it started off much in the way that Season Two had done from my time tuning in: with a funny and albeit disturbing spectacle like Troma’s Mother’s Day, and the grotesque and reality-warping Fulci’s The House By the Cemetery as though in counterpoint to Chopping Mall, and Bloodsucking Freaks the year before. But afterwards, the films were … let me be blunt.
They were good.
And while the Tweet-alongs still brought that sense of belonging, and the Lost Drive-In Patreon also let us see some of the Before Times of Drive-In Theater and MonsterVision, along with more Darcy — and there is never enough Darcy — something felt strange. Off.
I’ll admit, I knew something was coming, even before Week Seven. Audition wasn’t even enough, even with that terrible vomit-drinking scene that still gives me nightmares to this very day. No. No, first it was the theme of Week Seven. It was the glory that was Train to Busan — taking us on an elevated journey into pain and suffering — all the way … all the way towards the opposite of the ultimate, the high going towards the low.
Spookies was the harbinger. I see that now. The dead were barely even trying as they, themselves wished the warlock Kreon would just let the terrible horse-beaten rotting joke of them just die. But that’s when I knew. I knew something was coming.
And then, on Darcy’s Birthday weekend, the hammer fell.
More precisely, Sledgehammer slammed down, reducing those who stayed into incoherent, broken, gibbering Things. I have evidence, screen-shots from that night: that Friday night, Week Eight of what Joe Bob fondly called VHS Appreciation Night.
Yes, Darcy. I know. I was there.
VHS Appreciation Night. It sounds so innocuous. So educational. So … fun. Kind of like when the Muppets in The Great Muppet Caper went to the place called the Happiness Hotel. And we all know how that turned out …
It turned out better than this.
They said, in that childhood film to which I temporarily and mentally escaped while writing this report and account, if they were at the Happiness Hotel they’d sure hate to know what the Sad one was like.
Well, that night — on Friday, Week Eight of The Last Drive-In — many of us found it.
The Sadness Hotel.
But that is hyperbole, and a grand understatement for what actually transpired. Because, you see, the problem with intelligence, even moderate awareness like my own, is that you know just how fucked you are going to be. And I was waiting for it. Joe Bob wasn’t being subtle. He mentioned that at least one of these films was from the days of the Iron Man Certifications.
The Iron Man Certifications. A scene by scene summary of a film that is considered an abomination to humankind, sent in to Joe Bob during the days of his previous programs to prove that you watched through all of that literal cinematic horror, to which he would send you a piece of paper acknowledging your pain and suffering, and the Iron Cast stomach and sheer will needed to survive hell on earth, and become stronger for it. The Lost Drive-In Patreon, I thought it prepared me, you see. I thought I was partially inoculated against the mind-bending insanity that was about to commence: that I knew was coming.
I did the work, you see. I saw the New York Nights post. I hunted it down. I summarized scene by scene. I did it. I watched that bastard twice in all of its vapid, terrible, empty glory. Here it is, right here, publicly done by the Old Rules on my Horror Doctor Blog and nothing else to show for it on my part but pain and regret.
Joe Bob, if you are reading this, I bet you won’t click on that link: even if I think, deep down, that if I have to suffer, so do you. But that’s wasted, isn’t it? You’ve seen it before, many times, in increments, like Iocaine powder. You laugh at my miniscule misfortune, at my own petty self-destruction, purely brought on by my own hubris as you think about the many before me who have gone through worse. And I thought I was ready. I thought I trained. I thought I’d taken enough of that powder to get through this, and know that we would have the choice to do an Iron Man Certification.
But then I forgot the Creed. Mutants. This was all about mutations. And, sure enough, going on Darcy’s Twitter Feed I saw the terrible truth. I saw what I would have to do. What many of us would have to do. For the Iron Man had mutated, transforming, twisting, into something else, into a madness I didn’t see coming despite my sixth sense screaming louder than any beautiful blood-drenched Queen.
Two movies, the aforementioned Sledgehammer to my brain, and the Things left behind in its wake. I would need to watch them again. Not only would I need to subject myself to that madness once more, but I would need to comment on Joe Bob’s commentary, take some screenshots on my laptop to show me watching the films, and email it all in.
This new horror, this monstrosity, changed the game. The Iron Man Certification was over before it began.
In its place, was the Iron Mutant Campaign.
It is a hot night, and morning, and afternoon in June in Ontario, Canada as I undertake this trial: to pursue what I would be so tempted to call being an Iron Mutant Aspirant. But as a wise, cruel man in a cowboy hat and a Silver Bolo many would kill for once said:
Part I: Sledgehammer
I am going to write this as though it is happening in real time, for posterity’s sake, as I bring the remains of this wall of sleep and sanity down. Before we begin, let’s say that each time I get to the Commercial Breaks — or Joe Bob Commentary sections of our viewings — I call them Sanity Checks.
Armed with that grim cynical sense of Lovecraftian cosmicism — of an inherent meaninglessness or maliciousness of existence itself — let’s get to it and swing the hammer down.
In retrospect, I should have taken up drinking.
Sanity Check: Especially after that statement, I agree with you Joe Bob. 24-hours, and 24 beers in a case is not a coincidence. It’s just another bit of synchronicity.
Sanity Check Addendum: Here we are at VHS Night. I like the term Camcorder Revolution of the Eighties — specifically the Shot-On-Video Era circa 1982-2005 — and I want to record these terminologies here for future use. The other things I’d like to remember, here, is a thought I wrote about in my Twitter feed with regards to Shot-On-Video being something of a renaissance: not unlike the Gutenberg printing press. Camcorders — such as the PV-610 or HR-C3 camcorder for VHS or Betamovie — shot movies straight to video, they were cheap to buy, and produce, and they were placed in the Bottom Feeder Section of movie rental stores: with crude box art. It reminds me of colportage: where tracts and texts could be made and distributed by people outside a traditional ruling or elite class. I can go further, and also compare them to the DIY punk zine phenomenon of the 1970s-80s: where you take the means of distribution and production, allow classes outside of the exclusive hierarchies to record experiences beyond an elite class.
Interestingly enough, it was Joe Bob’s comments about the box art for some of the videos in the Bottom Feeder Section made from magazine cut-outs and collages that gave me that DIY link — along with the folk art connection — though I know later Joe Bob will talk about class and low and high art in what these video makers emulated. It’s fascinating to consider it: that VHS tapes are making a comeback like vinyl records, even though many of these Shot-On-Video pieces suffer from bad spectrum lighting, where a lot of background illumination is required, along with sound quality and even graphics as lines appear in the displays overtime. I grew up with this, however, and it is so strange to see how far we’ve come. And what we’ve lost.
Such small worlds. And thinking about how many of them didn’t make it to DVD, and how many ceased to exist, and the devices to even play them now are far more rare: there is something to that twenty-three year old moment in time gone in the blink of an eye.
But are some things best left forgotten? Or can you learn from the aftermath of those lost remains?
The faded white square font of Imaz Presents on a black screen leads to the weathered mountainous building blocks of SLEDGEHAMMER: the title crackling occasionally with static, dripping with moisture, and getting smashed into smithereens with a hammer though not unlike an atomic explosion: which pretty much summarizes the soul of this whole movie.
We get into faded, off-colour credit sequences displaying a … I wouldn’t say good cast that bears repeating, but a cast that is repeated at least once now, and a second time when this is all said and done: Ted Prior (who also made the special effects in this film, which is pretty cool to see that level of versatility), Linda McGill, John Eastman, Jeanine Sheer, Tim Aguilar, Sandy Brooke, Steve Wright, and with Michael Shanahan, Maria Mendez, Doug Matley, Ray Lawrence, and Justin Greer after a transition between ambiance-inverted figures, and a man in a puppet mask. It’s like attempting to watch a locked adult cable channel without knowing any better. We see this is written by David A. Prior, George Abouhabib is in charge of production in another scene, the electric synthesized organ title music is by Philip G. Slate in another blurry shadowy segment, additional music by Ted Prior and Marc Adams, it’s all edited by one Ralph Cutter, and Special Effects are by … well, what you do know: Blood & Guts. The Special Effects in this continuing Rorschach Test from Hell is Jacque Marrino, the Director of Videography down the stairs is Salim Kimaz, Lighting Director Michael Watt … all right — wish he could have done something with these long opening credit scenes, art director Laurence Mcelrea …
All right, the legs walked down the stairs finally, and on another blot screen we have Associate Productor Tom Baldwin, producer Nicholas Imaz again as a hand turns a door knob, executive producers Abdalla Itani and Chuck Malouf, and a reminder that David A. Prior not only wrote this movie script (more on that later), but he directed it as well.
Gott im himmel. Finally. The movie hasn’t started yet, and it’s already busting my balls. But hey, at least it gave me the excuse to write the credits down, so there is that.
We transition to an inverted and out of focus, but gradually distinctive cottage that wouldn’t look out of place on Little House on the Prairie. It even has trees, a mountainside behind it, and a white picket fence. Surely nothing atrocious will happen here. And after the beginning of a series of long, stationary establishing shots in which the camera operator seems to be contemplating existentialism for more than a breath, we pan forward towards the house as we hear a woman screaming at a small child.
A mother in an 1980s dressing gown argues with a boy, her son — who for some reason I thought was called Jimmy, I don’t know why — about him not ruining her evening, and throws him in a closet that, for some reason, has a lock on it. The scene goes into slow motion, trying perhaps to show this moment as something fateful, as though it says to the audience “And this is where she fucked up.” The past tense is intentional as we slowly pan towards the door, and I get some serious Pieces flashbacks.
A man is sipping wine in a bathrobe, as the mother goes in and they engage in what might be the best acting of the whole movie — and that doesn’t say much — in that it’s slightly less flat than the rest of it. He asks about “the kid” and she amps up from attempted sexy to she “took care of the little bastard” with such animosity and hatred you’d think he killed an entire species, or something. Child abuse apparently turns this man on as they kiss, giving exposition that they are having an affair with each other in a short exchange of sentences, and then she starts kissing his belly and the camcorder capturing this whole movie pans to the right as we … think she’s starting to give a blowjob? I really can’t see the angle either way.
But anyway, we see the shadow of a figure with — you guessed it — a sledgehammer — coming towards them and the whole scene freezes, and fades out. A great place to stop it, right? Of course not. Instead, we see the mother continuing to kiss the man’s belly button failing to simulate oral sex, and the camera scrolls up as the most half-hearted hammer blow hits the man in the back of the head. We see some pretty good practical effects of blood and viscera, with a watery sound as he falls down. The woman abruptly looks up, and — well — you’d think she would have noticed that he was falling over even in slow motion given that his penis was supposedly in her mouth. Instead, her mouth is open wide and she both mutely — and painfully — begs for her life. So right: Pieces. We see the shadowy outline of a hammer swing down like a metronome, staining the wall with little drops of blood … and it is caught in midswing as the visual of film seems to burn away into red darkness, and the next scene.
And now we see a beautiful sunny mountain countryside “ten years later.” A car slowly drives up the road in a long panning shot to the left until it gets to the house.
And then, the peaceful scenery is broken for what will be the obnoxiousness of the rest of the movie.
Teenagers come yelling out of the car, or people playing them. Names are called out as they fool around, but it’s so easy to miss it in the pandemonium. There is a whole lot of unpacking from the ride they’ve hired, and bantering and talking over each other that goes on for a long time. For too long. John is the large bearded man trying to make order among them. Jimmy — it turns out I remembered his name and not that of the kid — is a dark haired man exchanging a cooler with his blonde girlfriend Carol: and there is some tension there. Chuck is a muscular blond man played by Ted Prior, while his short brown-haired girlfriend is named Joni. Chuck and Joni have a conversation that seems to allude to something, without going into details. I want to believe it might be a “Hills Like White Elephants” situation, but my brain was probably attributing something more adult and deeper to the exchange than it actually is. There is a whole lot of back and forth between unpacking, the driver leaving, and Chuck attempting to roughhouse Joni to make her feel better: because, you know, putting a beer on your girlfriend’s head, giving her noogies, and tossing stuff at her to carry are the secrets to keeping a relationship alive.
So, where were we? Oh yes. Slow motion idyllic pastoral walking scenes, with gentle country music reminiscent of 1980s porn, or at least scenes from … New York Nights. And it goes on for quite some time. Well, after following Chuck and Joni around slowly panning to the right as they walk, he almost gets that beer can to balance on her head. This is a horror movie, I think?
Now that we have our romantic leads, we get to the next scene. John is messing around in a junk-filled area of the house as ominous synthesization plays, and he pulls out what might be the sledgehammer that killed the woman and her lover, but we don’t see it well and it ends with a freeze frame.
Next scene Chuck imitates some kind of macho action hero, or politician, and everyone gets drunk. I attempt to take the time to figure out who everyone is during this particular cacophony. So we have the bearded and large John, long dark-haired Mary who is John’s girlfriend, we have muscle man Chuck, poor short-haired Joni, dark-haired and bearded Jimmy, his blonde girlfriend Carol, and stripe-shirted short-haired Joey — also known as Hand Job. I think now I can keep better track of them,
Anyway, after Chuck’s attempts at acting — which is hilarious in an unintentionally metafictional way — we see John attempting to slobber on Carol — spitting “Tooey!” out afterwards as if he — and Chuck before him with Joni — are afraid of cooties or something. John then tries to prove himself to be “a real man” by making out with Joey beside them. Say what you will, but John is a man confident in his own sexuality, and I can respect that.
Chuck takes Joni aside for a talk. Joey leaves to start messing with the lighting or circuitry of the place. You can tell he is the shit-disturber of the group. Then we find out that Chuck and Joni’s troubles are that he apparently had been talking about marrying her and never followed up on it. Well. I guess there goes that plot point. So much for it being about abortion, or something Hemingway like that.
And then we get to a scene of Chuck — without his shirt on because, you know, he has muscles — playing on the guitar outside, and the music does this really cool thing: it is this melancholic folk string that blends into the creepy synthetic ominous “thrumming” that we’ve heard before as we pan up at the top window of the house in another scene. It’s as though something unseen might be looking down. There are a lot of interspersed shots between Joni sitting with Chuck as he plays and something — or someone — is sneaking around in the bushes near them on the property. The juxtaposition is fascinating, and it’s like Joe Bob said: the movie makers are finding their cinematic language. And now, I notice that we have an extreme close up of the window, and I can almost make out a shape behind it. That is pretty interesting.
Sanity Check: There are two discussions that stand out at me during this segment. First, there is the focus on synthesizer music — that slightly off-tune Trombone blat whose sound I couldn’t quite describe. I like how Philip G. Slate did the music but might have been David A. Prior: how he used many fake names to pad the numbers of how many he had working on this movie.
But then there is the second part that truly gets to me.
“You can’t make a beautiful movie, but you can make a statement in fictional form.” Joe Bob’s quote sticks in my mind.
Before this, 16 mm film was the least expensive way to make a movie but the film itself is expensive and the camera to use it, and post-production. Video made things more accessible. It applies to how David Prior and his younger brother Ted — and how they made the movie. Their father was a standup comic, and their mother an assistant to Blackstone the Magician. Their parents divorced, and the two lived with their mother: making me wonder about some parts of Sledgehammer. David was obsessed with movies, and Ted was a bodybuilder. More specifically David just wanted to write, not direct, but he knew that some background in direction in smaller projects could get him into the industry. And after applying for Ads, he even got some small financial-backing, though not much. And he got his brother Ted to act because he was simply in the area.
So basically, we have a director who didn’t want to direct, and an actor that didn’t want to act. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Certainly, it was not very auspicious at first, but they evolved from this point. And then we go back to the first ninety years of film history, only the rich and elite could make films, or those with patronage, or corporate-backing: as happens with most art in history. For the first time, working-class men from Baltimore can make their own movies, and bring something to that kind of storytelling that someone emulating them might not. Perhaps that is where making a statement might come in: even though I know for a fact I’ve made a few statements of my own in these summaries so far.
I think about how everyone in the movie had a beer, and was filled with manic energy. Joe Bob posited that to test a potential actor, ask him to portray not anger or sadness, but something profound like joy. And, looking at the people that were assembled then, as obnoxious as that energy might have seemed, there was something very real about it. Certainly, John Eastman as John seems legitimately drunk through most of the movie: and this drunken master technique is about to show.
Oh man. So now, we were warned about this, we have the sandwich scene. It’s one of the things, aside from hard to see lighting at times, that connects both Sledgehammer and Things to one another. Everyone is at a table, with a ton of junk food, and John stuffs a giant sandwich of meat into his mouth. It is enormous, messy, and really gross. Basically, someone smacks John and he spits pieces of his ham sandwich on Joni’s face. And while one of her friends wipes it for her, Chuck decides to pour mustard on her head. Remember: she wants to marry this man, though she also shoves a whipped cream pie in his face.
Seriously, as this degenerates into a food fight with alcohol all around I’m beginning to think that the ghost here is seriously being disturbed by the sheer amount of spirits already brought into this house.
The girls get the boys to “clean up their mess” and as all the women clean up in the other room after that food scene that goes entirely too long — another theme in this movie — we get some more character dynamics exposition. John is too boisterous and demanding for Mary, and Carol is upset that Jimmy doesn’t seem to want any sex and she doesn’t know why. Mary further elaborates that John can’t stop joking around in bed, and he likes to wear masks: but not on his face. All right then. So this juxtaposed with the boys talking about masturbation, and Chuck explaining that he was on the freeway having “a throbber” and he used his sandal. Damn. I actually completely missed watching this the first time. I almost wish I had.
The boys clown around and start to clean up their mess. Joey tricks Jimmy into letting him take a shower while he does his work. So Carol goes to take a shower and, in this painfully white hallway, we see on the side leaning against the wall Chekhov’s gun — the sledgehammer. She walks past it, and goes into the bathroom. The ominous synthetics blare out into sirens that almost sound like bad shower pipes themselves, attempting to create dramatic tension. And then, she pulls back the shower to see Joey faking his death with a noose around his neck, and blood: as if he couldn’t make up his mind which way he dies. They fight, and leave the washroom as we see the sledgehammer in the corner of the hallway … fading away as if it had never been there at all.
This will totally not be an ongoing theme.
Jimmy is searching for more alcohol in the next scene and he runs into Carol, and she asks him after he talks about “getting his clothes on” what’s wrong, and he denies that anything is going on with him. Carol leaves, fed up as well, as the camera focuses on a blank white wall until we transition to outside of the house again, panning away from it into an establishing longshot: this time at night.
The next scene we are back in the party and the loud raucous music, where Joey tries to pull down Joni’s pants … for some reason. This is when — finally — Chuck stops the record player and the generic loud and obnoxious music everyone is just so dying to listen to, and begins the plot. Oh, Joey suggests an orgy but Chuck wants to do a seance. I mean, the dead should rise in either situation, and perhaps John’s terrible misunderstanding with Carol about a seance being a scene isn’t that far off, but let’s finally act like this is a horror movie. Can we do that?
Right. I’m sorry, this is actually getting to me.
The scene — the real scene — slides away to the right, a nice segue, into Chuck sitting near a candle in the dark telling the rest of his friends a horror story. But what is it about, you might ask? Well, let’s get to it. He recaps what we saw at the beginning of the movie with the woman and her lover. This is where we see a black and white duplicate of the scene with the mother arguing with her son about him needing to go into the closet: with slow motion locking, and her leaving, and a close up of the closet door and all that. Then we juxtapose to Chuck still telling the story as we see an exact, but colourless duplicate scene of the woman and her lover with some Chuck narration, and it goes back and forth as Chuck explains their remains had been crushed and taken out of the house in bags: their bodies crushed by a sledgehammer. There is a pan out and rotation around each of his friends and their faces as they listen to the story.
Chuck explains that the adults did die, and how the boy was never found. Perhaps he fled and died in the woods, or the killer got him. But other people, other folks in the area, think he is still there: waiting. Waiting for his mother’s killer to return and get his revenge. Apparently the boy’s father didn’t do it as he had an alibi, and Chuck keeps saying that the boy will come back. Of course, at that point we have another scene of a close up of the closet where the boy had once been locked up, and a faint pounding sound for emphasis.
All right. This is interesting, information we didn’t see happen after the adults were killed. Now we are into the horror part of this movie.
So we find out that not only is everyone in the house where this happened, but they are in the same room where they all died as well, and Chuck’s states that it is his plan to call upon the spirits this night to find out just what happened to them: and to discover who killed them. Then Joey, in a totally non-suspicious way — as he is the only single guy and consistent prankster in the group — gets up and leaves as Chuck gets them all to prepare for what is to come.
Chuck calls upon the spirits to call upon the spirits that know what happened in the house, as though he is aware that spirits have a bureaucracy, chanting “Arise chicken — I mean, spirits, arise!” I will admit, when he shouts, “I command you to rise!” Chuck’s voice actually has a fierce tone behind it, and it sounds like genuine acting.
And then the rest of the events unfold. Ominous music. Establishing shots. An empty hallway again. An empty dining room and kitchen. And an angle of the room with the closet yet again. Do you think there is something paranormal going on there, ladies and gentlemen and other beings of the night? Oh, and an empty staircase that we saw foreshadowed — literally — at the introductory credits of the movie. And now a close up of the dead bolt at the closet …
Which suddenly unlocks.
Well, what swear word rhymes with Chuck? We are about to find out.
And as Chuck continues to invoke the spirits, Joey is messing with a stereo in another room. John is on edge. And then through different switching, from the seance to Joey and back, we hear a synthesized roar. Joey is too pleased with himself as the rest of the group thinks the spirits have arrived. They hear voices from the stereo that they don’t know about as the prank continues. Meanwhile, down the stairs, something wicked this way comes from the credits scene: a pair of legs … and sledgehammer that totally isn’t a stand-in for something else if you know what I mean, and I think you do.
Damn, the video loves its Jump Cut Juxtapositions, making a scene by scene summary an utter multifaceted nightmare. The scenes continue as the group hears that the spirit can tell them — in a reverberating voice — what happened, as Joey is still pleased with himself in the other room, and as a shadow darkens Joey’s room …
The spirit, as recorded, insists that it can only tell one person what happened that night — and it’s John of course. Fascinatingly enough, as the scenes jump between John standing and being told the spirits want to drink his blood, he holds his neck even as — in the other room — Joey gets slowly stabbed in the neck. Now, why the killer wouldn’t use his sledgehammer is beyond me, but I guess he is just getting into character for the sake of their little seance, or something. This is cut fairly well, actually, as we see the lead up with the killer walking behind Joey, John standing, then the killer having the knife at Joey’s throat, and John holding his own neck, and Joey getting stabbed through the neck. There is a definite language forming from this haphazard movie.
The people in the room are getting antsy with all of this going on, and they agree with John that they want it to stop. And then, we see the killer slowly dragging Joey’s corpse away. We finally have our first murder, and of course it is the archetypal horror jokster.
Sanity Check: According to Joe Bob, David Prior mentions the disappearing sledgehammer as indication of something supernatural involved. He was inspired by the Friday the 13th series, and this point leads Joe Bob into mentioning that many shot-on-video directors were inspired not by avant-garde or art house independent works, but rather mainstream movies and directors: minus their resources. It makes sense for those starting out in an artistic medium to emulate masters in their field, and the works that they genuinely love. While this isn’t entirely true, and there are those — who Joe Bob even points out later — are inspired by fellow “fanboys” and amateurs such as themselves, the best way to teach yourself an art I find — especially a literary one like text, or poetry, or film, is to go as close to the source as possible and not necessarily a gradation of that foundation. However, after that, I feel you should definitely see the variants of the fundamentals, even though that’s not all how to start out. I certainly didn’t when I began writing and I was inspired by Dragonlance as opposed to The Lord of the Rings, or Beowulf.
Chester Novell Turner’s 1984 Devil Doll From Hell sounds fascinating: made by a man in the home remodelling business, and blaxploitation movie about a working-class woman raped by a ventriloquist dummy, and leading her to a sexual awakening. Another film, this one from 1985, is Blood Cult, It is about college students being stalked by a psychopath who is part of a human sacrificial cult. It’s something else that made it into stores, into that so-called plebeian Bottom Feeder Section, and had a brilliant piece of cleaver box art. From what I understand, it’s less important on its own merit, and more for the films it inspired and made way for in a seminal manner such as Blood Lake, Cannibal Campout, Twisted Illusions, Demon Queen, Video Violence, Phantom Brother, and others. Many of them are on Troma Distribution list.
But back to art. There are Joe Bob’s words about a fan making horror or video folk art to consider. When you don’t have formal training, or the resources to do so — or if that education is something commercial to the elite — a person would be forced to invent their own film language. The printing press element of the camcorder, and video allows them access to devices and means — media — that can record worlds, even oral histories of real and fictional kinds that no one would have even considered preserving. It all comes back to that: the idea of high art possibly being a class-difference, but also something that a movie maker is inspired by but adapts to their own voice: culturally, or personally. That truly is beautiful. I feel like I am not doing that concept enough justice in this writing, and I really want to do so.
Sanity Check Addendum: All right. I am instituting a new rule. I can do that. You see, the way I figure it, the movie makers are just trying to figure out stuff as they go along, so I will do the same. Each scene shall henceforth be decided by fade outs. I will think of them as punctuation in this run-on sentence of a cinematic camcorder story. Otherwise, I will be here on this one movie forever. As an Iron Mutant Potentiate, I exercise that right, and will attempt to institute it for the rest of the near-future.
Next scene. We see the house outside at night again. John is denying that was scared as they all hang out, sans Joey. Jimmy and John almost come to blows as the former makes fun of the latter’s fear. Then everyone is surprised that it was a prank, as revealed by Chuck, with more roughhousing as a result. We have another scene of the killer materializing into existence again, carrying around his large, titular sledgehammer — showing it off like … Anyway, he hasn’t used it. Yet.
So we see the group playing a rousing game of charades. No one, by the way, has noticed that Joey is missing yet. We get a close up of Jimmy and Carol on the couch getting comfortable. She wants to go upstairs, and insists they don’t have to rush into sex. Jimmy looks profoundly uncomfortable, but gives in as Carol teases taking off her top in front of everyone. They go upstairs and for some reason Carol calls out for Jimmy as he is in the hallway, and I don’t know why. Maybe there was another scene there that got cut out.
We go back to the party now. Joni is wondering where Joey is (it’s so easy to get these names confused with all the names starting with J), and John (see what I mean) makes a crack about how Joey might be watching Carol and Jimmy go at it. This disgusts both Mary and Joni, and after Mary says “just you wait,” we realize that John has been waiting for sex with Mary for two years. So it makes me wonder what that whole mask not on his face was about, unless they haven’t had intercourse, and done everything else. Sexual speculations and drama aside, we see Chuck actually looking for Joey and going to the room where they prepared their prank, only to find it empty … with the exception of blood.
And now we come to the crux of Jimmy and Carol’s issues in the bedroom. The truth of the matter, as we find out, is that Jimmy has been lying to himself his whole life and seeing John kiss Joey made him realize that he is not into girls, as he thought he should be, and he tells Carol … No. That didn’t happen. Instead, we find out — as Carol surmises, that Jimmy is a virgin and this is going to be his first time: and she takes it in stride, and takes charge of the matter. Of course, now that the sex is going to be happening, we know what’s also going to occur next: that age-old trope.
See, it was back enough that they made fun of the deaths and suffering in this place for the sake of a prank. That’s what happened to Joey. But now two adults are going to have sex, in a place where a small child was locked in a closet so his Mother of the Year can kiss her skeezy lover’s belly button erotically. We see a slow moving perspective from the camera, presumably from the perspective of the killer, as he lumbers towards the bedroom where Jimmy and Carol are getting down to it. Then with the same ominous music, Chuck is still in the room where Joey used to be before being startled by Joni. I wonder if, like when Jimmy bumped into Carol in the corner earlier — definitely not a euphemism — the movie creators were attempting a jump scare that just didn’t work.
Movie-making speculations aside, Chuck voices his concerns with Joni about Joey. Joni wonders if they are attempting to pull another prank. But Chuck is adamant. He wants to look for him before thinking about telling the others that Joey’s been hurt: not even considering that this could be another prank of his. There is a freeze frame of his face — to capture sincerity or another happy accident — before we transition to the next scene. Jimmy is on top of Carol as they sinuously make love in slow motion. It seems to be anatomically correct, unlike The Room, and it’s definitely a little more passionate than the sex I unfortunately saw in New York Nights. There is a cut away to the door knob turning, which Freud would have something to say about I’m sure. We go back to the sex going on in a stagnated temporal field, possibly with its own altered gravity and Orgone energy attracting this killer ghost like chum to a shark as the door finally opens, and we finally get to see a Puppet Mask face — one of the few things in this movie that brings Darcy any joy, I’m sure.
Anyway, we transition away back to Joni as she just opens a door, and Joey’s body falls out with a knife stabbed through his neck: which is a pretty good effect for what this crew has been working with, and Joey falls exaggeratedly, but compellingly well. There is no warning. No preamble. It just happens. Joni freaks out, and Chuck comes in to see the whole grisly scene. He gets Joni to look for Jimmy and Carol, and not tell them what’s going on.
Poor Joni. I’ve said this a lot in this scene by scene summarization from hell, but I can never say it enough.
Surprisingly, Jimmy and Carol are both still alive: as that scene with the murderer would have been an excellent place to kill them off-screen. They are still in their little temporal loop, this time post-coitally, the killer showing us a nonconsensual closeup of his large hammer, then Joni’s coming up the stairs, and Chuck is going to John and Mary to tell them “they got big trouble.” Now, back to Jimmy and Carol … wow. They are still not dead yet. Anyway, the killer gently and graciously snaps Carol’s neck — or gives her a good crack — and then, gradually, Jimmy casually gets up only to be hit in the chest by the sledgehammer in slow motion, killing him in the warmth of the afterglow. I have to say, that is one of the most smug, satisfied and peaceful smiles I’ve ever seen on a corpse. But hey, he just had sex for the first time, so if you’re going to go at least get laid first.
Of course, Joni just came in on that part — the killing, not the sex — and runs for it as the killer slowly turns to go after her. Eventually. Back and forth down a suddenly dark and narrow hallway. We see the killer in a checkered shirt and jeans, and his puppet mask. Joni keeps looking back. She falls down. He tries to hit her with a hammer. But Joni didn’t just have slow-motion sex, or get pleased with herself over pulling an obvious prank, and dodges it: continuing to run.
Joni makes it to the other characters. Damn, can I tell you how much a relief it is to have fewer characters with which to keep track? It’s just Joni, Chuck, Mary, and John now. John goes to investigate what’s going on. John lets Chuck know he will tell them what he finds, but seems kind of dead-set on the idea that his “ass will go flyin’ through the first window” he can find. Then, we see a brief scene of a boy dressed like the man, even with the puppet mask, and the sledgehammer teleporting away into the ether.
Sanity Check: I disagree that what happened with Jimmy and Carol is a necrophiliac sex scene, or even a somnophiliac one as both participants are active and moving, and Carol herself is touching Jimmy and clearly responding to him. Anyway.
We are always coming back into art, aren’t we Joe Bob? I love how it’s mentioned that David Prior made this movie in his Venice Beach apartment and was successful in making it look bigger than what it was: or bigger on the inside as some nerds might say.
But it’s what Joe Bob said about his initial thoughts about Prior’s long establishing shots creating tension that got my attention in this segment, and Joe Bob’s mention of the Intentional fallacy: of always judging a work by the perceived or stated intentions of its creator as opposed to analyzing it on its own merit. Personally, I see art as an experiment, and even though David Prior wanted to “pad out the movie,” there was another gentleman — in the realm of painting — who mentioned several times throughout his career that there are “happy accidents.” Perhaps Prior was utilitarian in structuring his movie to conform to requirements of legitimacy, but art is also instinctual and this — combined with it also being a collaboration with his brother and others — could have grown this tension-filled dynamic, these paintings and frames that are almost punctuation in the movie, in an organic manner.
I think I would love to see Joe Bob talk about literary theory. I love Northrop Frye and The Educated Imagination and how we make metaphors in an attempt to identify with the world outside of ourselves: and find, or create meaning in that. But anyway, onto more or less serious matters …
John finds Jimmy and Carol’s bodies. He arranges them, to give them some dignity. It’s the first time I believe we’ve seen breasts in this whole movie as John moves the blanket up over Carol’s chest to give her corpse some decency. You know, say what you will about these characters: they are loud and obnoxious, but they actually care about — and even love — each other, and I can see that. But then we see, in the corner room, a familiar item.
You guessed it: it’s the sledgehammer. Dum. Dum. Dummmm.
Anyway, John is smart and discards his makeshift bar and takes the sledgehammer. He returns to the others and tells them what’s going on, and a bit about the sledgehammer, how “the bastard tore them apart with it,” even though that is a pretty big over-exaggeration as the corpses are clearly almost intact. But pedantry aside, John and Chuck have it out. John wants to kill this motherfucker. So does Chuck, but he knows they have to remain calm. John is snapping at everyone, but Chuck warns John that they can’t split up — and cover more ground — as the killer will take them one by one. He even says, what if the girls find him? How will they deal with that?
More on that later.
So, Chuck’s plan is to stay in the living room together until daybreak when they can all leave. Joni is breaking down into hysterics, for obvious reasons, as she doesn’t want to stay in the Murder House a moment longer. But John is now using logic as well and wonders what difference daybreak will make in dealing with a killer, and how they are even going to begin hiking for fifty miles away from even the spectre of Walnut Grove. So, they decide to stay unless the killer comes after them, and after that it’s open season on him. So everyone falls asleep in the next scene, as John keeps watch with the sledgehammer that totally doesn’t represent toxic masculinity at this point in the game. There is a quiet beating sound-effect as we get shots of the house interior again: the kitchen, the stairs, the closet room, the hallway, the bathroom, the hallway… It’s as though we’ve been here this entire time. And we have.
Finally, at the hallway, the killer does his best impression of the Tall Man in terms of size, as he materializes back into existence, and begins stalking the night again, fading out of the material plane once again with his hammer in his hand.
John dozes off, and he wakes up: only to see that the sledgehammer is gone. John doesn’t like feeling emasculated, so he leaves the room to split up and cover more ground. He does pick up a knife from the kitchen sink, however. He goes in to look at his friends, and then we see a transposition of a flashback where Chuck tells them the story of how the illicit couple was brutally murdered in the room they are all staying in. This movie loves to repeat itself, like a ghost reenacting its own death, but you can see how badly this story has rattled John and perhaps he believes it’s more than just a simple physical killer coming after them.
John leaves. He goes up the dark staircase with his newly acquired knife. He goes into the room where Jimmy and Carol’s bodies are, but there is either a blanket over them, or they are gone. There is a transposition of Chuck telling everyone the state of the illicit lovers’ bodies, and then he leaves the room as Chuck recounts what may or may not have happened to the boy from that time. And, in the hallway, the boy appears behind John in his puppet mask. John confronts, and chases the boy to a locked room that he tries to open with his knife.
And then, we have a weird sequence. Chuck wakes up, right, and then we cut to John being teleported from outside to the room to which he’s trying to get in. And it’s that room: you know the one. It’s the epicentre of this entire debacle. The closet room. John goes to the closet. It’s lock is old and worn. There are cobwebs on it. And this is where I wondered if it wasn’t so much that the boy was killed, or escaped the house, or was kidnapped when his mother and her lover died, but if perhaps he’d been forgotten in that closet.
Perhaps he died behind that door, and they never found his body.
Space-time gets weird here, especially when you see John moving fairly slow. He gets to the closet, unlocking it, and then puts his hand on the cobwebbed doorknob. His hand is on that knob in that surreal space with its shrill, eerie piping music for what seems to be forever. The door slowly opens. And, finally, John looks in and sees a skull on the floor, blood underneath it, and a discarded puppet mask nearby. So I guess the implication is the kid died in that closet.
He jumps back, to see the corpses of the child’s mother and lover sitting at a makeshift table with an upside pentagram painted in blood over the man. He sees there is a crumpled newspaper in the man’s hand. John reaches out, and takes it: and it’s an article about the mother and lover being dead, and the boy not being found. I think we get what’s going on here by now, movie: you are almost literally as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.
John finally wins the Captain Obvious Award when he states: “It’s the kid.”
And as if to say, “No shit, Sherlock,” the adult male killer with mask on face and hammer in hand appears at the doorway. They wrestle for the hammer in the killer’s hands. The killer kicks John to the ground. It is all in slow motion. But John somehow pulls out the knife he got earlier, and stabs the killer: so you got to give him that much. It actually seems to hurt him too as he slumps against the wall, but if you’ve seen any slasher horror films you know exactly how this goes.
Sanity Check: Joe Bob’s theory about the kid is similar to mine: that he can “transmogrify” from a spirit into a flesh and blood killer. One thought I’ve gleaned from this section is that Shot-to-Video movies subvert home movie mundane moving and acting aesthetics: using mundane dynamics to make a fictional story.
What that does in a horror sense however, seems to be that it lulls you with a homey atmosphere, into a false sense of security until the terrifying elements jarr and subvert it.
I find it interesting that David Prior moved away from horror into action films, his first love. You can see that love in a lot of the fighting and stylized violence even in Sledgehammer: barely keeping under the surface.
Mankillers which is an all-woman Dirty Dozen sounds fascinating. And the fact that he created the genre of aerobic horror called Killer Workout or Aerobicide: a maniac who terrorizes a health spa with a safety pin is cool. I want to see it shown on The Last Drive-In. And I like that anecdote about Deadly Prey: a Rambo-homage where Ted Prior rips off a man’s arm and beats him with it in the film.
Furthermore, I appreciate Darcy’s interest in Ted Prior’s centerfold in Playgirl, and a still of Linda McGill, Joni’s actress, from Shape-Up Sensational Sex. Blood, Breasts, and Beasts. Also, I can see a semiotic interpretation of the Sledgehammer, which is what I’ve been doing all tongue and check, and I believe other academics are totally reading into it in a less ironic way. That is hypocritical of me, in some ways, as semiotics is all about interpreting symbols, and I have definitely been doing it. I am still doing it — and going to do it — even as we speak.
Chuck, Mary, and Joni finally have enough, and go up the staircase to look for John. John is struggling to get to his feet, the killer apparently dead beside him. Then we cut to Chuck calling out for John. Somehow John is badly hurt, his abdomen having been wounded even though it seemed like all the killer did was kick him to the ground, and it was John that stabbed him. The others are still looking for him before John slowly stumbles out, and falls to the ground: the knife somehow in his own back. I don’t know what dimensional shenanigans were involved in this, but given what this move is like, I should probably not question continuity too much at this point.
“You bastard! You son of a bitch! Where are you!” Chuck cries as they crowd around John’s body, losing their shite. Mary, having taken the knife out of the man she loves, charges into the room with it out of pure rage. See, this is what I like: protagonists that actually give a fuck when their lover or friend dies, and wants to go medieval on their asses. But then the room turns invertedly red as she faces the killer, and realizes — belatedly — that she’s fucked.
The room door is shut again. Chuck and Joni are trying to get in, to no avail. The killer is slowly going towards Mary. Mary is begging for her life now. She manages to dodge some hammer blows. Finally, Chuck breaks down the door. And I guess the killer got tired and realized being a child increases his reflexes and agility as he decides to stab Mary to death instead.
So basically, at this point in the film my theory goes a little something like this: the boy was locked in the closet by his mother so she can have sex. He has been habitually mistreated by his mother, and forced to see her having this affair while his father is gone. He begins to associate adult sex with abuse, and the loss of his own freedom. That resentment grows until it manifests into a killer psychokinetic force. Perhaps the boy died in that closet, suffocated to death, and his resentment and hate manifests into this sex and love-hating killer. Sometimes he’s the adult he never got to be, warped and twisted, perhaps the absent father in his life, or the man that took his mother from him in his own messed up mind. And then, he is the child who never got a childhood, and he likes to play with masks and … sharp toys to also fulfill his sense of retribution. And when these Orgone-ridden teenagers come in, making fun of his suffering and demise, making sport of it, and just existing with hormones in his space, it activates him and makes this whole awkward, brutal romp possible.
So Chuck is slower on the uptake about what’s going on than John was, despite him having set up this whole visit — and seance prank — to begin with. He asks what’s going on, and who the child is. The child actually speaks, but he speaks fast, rushed, and almost incoherently, and it’s like his audio is muffled and he’s just half-heartedly memorized some lines. After reviewing it with some subtitles, he says: “Mommy was … I had to kill her. She took me away from Daddy. She was a bad mommy.”
I mean … he’s not wrong.
Chuck tries to take the knife away from him, blade first with his hand. He gets mad at the kid for his own bad decision, disarms him, and tries to take off the kid’s mask. Joni tells him not to do it. A jump cut happens as the kid grabs Chuck’s arms with superhuman strength.
Then, I fuck you not, the kid bitch-slaps Chuck away from him. I am actually somewhat impressed by this shapeshifting, teleporting, masked child slapping a grown man across the face, and downing him.
But it gets better. Chuck then gets up, and punches the kid in the face: only to hurt his own hand. I know it’s supposed to make this apparition look terrifying, but it is simply amusing at this point, and I need all the amusement from this film I can get.
Finally, the kid has enough. As Chuck is somehow curled against the wall with Joni in a missing sequential scene between them, the kid begins to grow into his adult killer self with menacing sound effects. He looms over them as, presumably, Chuck and Joni are astounded at these continuity errors that have them first facing a boy, and then a grown ass man over attempted supernatural child abuse. Chuck valiantly pushes Joni out the door as he struggles like Captain Kirk with the killer. Joni is crying out his name multiple times as we see more juxtaposition and Chuck getting the fuck smashed out of him in slow motion after the game of Wackamole just doesn’t work out for the killer. It seems he kills faster moving targets better without the sledgehammer. Who knew? Joni in the meantime runs down the stairs between perspectives.
But Chuck is bleeding from his mouth, and falls onto his body. The killer decides to slowly move after Joni. She runs to a door, only to find Joey’s hanging, stabbed corpse again. She screams, takes a baseball bat from some blankets, and runs away from the killer up the stairs.
And this is where Joni goes all Home Alone — or, if you prefer, 3615 code Père Noël — on his ass.
She’s gone up to a room, taken the blanket off a bed and wrapped it in the closet. She’s opened, or tried to open a window. The killer comes up stairs. Then he goes into the room, poetically looking towards the closet, perhaps even thinking Joni’s hiding in there. And that is when, in a continuous slow motion sequence, Joni slams her baseball bat right behind his knees, bringing him down. Then she smashes her bat into his back several times before turning to the closet, and doing something with the blanket she wrapped up there. She turns as he starts to get up, and she kicks him down while running to the exit of the room. Then time restores itself as she struggles with each and every door in the hallway, and can’t seem to open them, even as the killer starts to walk out, slowly, after her as if she had done absolutely nothing to him.
This is when Joni goes to the room with the extension cord to the stereo that Joey was using during the seance: the same room where the killer got him. She begins to do something with the cord itself as the killer lumbers toward her position, the shadow of his sledgehammer trailing down the wall as he comes down the staircase. Through several interspersed scenes, Joni wraps the cord around the door knob to the room, and struggles with an outlet to plug the thing into the wall: because I can tell you from existence that electric sockets are frustrating.
He comes down, and eventually gets to the room. He grabs the door knob, though why Joni is holding onto the cord and not getting affected is strange to me. Even so.
As the killer fries and jerks outside, sparks reflected through the knob, and flame even bursting out on the wire, Joni relaxes: thinking she got him.
He is suddenly in the room, and he demolishes an old television screen with his hammer. She’s run into the kitchen, and she’s scrambling for a weapon. Any weapon. Desperate. He corners her in the kitchen with the traditional slasher teleport. She strikes him with a meat cleaver and he literally doesn’t care. She slips past him, and skids into the living room. He swings his sledgehammer down and just misses her as she goes flying, looking like he’s hit a hole in one on a domestic-themed golf course in hell.
Joni is on the ground, crawling away. She gave this bastard a run for his money, but he cheats by merely existing. He is about to swing his hammer down in a purely non-Freudian way when ,.. Motherfucker gets tackled by Chuck, who’s not wearing a shirt, and is still alive motherfucker! They grapple and struggle after Chuck punches him in the face, and doesn’t in fact hurt his hand.
Chuck beats on him, and tackles him back into the room where Joey died. Then, he takes up the killer’s own sledgehammer, holding it like it was made for him, that it is a part of him and — phallic connotations aside, smashes the fucker in the face, bloodying him and letting him slump to the ground. Chuck goes to check on Joni, holding her in his arms as the adult form of the killer twitches, blood all over the wall … and lies still. The only thing that would have made … well, some of this better, would have been if Chuck had thrown him back in the closet, and killed him there. But poetry can only go so far.
And poetry ends. We are outside the house now. It’s daylight. Chuck helps Joni out, eventually just picking her up and carrying her away from this cursed place. But then we pan up, and up, as the killer child looks out the window: scowling malevolently at the grown people that have escaped his wrath. The sledgehammer is still his. They can never take that from him, as the image freezes into place, and fades to black for the last time.
Then credits, as the Dramatis personae are repeated with scenes of them acting, and several more credits, and the demolition is finally done.
Final Sanity Check and Observation: I am thinking about points of view. There is Joe Bob’s observation about there being many different perspective shots that shift away from that of the killer’s. I would argue that the house itself, and the land around it is a part of the killer. He is bonded to it: perhaps against his will, or maybe he doesn’t remember where his life ended, and his haunting began. I think about, and I’ve mentioned before the sledgehammer itself: of a thwarted masculinity. That boy never got to be a man. But he was also robbed of his father’s love. He is stuck in a place, in the middle of nowhere: a small, picturesque atmosphere hiding his trauma, and his undeveloped desires in a closet. I feel like there could have been more sexual experimentation with Jimmy, and even John and Joey but that wouldn’t have been acceptable in the eighties and nineties mainstream with which Prior still wanted to be a part, and might have mixed the messages of this story.
But not necessarily. The boy never gets the chance to grow. His adult form is a parody of a man that enacts the violence he was powerless to undertake to defend himself when he was alive, and the lack of acknowledgement and respect about his space — his small circle of space allotted to him in life and death — brings out his rage. The sledgehammer could be the masculinity he never had, in his mind, and the desire to destroy all the rotting walls around him in this beautiful place, and these thoughtless people. I still think it was a missed opportunity that Chuck didn’t viscerally hurt him by throwing him, and injuring him with the hammer back in the closet. But I think the fact that the sledgehammer hurt him so badly, the thing he used to kill others, speaks volumes.
I want to keep in mind, again, that the name of a synthesizer score used in many 1980s horror films is the hum and shiver. But then we get back to fanboys. Sledgehammer became obscure for thirty years until a fan named Clint Kelly acquired the rights and released it on DVD. As a fanboy of fanboys, Kelly became a low-budget filmmaker in his own right as a result of this life-long passion. Such is the circle of life, and I am just as much a part of that, hopefully making my digressions on here come full circle.
It’s sad that David Prior planned a sequel to Sledgehammer at the time of his death in 2015. I know he said, when his movie got shown at film festivals that it bothered him: because now he could do so much better. Darcy admires that, in the words of Lloyd Kaufman, the movie makers made ‘their own damn movie.” Apparently, Doug Matley, who played the killer in the movie, said in an interview on the fascinating Silver Bolo Award-winning SOV Horror — that examines direct-to-video movies, and is a documentary series and podcast — that they didn’t focus a lot of time on character development. Notice my surprise. Even so, I am actually truly surprised that I found stuff I genuinely respect in this movie.
And …. other Things.