AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: 21ST AUGUST, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 90 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Painter Kay has suffered from the same nightmare since childhood, where she’s stalked and killed in a burning room, by something called ‘The Slayer’. Her signs of mental imbalance worry her husband Eric, so he arranges, along with her brother Eric and sister-in-law Brook, to go on holiday to a small island. Howeve, it seems to be deserted, and populated largely by the ruins of a once-thriving resort town. Kay realises that one of the buildings there is the same one from her nightmare, the same one she’s been painting repeatedly. She tells the others that the island is the place she has been dreaming about since childhood, and that they are all in danger if they stay there. Then someone or something murders their pilot who came back to tell them that they can’t leave because a deadly hurricane is on its way….
The Slayer is quite an interesting slasher with supernatural and psychological elements that often tries hard to rise above its limitations. Having never seen it before, I’ve read in the past that it may have been a major inspiration for A Nightmare On Elm Street, and indeed it has a monster that comes alive and can only affect reality when someone is asleep, and a heroine who, aware of this fact, desperately tries not to fall asleep. There’s even a bit where somebody stubs a cigarette on their hand to keep themselves awake. The Slayer [which also reminded me a little of The Anthropophagous Beast and occasionally feels like Lucio Fulci was in the director’s chair] isn’t a classic like Craven’s film, which after all does a lot more with its premise, but there’s something about The Slayer nonetheless that sticks in the mind and I really wish I’d seen it before – though at least viewing it now means that I get to experience it in the best possible manner due to Arrow’s topnotch Blu-ray release. Like many similar films, it’s a bit padded in places, mainly by footage of characters looking for others who are missing, and some of the acting is rather poor, but there’s a really strong desolate feel to the piece, aided immensely by its bleak locations, and it’s also rather ambiguous as to what exactly is going on. Some may just be annoyed or confused by this, but not many slashers actually try to get you to think in this manner, and I found it rather refreshing.
While Craven actually wrote his script before The Slayer came out and then spent three years trying to get it made, director J. S. Cardone’s and William R. Ewing’s screenplay for their film was penned some time before. The very low budget production was shot almost entirely on Tybee Island, Georgia in 1980, with only the beach house being something that had to be built. Towards the end of what was a tough shoot in the middle of winter with much use of rain machines, Cardone decided to write the film’s final scene to add on to a film which originally ended half a minute or so before, and then after production had supposedly wrapped the producers decided that an early death scene would help the film, so they got Cardone to shot the murder of a fisherman in Malibu, plus a few extra bits and pieces in the studio. The distribution company International Pictures went bankrupt, so The Slayer was picked up by 21st Century Productions who released prints before they’d been colour corrected, which explains why it’s never looked much good until now. The American release was minimal and in the UK it went straight to video. There, it was classified as a video nasty and consequently was unavailable for many years. The initial video release by Vipco, who had the rights to quite a few of these banned films, was edited by 14 seconds to remove most of a pitchfork murder though a woman’s chest [I reckon that if it had been through a man’s chest the scene would have probably stayed intact]. The 2001 DVD release was passed uncut. In the US some video and indeed DVD versions were shorn of four minutes, which would have no doubt tightened up the film a little.
We open with what turns out to be a dream, Kay forming ghost-like in front of a close-up of a ticking pendulum of a clock before fleeing in panic from a briefly seen – so briefly seen that it almost counts as sublimal – monster in a doorway. She runs into a very dark burning room and sees someone sitting in there before claws grab her face and pull her back. Well it’s a good start. The dream of course belongs to Kay, and right away you probably won’t find Kay Kendall, who looks like a cross between Sigourney Weaver and Susan Sarandon but to me is prettier than both [I know, I sometimes have unusual tastes when it comes to this sort of thing], to be much of an actress. In fact she’s positively shoddy towards the end when bad things are really happening, and yet somehow she’s still oddly effective. Maybe it’s down to her depressed manner, feeble disposition and main role as being the voice of doom which really add to the film’s feeling of dread, and that you probably wouldn’t get such a female heroine [if indeed she’s a heroine at all] in a film like this today. Anyway, Kay’s been having this nightmare since she was a kid and it’s been the main source of her painting but has recently been getting rather too much. Hubby David decides to whisk her away to a remote island for a break, and brother Eric and sister-in-law Brook are along for the ride even though Brook’s not too enthused by the idea.
Despite David claiming that where they are going is “the next best thing to paradise”, their destination doesn’t seem very welcoming at all, and the pilot hurriedly leaves though he later returns to warn the others about a storm. Despite being I would have thought another person who knows how strong and even destructive this hurricane will be, a fisherman decides to hang around to do some fishing, so it’s probably his own fault that his head gets bashed in by an oar. Meanwhile there’s tension within the group, because Eric and Brook are really getting tired of Kay’s fear, misery and warnings, and clearly don’t have much compassion for her. The four characters are only marginally sketched and some of the dialogue is awkward, but they do sometimes come across as real people and the dynamics of the group are reasonably well handled even though they can’t help but be significantly weakened by the poor acting on display. Unusually for the time, they all seem to be in their 30’s. It’s not long before the first of them is killed off and, while I would imagine fans of the movie like the pitchfork killing best [pitchforks were quite popular around this time as instruments of death as they also featured in The Boogey Man and The Prowler/Rosemary’s Killer], there’s something about this kill that has a kind of realism to it and which distinctly unnerved me. The victim’s head is trapped above a lift shaft and the camera seems to linger on his suffering just a little bit longer than is comfortable. It helps with these moments that the makeup effects are very good, with one of the most convincing severed heads of this period, and when you finally do see the monster it looks genuinely nightmarish though I wish that we’d seen more of it [though it is on the front cover of the Blu-ray]. Also the performers, even though I criticised them earlier, do tend to sell their death scenes rather well.
Little actually happens at times, with much of the running time devoted to Kay being Kay and people wondering around the locations, but they’ve tried to make the latter look rather eerie, as in the beach scenes where cinematographer Karen Grossman often chooses odd angles. Darkness is employed very frequently [in fact it’s done in a manner similar to Humongous though less extreme], and I would imagine that portions of this film would look terrible on video. Characters are often backlit, their faces are sometimes half covered in shadow, interior set design [okay, they used a real house but used it well, obviously set dressed some of it and had characters sometimes wear appropriate clothing] is mostly either green or reddish-brown wood the colour of Kay’s hair: some effort has really been made with look and use of colour, more so than your average slasher. It won’t surprise you to read that it eventually becomes Kay vs. the monster and Cardone ramps up the suspense quite a bit, though by now we’re now not sure about things because a murder scene just before has been shot so it throws the viewer something of a twist – or does it? And that strange added final scene – I would imagine it’s something half of viewers of the film like and the other half don’t. In some respects it makes no sense at all. However, there ends up being three possible interpretations of the films’ events, with the narrative providing some evidence in favour of each. I’m not going to go into all this as it’s best, if you’ve never seen this movie, to try to work it out for yourself while you’re watching it and your explanation may very well be different to mine.
There’s a solid orchestral score by Robert Falk, the fine composer best known for the Police Academy series. It adds the right amount of tension when necessary and has an effective main theme full of anxiety and sadness. Cardone, who seems to have worked as both a director and a screenwriter alot in the horror and science fiction genres over the years without ever really breaking out into the big time [though his 2001 vampire film The Forsaken is well regarded by some so I really now need to make an effort to see it], really does a strong job as director too. I don’t want to give the impression that The Slayer is some kind of neglected classic: there are quite a few scenes which are ruined by the bad acting on display [only Carol Kottenbrook seems to be much good which may be why she gets a brief nude shower scene early on] and one gets the feeling that Cardone and Ewing hadn’t quite thought things through. Still, it’s rather haunting, and I sometimes feel that so-called ‘lesser’ films [films which non-horror fans are exceedingly unlikely to get much out of] like this get to the heart of why so many of us love horror more than the more famous, revered stuff. It’s easy to see why it has a maybe small but strong cult following.
I recall being a bit critical of the quality of the last Arrow Blu-ray I reviewed, but I have to say that the company have done a simply amazing job in restoring The Slayer, especially considering that this is a cheapie slasher from the 1980’s, much of it shot in partial darkness to boot. The level of grain and the colours look perfect. Blacks look as deep as you’d want. And Arrow have complimented their work on the film with plenty of special features, all of which are brand new.
Now I tend to go through the commentaries first, but seeing as they’re tucked away in the ‘audio options’ section of the menu I decided to leave them till later and it’s something I think I will do in the future. So first up we have Nightmare Island which is a nearly hour long making of documentary. Though it’s a shame that out of the cast only Carol Kottenbrook [actually J. S. Cardone’s wife] and Carl Kraines who played The Slayer [and had worms and maggots burrowing their way onto his face for the trouble], it’s still a great watch, maybe not as packed with stories as some of these things are, though Karen Grossman’s telling of how a male cinematographer, obviously sent by the suits, kept hanging around on set in case she cocked things up is telling and sadly indicative of the way things still are today. And horror fans see if you guess the extremely iconic prop that makeup effects creator Robert Short had a hand in creating not long before The Slayer came along. Short’s describing of how the very fine effects were achieved is also especially interesting. Everyone seems to be very fond of the film without trying to hold it up as some unsung masterpiece. This is followed by Return to Tybee: The Location of The Slayer, where camera operator/Second Unit DOP/still photographer Arledge Armenaki takes us around the locations with visual comparisons to how they looked in 1980. The dilapidated theatre which features in some scenes is now a smart-looking cinema. The Tybee Post Theatre Experience details a showing of the film at this very place, though to watch the film with the track from this event you have to go to the audio options. And finally we have some stills.
So the first of the two commentaries features director Cardone, producer Eric Weston and actress Carol Kottenbrook, and it’s very good indeed. Moderator Ewing Cant asks exactly the right questions but lets the others talk and talk if they want to without interruption, and Cardone gives mostly good and detailed answers while often picking up on things without any prompting. Cardone, who doesn’t regard it as a slasher, seems reasonably pleased with the film but points out some moments which he thinks could be improved. Weston says a few things but Kottenbrook speaks very little except during her death scene, but it still manages to be a well balanced, informative yet entertaining track with hardly any dead spots, though some may tire of Cardone bemoaning how The Slayer couldn’t be filmed in such a slow fashion today. I’m with him though. There’s also surprisingly little overlap with the documentary. The second talk track features the four members of The Hysteria Lives podcast and the slasher-loving guys are as fun to spend time with as usual, though there’s one section where they seem to run out of things to say so just try to think of similar films and increasingly tenuous connections to other movies. They all like the film a great deal and even praise the acting! Then there’s a nearly hour long audio interview with Robert Folk, Michael Felsher asking him about his career with of course special focus on The Slayer. It contains lots of interesting details for film score lovers like myself, and it now seems like the score may finally get a release too. The film plays in the background throughout, and then when the interview is over we hear some of the score properly. And then we have the film playing with the soundtrack of the Tybee cinema showing. The audience, probably half comprised of locals and half of fans, are very vocal.
And there we finally have it. Some might say that something like The Slayer doesn’t really deserve such care and attention lavished on it for Blu-ray, and I would imagine that most of its fans would never have expected it to get treated in such a way for a home viewing release, but this is a great disc all-round which should appeal to many horror fans even if they’re not crazy about the film. Arrow’s release of The Slayer comes very highly recommended by the Doc.