Achieving notoriety in the early '80s (at least across the pond) for being one of the Video Nasties, films legally challenged and sometimes prohibited from exhibition in the U.K., the American-made The Slayer is a slasher movie that does not quite want to be one. For certain, it has the overall structure of one: four people (two couples) go out to an isolated vacation spot, have personal tension, and then one by one are slaughtered in graphic ways. The murderer is a mystery, the deaths are gruesome and elaborate, with special make-up effects by an industry veteran. There's a final girl in the last 15 minutes.
But the filmmakers insist that it’s not really a slasher movie, and is only labeled as such because of when it was produced (early '80s) and that it was a horror movie. They described The Slayer as a psychological thriller with Lovecraftian overtones, a unique horror experience dumped into the slasher bucket because some blood gets spilled.
The Slayer’s story is a little more elaborate than the average teenagers gather at the lake and get picked off. Our group of youngsters aren’t so young, for starters. Two married couples travel to a near-deserted island for some prime fishing and relaxation: Kay and David are traveling with Kay’s brother Eric and his wife Brooke. Kay, a formerly successful painter who has been on the commercial skids lately, is plagued by bad dreams that she’s been exorcising in increasingly surreal paintings. Brooke thinks she’s a neurotic mess and doesn’t want to travel with her, but Eric and David insist. There are fish to be caught, after all.
When they arrive on the island, after a small-plane flight piloted by a super creepy guy, they have to trudge over a mile through sand and ruined buildings before they arrive at the surprisingly opulent house. Everyone is appeased… except for Kay, who has increasingly worrisome premonitions that something terrible is going to happen. Her worries are dismissed by her vacationmates… until David goes missing in the night.
And his headless corpse is found dangling in the broken down old movie theater the next day. It’s an alarming scene, and shifts the tone of the movie which has, to that point, been generally more art house than grindhouse. While Eric and Brooke believe (sensibly) that someone else is on the island with them, maybe that creepy pilot, Kay is convinced that the killer is coming from her dreams. The rest of the movie plays out largely in slasher movie beats - people go off on their own, and do not come back, until there’s that final girl and a climactic confrontation. But with the ambiguity of its antagonist and its deliberate pace, The Slayer maintains a dream-like sensibility.
The Slayer was the first film of J.S. Cardone, who subsequently had a career making low budget thriller and horror movies, but this first feature looks like the work of someone not interested in being in a filmmaking ghetto. The film's tone, with its emphasis on mood and slow pace and with its location shooting on Tybee Island in Georgia, put me in mind of some of Ingmar Bergman’s Faro Island movies, where small groups of people would work out their problems (or just as often, be consumed by them) on that tiny Swedish island. I wouldn’t compare the quality of The Slayer overall to Bergman, of course, but it is a damned idiosyncratic tone to shoot for when making a fairly cheap horror movie. Part of that feeling might come from the film’s music, which, completely out of step for 80s horror movies, was a full orchestral score, not something pulsing with electronics.
The Slayer gets plenty of points for being unique. And like a lot of unique movies, it doesn't always work particularly well. While I appreciated the effects (both makeup effects and cinematic effects) I never found the movie particularly scary. The pace could be charitably called (as I have above) “deliberate”, while the suspenseful sequences sometimes dip into “plodding”. Since the nature of the antagonist is the film’s central mystery, he/she/it can’t be shown doing the killings and subsequently none of the murder scenes have that sense of anticipation which is needed for suspense. But beyond my caveats about its success as a horror movie, The Slayer certainly has a more meat on its bones than the average “slasher” picture. It also features a real cinematic rarities: an actual clever twist at the very end of the film.
The Slayer has a cult fanbase, and this expansive Arrow Video release will be a real treat for them. Obviously a labor of love, this Blu-ray is apparently the first time the complete cut of the movie has been released on home media. There are three different special audio tracks, including a commentary with the director, producer, and Carol Kottenbrook who played Brooke, a commentary by horror movie podcasters The Hysteria Continues, and an isolated score with an audio interview with the composer Robert Folk. There’s a couple of video extras, including a making of documentary and a modern tour of the film’s locations. And then there’s the "Tybee Post Theater Experience" for the truly dedicated. The film was screened at the theater on Tybee Island, which was the dilapidated theater featured in the film itself. Along with a pair of introductions and a Q+A afterwards with the camera operator Arledge Armenaki, there is an audio reaction track recorded in the theater itself while the audience watched the film.