***/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras A
starring Sarah Kendall, Frederick Flynn, Carol Kottenbrook, Alan McRae
screenplay by J.S. Cardone & Bill Ewing
directed by J.S. Cardone
by Sydney Wegner As co-writer/director J.S. Cardone insists, The Slayer is not quite a slasher. More than titillate or thrill, it seeks to unsettle, to dig at the viewer with emotion rather than throwaway jump scares. The set-pieces have the imaginative gore of any good slasher, but a sadness permeates the film so deeply that all the dorky banter and melodramatic murders in the world can't disguise it. The slow pace and heavy emphasis on the psychological trauma of its lead doomed The Slayer to be drowned out by the deluge of early-'80s slashers, and most viewers who might have been drawn to the carnage implied by the lurid title and poster were likely left unsatisfied. The Slayer opens with a nightmare: Wandering wide-eyed through a house, the protagonist, Kay, is strangled by long, inhuman hands encrusted in slime and blood. The opening promises the violence and sex (she's of course wearing a classic skimpy nightgown) of the typical slasher variety, but pay closer attention to the close-ups of a chiming grandfather clock and the beautiful orchestral score--those signal the kind of movie you're in for. When Kay startles awake from this dream, sweaty and terrified, her husband stands above her. He starts talking to her about something innocuous, but the camera, peering up from a jarringly low angle, makes him seem ominous and oppressive. This, too, is a tell. Kay will spend the movie trying to convince the other characters that what she dreams is real, and they will brush her off, and then they'll die. They aren't a comfort to her anymore, because she is far gone to a place where everything is at the wrong angle.
Kay (Sarah Kendall) is a painter whose recurring nightmares are wearing her down and affecting her artistic output. Her husband, brother, and sister-in-law (played by Alan McRae, Frederick Flynn, and Carol Kottenbrook, respectively) decide that a vacation on a mostly-deserted island is the perfect thing for them. Kay, however, isn't convinced, and as soon as they step off the small chartered plane and onto the beach, Kay senses something is wrong. She's dreamed of this place before, even painted pictures of the dilapidated theatre they pass on the way to their cabin. When she mentions this, it's attributed to her mental instability, and the group moves along. Again and again, she voices her apprehension, only to have her companions blow off her anxiety with pleas to relax. Once they reach the cabin, she tries be lighthearted, but her dreams still plague her. The rest follows pretty much as expected, with one person getting bumped off and another going out to look for the missing party, all the while keeping us on our toes as to whether the perpetrator is a random stalker or maybe the creepy pilot (Michael Holmes) who brought them there. Or even Kay herself.
What seems like a typical murder mystery ends in a particularly ridiculous way, with a cross between a dream and a psychic premonition--something so weird and nonsensical that it begs to be interpreted as an extrapolation of a woman's mental illness. There's nothing quite so scary as being isolated, and not only is Kay stuck on an island, she is trapped in her own mind, too. To have a mental illness is to exist in a prison all your own. Depression and anxiety, in particular, can feel like an endless set of paradoxical traps you set for yourself. You want people to believe how sick you are, but you don't want to push them away; you want to be normal, but you also want to be comforted and understood. You fear that people will think you're overreacting, and that your uncontrollable terrible behaviour will destroy your relationships with everyone around you. Worst of all, if you are deserted, you will feel as though you deserve it. In The Slayer, that manifests literally--a monster that springs from Kay's subconscious to kill everything she loves. She begins to believe the dreams she's having are not merely predictions, but in fact the cause of the destruction. She tries to warn her loved ones and they shrug it off. With each death, her grasp on reality slips further, her eyes grow wider and wilder.
A generic "final girl" would quit running and screaming and dig deep within herself to find that triumphant explosion of anger to stop her killer; Kay only becomes more confused and frightened, roaming the island like a half-asleep child. Her last-ditch effort is to force herself to stay awake long enough to keep it from claiming her as well, so convinced is she that the murderer is of her own creation. In the final moments, the Slayer itself appears, and she is caught between two killers: the title character, and a raging house fire. But the film doesn't end with her grisly death, nor with her heroic escape. Instead, there is an abrupt change of scene, and with it the implication that everything she experienced has yet to happen, dooming her to repeat it. The ending is a shock as is, but more disturbing is the idea that Kay is in some sort of cyclical hell from which she can never escape. I watched the movie several times, and instead of feeling like I was seeing the same beginning-to-end story over again, it was as if the director intended it to be replayed--the movie is a loop that circles back and repeats forever. That, too, is what mental illness can feel like: waking up to another day destined to blur together with all the other days.
The atmosphere created in The Slayer has a sneaky way of underlining these mental-illness metaphors, and is unarguably the film's greatest strength. Everything herein is a dullish earth tone--even the brick of the man-made theatre and the white exterior of the cabin seemingly melt into the surrounding sand and grass. The people are swaddled in layers of knitwear and corduroy and denim and flannel, their skin and hair the colour of sand. The interior of the cabin is wood-panelled, filled to the brim with tchotchkes and pillows and books and rugs and patterned fabrics. There are mirrors everywhere (used brilliantly in a few shots), but instead of making the rooms look larger, they reflect an infinite dimension of wicker and candlelight. This kitschy little cabin lulls you into a sense of comfort and boredom so thick that the gruesome deaths come like a slap in the face; the only bright, solid colour is, unsurprisingly, that of blood. The kills are sparse but gnarly, the special effects minimal but surprisingly effective. Had they been in a more fast-paced movie, one with a higher body count, I might not have minded or noticed. Here, though, so much time is devoted to bickering and wandering around the island and curling up on cozy sofas and having awkward conversations over a nighttime dinner picnic on the dock that you begin to forget why you're watching, or what you're watching. The Slayer couldn't exist without this isolated location, and the long stretches where a character explores the untamed wilderness of pine trees, or the crumbling theatre, are some of the best parts of the movie. Each shot lingers or pans slowly; great care is taken to focus on shadows (the claw-like shadow of Kay's hand mirrors the Slayer's in her dreams) and interior-design details, as if you're right there in the room, observing quietly. The threat of violence is under the surface, conveyed by the haunting score or with subtle foreshadowing in the dialogue, and yet again, that's what depression essentially is: your own cozy mind, threatening to assault you at any moment. The call is coming from inside the house.
Other than a credit as "Stewardess #2" in The Karate Kid Part II, Sarah Kendall never acted again. Her performance has to be one of the most underappreciated in horror, and it's unfortunate we never got to see more from her. On the other hand, there's something enchanting about watching a semi-obscure movie starring semi-obscure actors who didn't go on to much else. It's easier to believe that what's happening is real, to get lost in the story. It's almost as if Kendall really did get stuck in that time-loop, like she's still living that nightmare.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Sourced from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative, Arrow's 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray transfer of The Slayer is, as expected with genre films of this vintage, uneven. Fine detail is good and the image is impressively tactile, with muted but not drab colours and velvety blacks. Alas, quite a few darker shots and nighttime scenes are grainy to the point of distraction, their staticky look comparing poorly to the beautifully clear daytime exteriors. A little noise-reduction may not have been such a bad thing in this case, just to level that imbalance out. It's hardly ruinous, though, and the ethereal atmosphere of the island always comes through. The centre-channel uncompressed audio is more consistently excellent, with full-sounding voices and, most importantly, music. The storm scenes would have been great to hear in stereo, but I won't complain.
Extras begin with a number of audio-based features. First up is a commentary reuniting Cardone, actress Kottenbrook, and producer Eric Weston. Cardone's remarks about his film will probably induce eye-rolls in anyone who didn't enjoy it--as with many directors, he cites geniuses (in this case Val Lewton and H.P. Lovecraft) who invariably invite unfavourable comparisons to The Slayer. Yet hearing him discuss what he hoped to achieve is gratifying confirmation of the movie's ambitions. All three contributors are intelligent and pleasant, making for a generally fun listen. I was particularly struck by one of Cardone's tangents about violence in cinema. He says that while he isn't against it, he is against it being frivolous--that violence should oppress the audience and affect them in a significant way. It sheds a lot of light on his approach to The Slayer, and this philosophy made for a scarier film.
A second track featuring the podcasters of "The Hysteria Continues" meanwhile offers an interesting history of the notorious "Video Nasties." (The Slayer was among the 72 titles cited by the Director of Public Prosecutions as being in breach of England's puritanical Video Recordings Act in the early-1980s.) Unfortunately, I haven't seen at least half the movies they compare to The Slayer, so I felt kind of distanced from the conversation; and a lot of the trivia and observations pertaining to the film are repeated by Cardone, et al or expanded upon elsewhere in the supplements. The participants tend to avoid saying anything in-depth--and several times, comments that could have led to an interesting tangent are interrupted and thrown off course by another host. If four people are talking, of course, not every voice will be heard equally. The best part of this yakker is when someone mentions Fred Burnley's 1972 film Neither the Sea nor the Sand, a fantastic gothic romance/horror hybrid with a sluggish pace and beachside ambience that reminded me of The Slayer as well. Seek it out.
In an audio interview with composer Robert Folk (50 mins.), Folk acknowledges the influence of Pino Donaggio's work with Brian De Palma on The Slayer's score, and says he wanted to go with a melodic and memorable main theme that leaned towards the classical as opposed to sounding modern. (It was finally recorded at Abbey Road with a 90-piece orchestra.) He also mentions working out how to use subtle music cues to suggest the presence of the Slayer itself, since it doesn't appear on screen until the climax. He contributes valuable insights into how composers recorded and edited music for films back then and reminisces about this early gig, admitting that whether due to youth or inexperience, he chose to take his assignment on The Slayer quite seriously.
"Tybee Post Theater 'audience experience'" presents the audio from a screening of The Slayer held at the newly-renovated Tybee Post Theater, in addition to HD video of a Q&A with Arledge Armenaki, who worked as a camera operator on the production. This feature is split into three parts: you can watch the movie with the audience joining in, or you can view the Q&A (plus an attendant introduction (3 mins.)) either individually or in combination with The Slayer. The Q&A (18 mins.) is nice, even though a lot of the information is repeated elsewhere; Armenaki is a charming-enough guy to listen to. In theory, the audience track is a cool idea--just like being at the screening! In practice, it is incredibly bizarre. The people yelling, laughing, and clapping are at the same volume level as The Slayer's own soundtrack, which suffers a dramatic loss in quality, like you're listening to it through a tin can. This proved so irritating that I skipped through 95% of it. (Naturally, I wanted to hear the crowd's reaction to the final minutes.) I do hope other people can enjoy it, since I appreciate the effort and understand the intent. But I prefer to watch TV alone, thanks.
Next, the nearly hour-long "Nightmare Island" (52 mins., HD) blessedly manages not to rehash the commentaries. Embellished with neat behind-the-scenes photos and well-chosen movie clips, the interviews are edited so that we start with the producers and director Cardone recounting The Slayer from the project's origins, adding other interviewees--such as Kottenbrook, Armenaki, and Carl Kraines (the Slayer himself)--as they become relevant. The production sounds largely untroubled; everyone was very young and it was many of the crew's first film, leading to much collaboration and camaraderie. Highlights include DP Karen Grossman briefly recounting what it was like being the rare female cinematographer at the time (she claims an older male DP was brought in and hung around the set for a few days, almost as if they were waiting for her to screw up; he left when she didn't), as well as makeup designer Robert Short going into great detail on how some of the effects were achieved. Despite the absence of three quarters of the main cast, it's as comprehensive a making-of documentary on The Slayer as you could ever want or need.
Rounding out the disc is "Return to Tybee: The Locations of The Slayer" (14 mins., HD), a cute featurette revisiting the shooting locations on Tybee Island, Georgia. Armenaki gives a guided tour of the original house (which looks mostly the same apart from a kitchen remodel), and his surroundings spark interesting tales from the set. The concept of this piece is one I'd like to see revisited on future titles. Arrow's Stateside release comes with an insert booklet and bonus DVD copy of The Slayer, neither of which were provided for review.