Plagued by a series of reoccurring nightmares her whole life, an already mentally unstable artist named Kay (Kendal) now appears to be on the verge of a total nervous breakdown. Seems those night terrors have been intensifying a lot lately; some just focusing on unknown seascapes and foreboding places and structures; others baring witness to the wholesale slaughter of her loved ones by some unseen monster; both of which are now leeching into her work, turning a once promising art career into big steaming pile of bizarre and morbid canvases that no one is eager to buy. But turns out that’s the least of her worries as so lucid are these dreams, Kay is starting to believe they’re trying to tell her something; a sense these supernatural visions are prophesying some impending catastrophe.
And when she confesses this belief to her husband, David (McRae), he contacts her brother, Eric (Flynn), and they quickly arrange a private getaway vacation to help Kay unwind, regroup, and hopefully salvage her career. But if the viewer didn’t know any better, considering the isolated location, a house on a nearly deserted island off the coast of Georgia, they’d swear this adventure will be less of a vacation and more of a forced intervention to convince an obsessed and obstinate Kay all this nonsense is just overlapping figments in her head before they lose her for good.
Thus, we find Kay, David, Eric, and his reluctant wife, Brooke (Kottenbrook), on a small chartered plane, whose pilot dumps them on the beach several miles from the house they’ve rented. Here, the surly pilot, Marsh (Holmes), warns a hurricane is fast approaching and encourages the couples to just get back on board for their own good; otherwise they’ll be stuck here with only a few off-season fisherman lingering about (-- and one of them is the first to fall victim to the eponymous slayer, his head caved in with an oar). Choosing to stay, the troupe heads inland, and while the island is currently empty there are plenty of derelict buildings among the dunes that show this was once a thriving community. Upon this discovery, especially an old abandoned theater, which was the surreal subject of her last painting, Kay gets all wound up again, convinced she’s been here before in her dreams. And so wound up is she, Kay demands they leave before more of her nightmares come true -- only they’re stuck since Marsh has since left. Allegedly.
Again, David and Eric try hard to convince Kay this is all just a coincidence. And as the first day of “vacation” unravels things get off to a fairly good start with some fishing and a picnic. But as night falls and that storm approaches, we get to the intervention part; led mostly by Eric, who has put up with his sister’s nonsense for decades, tracing it back to a Christmas where his then eight year old sister received a kitten. But come next morning the kitten was dead, suffocated and frozen inside a freezer; a horrible fate Kay blames on a monster, swearing she prognostically dreamt all this during the night. And with the peeling of this painful old scab, everyone decides to back-off and take it up again in the morning. But that night, as the storm rages outside, a clatter awakens David, who traces it to the basement, where he finds a cellar door blown open, which kind of triggers a dubious death-trap that leaves David decapitated once sprung. And before the viewer can wonder if this was just an accident, someone -- or some thing, he typed ominously, quickly and quietly and clandestinely moves the body and starts tidying up the crime scene. And he, she or it is just getting started...
When Arrow Video announced they were going to release The Slayer (1981), I got a little excited and hoped they’d send me a screener. I had only seen it once before on a terrible VHS rip where everything in the night scenes (and most of the indoor scenes) were nothing but impenetrable murk. A very frustrating experience because there was something fairly clever going on from what I heard and this made me doubly anxious to actually see it.
Inspired by the success of Halloween (1978), all kinds of amateur filmmakers were crawling out of the woodwork trying to cash in by making their own cheap and independent horror movies, hoping this would lead to bigger and better things in Hollywood. Enter J.S. Cardone and Bill Ewing, a couple of stage roustabouts, who conspired to write the screenplay for The Slayer and managed to find financing through the The International Picture Show Company, a fledgling outfit based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Ewing would also serve as a producer on the film and Cardone would direct. And so, with a novice crew, including cinematographer Karen Grossman, and a cast culled from their old theater days, this merry band of filmmakers headed out to Tybee Island, Georgia, to realize their film -- with a big assist from Robert Short, a protege of Don Post, who provided a few inventive and impressive kills when Tom Savini proved unavailable.
And as I watched the new blu-ray, which looks ah-mazing, most of my memories of the film were confirmed. And while it suffers badly from some pacing issues, which can probably be traced back to Cardone and Ewing trying to find their legs, the central premise of the film came off even stronger than before. See, The Slayer is by no means a traditional slasher movie. Well, it is but it isn’t. And why that is, well, on top of a group of older protagonists, what really sets this one apart is how it's left to the audience to decide what exactly happened and who the killer really was.
Now, I’m sure we’ve all seen an open-ended slasher where the twist endings left us guessing and frustrated; but trust me, you’ve probably never encountered anything quite like The Slayer. See, once David’s body is discovered and the killer resumes bumping people off, we’re left to try and deduce whodunit. But what Cardone and Ewing do with The Slayer next is to simultaneously set up three different plausible scenarios on who is doing the killing -- and each and everyone is a rock-solid possibility. Was it Marsh, that crabby-ass pilot, like Eric proposes? Who maybe didn’t leave like they thought? And who is just creepy enough to have some plausible motive that will come out during the climax. Kay, meanwhile, takes every opportunity to remind her dwindling knot of friends that she’d already dreamed how what has happened happened and how all of this will end. And how will this all end? Well, she’s convinced her subconscious has manifested some kind of unholy creature that only attacks the others while she’s asleep. (This tracks by what we’ve seen.) Or has Kay already cracked up for good, making her the one murdering everybody but only remembering her dirty deeds through her dreams? (This also tracks by what we’ve seen.)
It’s an interesting pile of puzzle pieces to sift through and try to piece together. And after Eric is caught on a line of massive fish-hooks and drug into the sea, and Brooke is skewered on the end of a pitchfork (-- courtesy of an FX gag that belongs in the Hall of Fame of such things), we’re still not sure whodunit. And as we reach the climax ‘final girl’ Kay barricades the house (-- a fabulously haunted performance by Kendall), thinking the monster will attack her next, and fights to stay awake, mainlining caffeine and burning herself with cigarettes, until the killer tries to break in -- or does he? And here, as Kay moves to defend herself against what turns out to be Marsh, Cardone and Ewing once again skewer any certainty and solidifies their case for all three killers.
Now, the bad news is, I won’t be revealing what happens next or who the killer is until the next sentence and will let you all watch and sort that out for yourselves, Boils and Ghouls, so stop now if you don’t want the ending spoiled. The good news, however, is there’s no real wrong answer, or right answer, as to who the killer is. Now, this kind of ‘all of the above’ -- well, more like ‘take your pick’ in this case, twist should not work but it totally does. Again, I am not saying there are three separate killers at work, here; what I’m saying is it’s kind of up in the air on who actually did the killing, so, maybe one, maybe two, maybe three killers -- even as we wind up back at the beginning with one last twist in the plot. Confusing, I know, but just watch this movie. Trust me.
Believe me, I usually despise this kind of ambiguity and a “it was all a dream” final coda. But with The Slayer, it’s less of a dream and more of a self-fulfilling loop as we jump all the way back to Christmas morning and young Kay awakens from the dream (the movie we just watched) and receives her ill-fated cat. And the script doesn’t cheat. It makes sense. And it works. A riddle, wrapped inside an enigma, dunked into a bottle of K-Y Jelly. And between you and me, the Slayer -- the actual manifestation of the creature from Kay’s dreams, another creation realized by Short, would probably eat Freddy Krueger for lunch. Now, now, put your razor-blades down because I’m not or wouldn’t say Wes Craven ripped them off for A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but The Slayer got their first. And I would post a vid-cap of the infernal thing but damned if I’m gonna spoil that reveal for you -- I’ve spoiled enough already.
And to pull all of that off, something that ambitious and ambiguous, on their first time out, it’s surprising The Slayer and it’s makers aren’t better known. Sadly, most of that anonymity can be blamed on The International Picture Show Company, which went bankrupt while the film was in post-production. The film was then sold off to 21st Century Film Corporation under the table, which released an unfinished print, chopped it up, and gave it a limited regional release -- much to the surprise of cast and crew. It also saw a limited release on VHS and was one of the original Video Nasties over in Great Britain.
But now, thanks again to Arrow Video, The Slayer is back for all to see. And as usual Arrow delivers a stellar package of extras, including three separate audio commentaries; one with director J.S. Cardone, actress Carol Kottenbrook, and co-producer, Eric Weston, moderated by Ewan Cant; the second is with the gang from The Hysteria Continues podcast; and third is an isolated interview with composer Robert Folk; there’s also another nifty audio feature that allows you to pipe in the audio of the audience reaction from a screening of The Slayer in the now restored Tybee theater featured in the film. The disc also includes two featurettes, Nightmare Island: The Making of The Slayer, an hour long doc featuring recollections from cast and crew, where Post reveals how they pulled off that magnificent pitchfork gag, and Return to Tybee: The Locations of The Slayer. Also included is a still gallery and the original theatrical trailer. And if you buy it quick, there’s a collector’s booklet to be had featuring an essay by Lee Gambin. Cannot recommend this one enough, Boils and Ghouls. Go. Watch this. NOW.
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The Slayer (1981) The International Picture Show Company :: 21st Century Film Corporation / EP: Lloyd N. Adams Jr. / P: Bill Ewing / AP: Anne Kimmel, Gerald T. Olson / D: J.S. Cardone / W: J.S. Cardone, Bill Ewing / C: Karen Grossman / E: M. Edward Salier / M: Robert Folk / S: Sarah Kendall, Frederick Flynn, Carol Kottenbrook, Alan McRae, Michael Holmes