Blu Reviewed: Arrow Video's The Slayer

Given the title, I'm thinking it's
probably The Slayer...
Arrow Video has really dug deep into the obscure corners of cult filmdom this time around, and has unearthed a slasher film which has a good word-of-mouth reputation among serious connoisseurs of the genre, yet is very rarely actually seen. The Slayer has a certain amount of notoriety for two reasons: firstly, it was among the notorious banned-in-the-UK “video nasties,” and secondly, its old VHS releases boasted some eye-grabbing cover art which burned itself into the retinas of many a kid growing up in the video store era. But despite being much talked-about in certain horror-lover circles for those reasons, this film has been notoriously difficult to find pretty much since the 1980s. In the US, its only home media release was a big-box VHS from the collector-favorite Continental Video, on which it was presented as a double-feature with Scalps. By the later '80s it was already out of print, and while big-box tapes became very rare in the collector's market in general, its unusual property of being a VHS double-feature made it doubly collectible and tough to find. Unfortunately, even if you could find it, the film was cut by about ten minutes (for pacing, not for gore) to make it fit onto the tape with another movie, and as with most of those early VHS releases from Continental, the transfer used was very murky and dark even by the standards of the format. In the UK it eventually got a DVD release – but even then, the DVD was a straight VHS transfer, and just as dark and murky as the Continental tape (not to mention likewise panned and scanned down to 4x3). So here we have a film which managed to achieve a minor cult following basically by word-of-mouth alone, despite never being available uncut in its home country, never being reissued in its home country in any form after its first VHS pressing, and never being available anywhere in the world in above-VHS quality, let alone its original aspect ratio. In other words, exactly the sort of film we should expect Arrow Video to rescue with a jaw-droppingly improbable 4K (yep, this film jumped straight from VHS to 4K) restoration.

The Film:

While it certainly is one of the more obscure American slasher films of the early-80s, The Slayer stands out as a rather ambitious and well-made one. This is not some low-budget cash-in on the slasher craze sparked by Halloween and Friday the 13th; it is quite clearly an honest attempt to make the best possible horror/suspense film the filmmakers could on a modest budget. For young director/co-writer J.S. Cardone, producer/co-writer Bill Ewing, and their likewise still-starting-out crew, this was a project that they intended as a calling-card to demonstrate their skills, and it shows in the final product. Granted, the film does have the usual B-level flaws of a lower-budget flick like this, with some wooden acting and cheesy moments, but it has an unusually strong visual style and sense of suspense and tension, which really does set it apart from the pack. It also has a (for the time) rather unique central concept to its story, with a supernatural angle that typical slashers wouldn't experiment with very much until a couple more years into the life of the genre. It concerns a young woman who has been plagued for her entire life by a recurring nightmare in which she is trapped in a house, being stalked by a monster. As her psychological state is getting worse, her husband, brother, and sister-in-law book a cabin on an isolated island for a vacation that they hope with be therapeutic... but when they arrive, she finds that it is the same house as the one in her dream... which can only mean that the monster (or some type of killer that it represents) is likewise coming. What follows plays out mostly like a slasher film, although with the emphasis on the suspense and tension leading up to the kills, rather than just the appropriately gory kills instead. But a question hangs over everything that happens: are her dreams just a coincidence, and their stalker is a human killer, or is something supernatural truly afoot? In other words, as the tag-line asks, “is it a nightmare, or is it The Slayer?”

"Into every generation, a Slayer is born..." ...oh wait, different slayer.

In the commentary on this blu-ray, director J.S. Cardone denies that The Slayer is really a slasher film at all, and while the plot certainly feels like one, and while the gore effects are suitably nasty and shocking, he does have a point. This movie is a true slow-burn in a way that not many slashers are; it truly is all about the build-up, and not the murders themselves. Cardone handles the suspense very well for a first-time director, building tension with creeping, long-take dolly shots and slowly-rising orchestral music. Cardone and cinematographer Karen Grossman give the film a strong aesthetic and sense of atmosphere: the film is very well-shot, particularly for an early-career low-budget effort, and the lighting in the nighttime scenes is often memorably moody. That the film only has four principle characters – not many expendable ones to up the body count – should be the first clue that The Slayer is more of a slow-burn than a gore-fest, but that in fact ends up being one of its strengths, as it handles this style quite well. When it does bring the gore it delivers on that side of the equation too: at least one of the kills is a very nasty display of practical effects nearly worthy of Tom Savini.

One could accuse The Slayer of having some wooden acting (although it has some good acting as well, particularly from its haunted female lead, Sarah Kendall) and some awkward or stilted moments that could have been written or paced better, but these are to be expected from a low-budget horror film. None of the film's weaker points are really deal-breakers, but rather understandable quirks of this breed of cinema, that fans shouldn't have much trouble forgiving. The things that it does well, on the other hand, really stand out, considering the number of slashers that are famous for their gore but are otherwise rather poorly-made films. Particularly from the cinematography, atmosphere, and suspense standpoints, this really is a well-made movie. Of course, its slow-burn approach and relatively small body-count won't be for everybody: those who fall more on the Friday the 13th side of the slasher spectrum than the Halloween side may not like it as much as some of the more wild entries in the genre. But for those who dig a good slow-burn in addition to slayings, there is a lot to enjoy in The Slayer. While there are better films from the early years of the slasher genre, this is nonetheless quite a good one (better than plenty of better-known slashers), and one that is long overdue for rediscovery. Particularly now that Arrow has resurrected it in such fine form, fans of the genre should definitely check it out.


The Video:

Shellfish allergies are no laughing matter.
One of the defining aspects of The Slayer's much talked-about but seldom-seen notoriety is the way in which the film famously never got any sort of decent release, picture-quality-wise. Even when it eventually got a UK DVD in part of a line capitalizing on the Video Nasties madness, the disc was a shameless VHS rip. So with the rare exception of those lucky enough to see the film in theaters upon its very limited 1982 release, no one had ever seen this film in its original aspect ratio, or above VHS quality. But as the special features on this disc taught me, The Slayer got even rougher treatment in the picture-quality department than I even knew. The film's original distributor went out of business before it could be released in theaters, and when a new distributor bought it, they inadvertently used a non-color-corrected test print as the master for all 35mm theatrical prints. This means that even for those who did get to see it in theaters, prior to this blu-ray no one had ever seen the finished version of the film, with the color-correction completed. This makes it all the more improbable, and all the more stunning, that Arrow has now given us a 4K remaster of The Slayer, made from the original camera negative.

For a film that is known for having always suffered really rough transfers, The Slayer now looks fantastic. Karen Grossman's widescreen cinematography is very good, and this beautiful restoration does it justice in a way that murky, pan-n-scan copies never could. Those long, deliberate dolly shots look great in their full scope, and with this level of clarity. The picture looks fantastic, with excellent detail and a healthy presence of film grain throughout which an essential part of the atmosphere for a vintage genre film such as this. On VHS The Slayer looked terribly washed out (which makes a lot more sense now that I know those tapes used a non-color-corrected version of the film), but now that the film has finally been released with that error corrected, the use of color in the film is quite strong. I am the sort of person who generally thinks that the grimy, lo-fi aesthetic of VHS can really add a bit of authentic video-store-era charm to 1980s horror films, but comparing this blu-ray to the old Continental Video tape is night and day, and I can safely say that this restoration is the way to watch The Slayer.

The transfer does have the odd issue here and there; generally things that appear to be inherent to the negative. Once in a rare while there will be a trace of some slight wear to the negative, and on occasion the image has a bit of shudder to it. There are also a few moments where, in a very subtle way, the black levels seem to fluctuate a little. But these are all very minor flaws that I'm not sure I would have noticed were I not trying to review the disc. For the most part, this transfer is excellent. If you've only seen The Slayer on VHS, this disc will be a revelation: even on tape this was clearly a well-shot movie, but its visuals really shine through here. If you haven't seen the film yet, there couldn't be a better way to experience it.


The Audio:

The disc features the film's original mono audio track. It shouldn't be too surprising that Arrow didn't try to create a new surround mix; this is how the audio was mixed originally, and for a low-budget film of the early-80s, the original mono is perfectly sufficient. As restored by Arrow, the film sounds very good: the audio is clean, dialogue is clear, and the film's effectively haunting musical score sounds great. Sure, there are limitations to the way the film was mixed to begin with, but this disc does about the best with the audio that it possibly could, sounding very good while also authentic to its original form. You can't ask for much more than that.


The Extras:

Splitting up to investigate...
always a solid plan.
In addition to the beautiful 4K transfer, Arrow has lavished some seriously impressive extras on this lesser-seen under-dog of a movie. The centerpiece of the disc is an hour-long documentary about the production of the film, which features interviews with most of the key players, particularly Cardone and Ewing. The doc delves deep into the making of the film, giving some fascinating background not just about this particular film, but the journey of making a low-budget genre film in the early-80s. It will really add to your appreciation of the movie, as it shows just how much all involved genuinely wanted to make the best suspense/horror film possible. The artistry and the ambition behind it take center-stage, with lots of attention going to the technical aspects of the production. A good deal of time is also spent looking into how the film's memorable gore effects were done – particularly that one notorious kill that landed the film on the video nasties list.

The disc also has a commentary track by Cardone, co-star Carol Kottenbrook, and executive producer Eric Weston. This track is very interesting and lively, as the three of them clearly have fond memories of the production of the film, and those memories spill out into lots of good stories of how it was made. In this commentary as well as the documentary, Cardone asserts that he never really intended for The Slayer to be a slasher film, and was more interested in exploring the suspense/thriller aspects of the story. While it is hard to deny that the finished product is very slasher-ish indeed, his clear assertion of his intentions for the film add to the viewers' appreciation of the slow-burn that he created. There are two more commentary tracks on the disc: the first is a track full of trivia and film appreciation from the folks at the The Hysteria Continues podcast. The second is a live audience reaction track from the debut of this transfer at the very theater that was featured in the film. While I'm not sure I'd watch the whole film this way, it is a lot of fun to hear a large theatrical audience of horror fans cheering, screaming, and laughing at key moments. There is nothing quite like seeing a film like this in a theater, and this track replicates that experience in a pretty fun, if slightly goofy, way.

Rounding out the disc are an introduction and Q&A from that same screening, a featurette revisiting the film's locations, an audio track which presents the isolated musical score along with an interview with the composer, a trailer, and a booklet about the film, which will only be featured in the first pressing. This is a pretty loaded release by most standards, but especially for a film that had previously been left in such obscurity, it is almost ridiculously impressive.


There may be better movies from the early years of the slasher boom, but The Slayer is definitely a good one, and long overdue for this sort of special edition treatment. Going from an obscure, seldom-seen VHS rarity to the recipient of an Arrow 4K remaster is a pretty meteoric rise for a film like this, and a testament to the cult reputation that it acquired over the years strictly by word of mouth. It is also a well-shot and suspenseful enough film that it genuinely deserves the upgrade, and really benefits from such a great release. If you are a fan of vintage slasher films, this is certainly worth a watch. And whether you are a newcomer to the film or an old fan of its VHS releases, you've never seen it look like this. This is a definitive release of a movie that seemed very unlikely to ever get a definitive release.

Overall score for the Arrow special edition:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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