“Arthouse slasher” isn’t a term that gets written often—in fact, there are only 542 Google results for it, which might as well be a handful of breadcrumbs in the information super-buffet that is the internet. (By comparison, “slasher film” nets over 445,000 results, “slasher movie” 395,000). Regardless, they are out there. Peeping Tom is the one brought up most often, though various Argento films and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer also pop up a good deal in discussions of the concept. One that doesn’t crop up so much—but which I predict you’ll be hearing about soon—is a strange little not-quite-gem called The Slayer, a long forgotten 1982 flick that recently had one of its first public screenings in years at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas and will be receiving the Arrow DVD treatment later this year.
The film’s unconventional nature is apparent from the setup: there are only four primary characters, including the woman who’ll serve as our final girl. That would be Kay (Sarah Kendall), a successful artist whose career has begun to take a nosedive after her formerly nonthreatening surrealist paintings have begun to take on sinister undertones. See, for years, Kay has been plagued by what she feels are prophetic dreams of her own death, and while she’s been able to abate their intensity for a while by sublimating them into her art, lately those dreams have ramped up to fever pitch. Her husband, David (Alan McRae), a general practitioner, thinks Kay’s problems are simply the manifestation of history’s worst anxiety disorder, and in his dual role of spouse and personal physician, he’s ordering his wife to take some R&R—just as much for the sake of her health as for her career. (The audience gets the impression that Kay’s been the real breadwinner in the family, and that while David may need to flex his macho muscle in domestic matters, he’s still comfortable living the good life courtesy of Kay’s work). They’ll be headed for the world’s unlikeliest vacation spot—an island off the coast of Georgia, where they’ll be joined by Kay’s brother, Eric (Frederick Flynn), and his wife, Brooke (Carol Kottenbrook). Arriving on the island, the quartet find that it’s inexplicably abandoned and most of the buildings are in ruins. While David sees it as a nice opportunity at literally getting away from it all, Kay starts recognizing locations and events from her dreams—and realizes that this weekend is what her entire life has been leading up to…
Clocking in at just an hour and 26 minutes, The Slayer feels much longer, going through stretches where it seems more like a Terrence Malick film on PCP than a true slasher. By virtue of its limited cast alone, the kill sequences are few and far between, and after the first murder, a long time goes by before anyone gets offed again. Instead, what makes up the bulk of the running time are protracted sequences meditating on the ruin of the island or interpersonal squabbles between the characters, plus a weirdly real sex scene that seems less scripted and more like Kendall and McRae got randy on set and the crew just kept rolling. One of the kill scenes even takes place in virtual silence but for the victim’s cries of panic, leading to what’s maybe the eeriest death in an 80s slasher. All put together, it really gives the sense that director J.S. Cardone was attempting to say something with the movie, even if that something may not necessarily come across.
Also adding to the film’s arthouse flavor are the characters’ attempts to reconcile what’s going on around them: the film offers a few different possibilities as to what’s happening, and there’s enough there textually to support multiple different interpretations. It’s a stylistic touch that dovetails nicely with the ending, which requires a strange attention to detail to get the biggest payoff. The setup for the final scene—which involves a heretofore unseen family waking up on Christmas morning— caused a knee-jerk reaction in a particularly vocal member of the Frightmare audience, distracting most of the crowd from what was really happening onscreen. Watched in a quiet room, though, and with careful attention to dialogue, it becomes apparent that the final scene might not be the final scene at all— rather, Cardone decides to play Memento at the last minute, leaving the audience to determine for themselves which of the last two sequences of the movie comes first chronologically.
Perhaps the strangest thing about The Slayer, though, is the way that it briefly detours into being a completely different movie for all of three seconds during the film’s climax, completely abandoning any pretensions to artistry in favor of all out insanity. Before you think I’m spoiling something, I’m not: The entire marketing campaign for the movie was inexplicably built around what turns out to be the titular Slayer: a giant skeleton monster that suddenly appears in the final five minutes of the movie and whose origins and motivations are left a complete mystery. His silhouette was on the film’s poster. His face was on the back of the VHS. He’s even on the upcoming Arrow DVD (after this long, it’d almost be a betrayal to leave him off). In a movie that does well to work within the framework of its own dream logic, it stretches all sorts of credulity for the thing we see at the climax to have been responsible for what’s come up to that point. Nothing about any of the murders (or the victims’ reactions) indicate that their killer is anything other than an exceptionally strong human being—one capable of incredible stealth, at that. Is The Slayer meant to be a physical manifestation of Kay’s anxiety? A literal demon? Something else? Who knows—he’s literally onscreen for a matter of seconds. In a movie that has, to this point, prided itself on calm and quiet, it’s a baffling intrusion of a different type of 80s horror.
The Slayer isn’t without some merits; the cinematography of the abandoned island is isolating and foreboding, and the concept of an arthouse slasher with a limited cast was smartly ambitious for an era when more blood and bare chests were a quick way to a quick buck. Absent the baffling flame monster and edited down to a short, it could pack a real punch. As it is, The Slayer is still worth a look for the glimpses it affords at a different type of movie—and a beautifully sublime “I can’t believe this is real” moment when that flame monster appears.