The Slayer. 1982. Directed by J.S. Cardone. Screenplay by Cardone & Bill Ewing.
Starring Sarah Kendall, Frederick Flynn, Carol Kottenbrook, Alan McRae, Michael Holmes, Sandy Simpson, & Paul Gandolfo.
The International Picture Show Company
Rated R. 86 minutes (uncut).
As soon as someone says Video Nasty there’s a tendency to assume the worst. Horror fans either believe it’s trash or the Shangri-La of scary movies containing all the good gore and upsetting terror us gore hounds seek. More often than not they’re neither, sitting somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Some Video Nasties are actually excellent— the exception.
Then there are entries on the list like 1982’s The Slayer, from director and co-writer of the screenplay J.S. Cardone. This one’s somewhere around the middle. Mostly it’s an interesting horror flick because it could’ve been so much more. The premise isn’t unfamiliar— two couples go to a quiet island on vacation, only to be stranded, and soon one of them turns up dead. A slight difference is Kay (Sarah Kendall) – a painter with an interesting in the surreal – has had nightmares her whole life about a supernatural beast that can leave her mind to enter reality, which she’s convinced is the reason for what becomes a series of escalating murders.
Cardone never capitalises fully on the excellent premise. The good bits work as an allegory for how we treat artists and creativity, particularly in regards to the way in which we, as a society, tolerate the (self-)destructiveness of certain creative processes— think of all the creatives we’ve lost even in the past decade to accidental overdoses/suicide. The Slayer, then, becomes a way of illustrating the danger of allowing people to slip too deep into fiction at the expense of themselves and those around them.
“I paint what I see”
“No you don’t— you paint what you dream.”
Before diving headlong into the main themes, it’s worth noting the movie’s Video Nasty status. The Slayer wasn’t released uncut until 2001 after being on the list of Video Nasties originally in the ’80s, though it wasn’t one of the titles prosecuted. What’s ironic is, this was on a list of concern to the government in the UK and it’s a story about fiction crossing boundaries into reality. The story/plot mirror exactly the misguided fear inherent in creating a Video Nasties list. As Kay’s artistic mind was giving way to violent fantasy, seemingly becoming life, the government was worried young people and those susceptible to influence would make horror movies come to life, too.
What this brings to light is the fact some people can’t accept art’s actual power, choosing to focus on non-issues. We know, in many ways, art can overtake the artist themselves becoming more powerful than the one who gave it life, just like the beast of Kay’s nightmares. An artistic creation can transform into a beast, overpowering its creator and running wild.
It’s a perfect metaphor of fandom today. Not hard to see those effects as toxic Star Wars fans psychotically hound Rian Johnson, drive Kelly Marie Tran off social media, shitting all over a slightly different direction and more diversity in casting. Supposed 30+ year old grown men harassed the women in the Ghostbusters remake for a perceived slight against their precious childhoods. Look how many writers on popular TV shows with large fandoms feel the need to bend to the will of fans rather than focus on telling the best story possible. A toxic fandom’s effects are endless on artists and also their creations, to a point normal fans have to preface their enjoyment of a franchise/TV series in case they’ll be lumped in with the maniacs. Fans are what make art popular— they shouldn’t dictate how art’s made.
“People have got to relate to it, it’s got to be real.”
The Slayer‘s most effective as an allegory of how artists themselves are effected by their creativity, and also how it affects the people around them. Kay’s stuck at a place in her life where she can either live in a reality devoid of fulfilling artistic creation, or she can allow her fantasy world to become real to the detriment of others and likely herself. Her character’s representative of creative types who’ve destroyed their lives in pursuit of art.
There remains a romanticised view of the self-destructive artist. For so long, people have loved the mystery and madness of people like Jim Morrison, whose creativity came along with chaos, namely in the form of alcoholism and never ending drug ingestion. We’ve lost Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Marilyn Monroe, Lenny Bruce, Truman Capote, most recently Prince and even more recently Mac Miller, and the list, tragically, goes on. There’s a sense, in certain minds, that artistic genius comes at a price, usually the pain of addiction. Rather than support these people appropriately in a quest to get better, newspapers and websites talk endlessly about their relapses, spreading unflattering photos and gossip about their condition, and the media in general – along with fans and non-fans alike – make it twice as difficult for them to actually be rehabilitated. Only once they’re gone does the sympathy pour in, and suddenly everybody saw the signs.
The question becomes: where’s the line between creative genius and mental illness drawn? How far is it acceptable to go for an artist? How far is it acceptable for those around them to watch them go? When an artist’s clearly hurting, such as Kay in The Slayer, how long do people close to them allow the artist to keep doing so simply to create? It’s also as if people don’t take artists seriously when they say they’re hurting, like somehow being an artist means the pain’s a step of the process, part and parcel of having a gift. This only allows people to ignore the problems longer— again, until it’s too late.
In the end, Kay’s consumed by the monster from her nightmares like everyone else. But, do we see the beast in the end simply because Kay’s the only one left alive? Has SHE actually been the one to kill everybody, and the beast’s appearance stands in as symbolic of her finally overtaken by mental illness? Cardone leaves us guessing because we never see the supernatural creature actually kill Kay like the others. Moreover, the final scene calls back to what her brother mentioned to his wife about when they were kids and Kay got a cat for Christmas which later ended up dead in the freezer. As a girl, Kay accused the beast from her nightmares. Although this final scene, alongside the previous climactic reveal of the beast in her adulthood, injects more doubt than ever. Does that last scene confirm Kay’s brother’s suspicions, that his sister was disturbed from the beginning, or does it confirm Kay’s insistence of a supernatural entity?
Sometimes ambiguity pays off. Maybe the somewhat ambiguous ending doesn’t serve the movie as well as it might were it more concrete. Some might see it differently. Father Gore finds the finish as surreal and suggestive as other parts of the story. The whole movie’s not as good as it could’ve been. If Cardone and co-writer Bill Ewing were going for this allegorical-type of horror, it’s never played up to maximum effect, and this halfway effort shows. At times, you’re in a straight horror slasher with no frills. During certain scenes, the surrealist aspects of the screenplay are alive and kicking. Straddling between these two spaces is a major reason for why The Slayer isn’t an overly effective or popular piece of horror cinema.
All that said, Cardone does interesting work. At its best of times, the movie’s able to shock with a few of its kills. Father Gore only wishes the themes were paid attention to more, because they’re palpable and eternally relevant. Horror has many unique devices as a genre to tell stories, so it’s nice to see something from the 1980s at least aiming for a different take on familiar material. If you’re able to look past its blemishes, The Slayer‘s good trashy fun, also speaking to our relationship with fiction on various levels.