Freddy Kreuger's Forgotten Elder Brother

by Arthur B

The Slayer did the whole "dream-based" slasher movie thing years before Nightmare On Elm Street made a franchise out of it.
Kay Church (Sarah Kendall) is a painter who draws heavily on her dreams for inspiration (the end results being reminiscent of Magritte and his latter-day imitators), and who has a major show coming up. Kay’s mental health has often been rather fragile, and her husband David (Alan McRae) has become deeply worried about her well-being, so he’s arranged a special vacation in a friend’s holiday home on an otherwise-abandoned island just off the coast of Georgia (the US State, not the country). It’s just him, Kay, Kay’s brother Eric (Frederick Flynn) and Eric’s wife Brooke (Carol Kottenbrook)...

...Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. There’s a storm coming in, and worse besides - for Kay’s recurring dream of being stalked by a hideous creature through an opulent house has left her feeling decidedly familiar with the island. For it’s the island she sees in her dreams, where the killings take place - and soon the killings start in real life. Has the monster that has haunted Kay’s dreams for as long as she can remember stepped out into the waking world?

The Slayer was directed by J.S. Cardone from a script cowritten with producer William R. Ewing. As Cardone’s debut feature both as a director and as a writer, it’s really quite remarkably good. The basic premise makes it sound like part of the slasher cycle, and that’s how it’s been received for the most part, but it stands apart from the rest of the subgenre in a number of remarkable ways.

For one thing, the core characters generally don’t do much which you could characterise as being flat-out foolish under the circumstances they find themselves. They’re in a state of profound physical isolation where they can’t communicate with the outside world until the pilot who flew them to the island comes back to collect them, so it makes sense that they’d try to investigate on their own as much as they can. When it becomes apparent that one of the party’s been murdered they do make an effort to contact help by firing flares from a flare gun they find in the house - a plan with no guarantees, of course, because it hinges on someone being close enough to the island and looking in the right direction when the flare goes up, but a genuinely smart move. When one of the party finds themselves as the last survivor, they make the effort to close all the shutters on the house and barricades the doors and windows so as to fortify it.

On top of that, the core characters aren’t teens or students, but adults who’ve all entered well-regarded professions - as well as Kay being an artist, David is a doctor, Eric is a director who mentions having worked in advertising (which means he must be pretty successful), and Brooke is a movie actress (though Eric needles her about her last movie being some time back). These are characters who you expect to have reached a level of emotional maturity (or at least, as much emotional maturity as they can be expected to display unless they put in a really sustained and difficult effort to do better) that you wouldn’t otherwise ascribe to slasher movie protagonists.

This in turn is a nice, subtle way of putting the microscope on their attitude towards Kay and her issues. It’s clear that Kay’s dreams are having a profound effect on her, and equally clear that her peers (and, at points, Kay herself) are parsing this as increasingly acute mental illness. The other three simply don’t handle this at all well. David’s way of talking to Kay about her dreams is deeply patronising, and there’s a scene early on where he snatches away her psychiatric medication off the nightstand and patronisingly says that after a nice vacation she won’t need to take it at all. The reaction of Eric when he and Brooke hear Kay screaming in terror - a resigned “Oh, now what?” - neatly suggests before we’re overtly told that she’s been behaving erratically for so long that Eric has simply become jaded to sudden panic attacks and strange behaviour from her.

Even Brooke, who has a bit more willingness than the men to listen to Kay’s theory that there’s a real entity which reaches out into the world through her dreams, and which is becoming stronger and stronger until it will eventually not need her at all to act, ultimately doesn’t handle things brilliantly; at one stage, to calm Kay down, Eric and Brooke slip medication into her coffee without her knowledge or consent, and whilst Brooke expresses some qualms about this completely horrible plan she still actually feeds the stuff to her. (When they come clean to Kay, naturally, this only heightens her horror, because she believes that the more she sleeps, the stronger the entity gets.)

Eric at one point talks about an incident when he and Kay were children when the family got a brand new kitten, and it ended up dead in the household meat freezer, and Kay blamed it on something in her dreams and was sent to a psychiatrist for it, the beginning of a lifelong engagement with mental health professionals to try and deal with her dreams, which makes his attitude to the whole thing - and how angry he gets when Brooke starts pondering whether there’s something to Kay’s dreams - somewhat more sympathetic and understandable. Not so sympathetic as to make what he does seem like the pragmatically correct or morally defensible course of action, mind, but enough to establish it as the sort of bad thing a well-meaning person might believably do if they’d had a similar experience. Let’s face it, if your family’s brand new cat died when you were little and you had reason to believe your sibling had done it as a result of a severe quirk in their mental makeup, could you swear that you’d deal with it any better?

It’s the dream angle that makes this stand out from its slasher peers - this, and the “I have to stay awake otherwise the thing in my dreams will have power to act” angle, have prompted ample comparisons to A Nightmare On Elm Street over the years, but this preceded it by two years. There’s a final twist which creates a genuinely interesting ambiguity as to whether we’ve watched represents something that really happened, or the dream of Kay’s that foretells what is going to happen, or a dream of Kay’s which combines a foreshadowing of real events with fantastic inventions of the subconscious. The film shows an unexpected level of interest in the intersection of dreams and art too; Kay’s artistic shift into a surrealist style is explicitly linked to her dreams, and of course dreams were what surrealism purported to be about.

I suspect Carbone was also influenced by Lovecraft in devising this. The laconic, weirdly threatening pilot who flies the party out to the island and delivers mysterious warnings is called Mr. Marsh, which is an obvious nod to The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Marsh’s declarations that this is a place which people tend to dream of, and the implications in his conversations that dreamers are lured here for a terrible purposes, feels distinctly like something out of Lovecraft. The way the island is surrounded by the sea not only suggests a physical isolation, but also calls back to Kay’s paintings and the role the sea seems to have in them as a barrier between the conscious and unconscious. (On that note, Cardone slips in here some really excellent shots of the sea, making the familiar old Atlantic look like some dark, alien realm.) Lovecraft’s most famous tale, The Call of Cthulhu, strongly features an artist whose dreams of something terrible related to the sea prove to have an awful truth to them.

And, of course, you have the fact that Lovecraft, like the surrealists, drew on dreams for inspiration. (If Cardone made the same connection, he wouldn’t be altogether alone in it; much more recently, the Dreamhounds of Paris supplement for the Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game presents an eccentric campaign where the players take on the role of first-wave surrealists delving into the Dreamlands.)

Adding to the unusual approach of the film is the way that it starts to keep secrets from you - there’s a bit where Brooke and Kay are talking, and Kay asks Brooke if she can tell her something on condition of not telling Eric because he “doesn’t understand”, and then we just cut to the next scene without immediately finding out what Kay told Brooke, or whether Brooke even agreed to keep it confidential from Eric in the first place. Between this, the twists at the end, and various other ways in which the movie keeps its cards close to its chest, the film ends up vastly less interested in providing an explanation for the killings than other slasher films, which typically either let you know who the killer is from the start or make a major plot point out of the grand reveal.

Slasher fans aren’t wholly left out in the cold here, because what you do get here is a range of really nicely executed killings. The first death of a major character manages to be simultaneously slyly ambiguous (it genuinely could either be an accident or hostile action) and deliciously, imaginatively gruesome in its initial execution, with imagery which might not conform to medical reality but can’t fail to shock you to the core. Then there’s a secondary shock after that which reveals that someone or something must have been involved in the death. And then come the morning, after some further action, our victim seems to be alive again, but then their partner kisses them good morning and there’s a tertiary shock just as we’ve come to the conclusion that the death was just a dream sequence, and then their partner awakes again and the victim isn’t there. In clumsier hands this would be a leaning, teetering tower of twists and complications and shocks that would become risible, but with Cardone in charge it’s an expert demolition of the viewer’s defences, leaving them absolutely receptive both to future scares and to the overall story.

Proving that “arthouse slasher movie” isn’t necessarily a contradiction in terms, The Slayer manages to combine traditional horror movie action with a remarkably smarter than average treatment of its core ideas. Wes Craven’s later efforts might be the more famous use of this one’s central conceit, but the bar for dream-themed slasher horror was set high by this original.

In the UK The Slayer was consigned to the video nasty list, though it was never the subject of a successful prosecution and eventually dropped off before the list was retired altogether. Home video releases in the US were subjected to a number of cuts for running time so as to shove the movie onto a two-for-one deal. Arrow Video’s recent blu-ray release offers a welcome restoration from the original negative, bringing the uncut experience originally intended along with some nice special features. A particular treat is footage from a special screening of the movie at the Tybee Post Theater, a lovely old 1930s cinema that was utterly derelict at the time of shooting and plays a subtle but important role in the film, but which was then restored to its former glory in subsequent years.

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