Unavailable for years in anything resembling a decent presentation, J.S. Cardone’s atmospheric slasher film, THE SLAYER (1982) has, thanks to Arrow Video, finally arrived in what is easily its best—and no doubt definitive—incarnation on home video.
Kay (Sarah Kendall) suffers from horrific, realistic nightmares, many of which involve some sort of sinister creature (“I was having that nightmare again… Something was after me!”), which has begun to affect her work as a prominent painter. Deciding to get away for a much-needed vacation, Kay and her husband David (Alan McRae) agree to accompany her brother Eric (Frederick Flynn) and his wife Brooke (Carol Kottenbrook) to a secluded island, but once there, Kay’s visions (“I feel like I’ve been here before.” She nervously intones) and nightmares begin to take more and more of a hold on her and, unfortunately for the others, begin to manifest themselves in actual reality rather than only in her mind.
Although produced at the height of the slasher boom, THE SLAYER isn’t your typical ‘body count’ outing of the kind that was so prevalent at the time, and while it does feature some exceptional horror set-pieces, Cardone’s intimate setting and minimal cast allows for a far more interesting take on the genre, which is also helped along by the desolate and striking island locale. But what is probably the film’s biggest, and certainly most interesting plot development, are Kay’s dreams, which eventually reveal themselves to be the driving force of the film (“My life will be gone! Dreams will have taken its place!”). It’s difficult not to think of Wes Craven’s seminal ’80s scare-film A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) when hearing such choice dialogue as, “She’s convinced if she goes to sleep, we’ll all DIE!”, but at the very same time, the film also bears some similarities to John Hancock’s sombre—and highly effective creeper-sleeper—LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971), which also delved into the unexplainable while focusing on the title character’s (brilliantly portrayed by Zohra Lampert) breakdown and her inability to make sense of anything around her—a kind of waking nightmare, if you will. Like Hancock’s film, Cardone’s first feature film also has an unsettling quality to it; a disturbing atmosphere that slowly builds as Kay’s unresolved neurosis begins to take over the narrative. In the present film, Sarah Kendall’s fragile, confused and equally terrified Kay has much in common with Lampert’s detached Jessica, and just like her, Kay reluctantly tries to escape these disturbing ‘nightmares’ by taking a sabbatical—or, as Jessica does, relocating to Connecticut from New York City—but instead, the tranquil (if equally distressing) island setting brings out the worst in Kay’s ongoing state of mental anguish…
While THE SLAYER did garner a stateside theatrical release courtesy of 21st Century Distribution Corporation, who also handled similar neglected favourites such as Eddy Matalon’s CATHY’S CURSE (1976), most people caught-up with this film either through Continental Video’s U.S. ‘double-feature’ VHS videocassette (which paired it up with Fred Olen Ray’s SCALPS  and shortened the film by almost 15 minutes in order to fit both films on one tape) or Canada’s Marquis Home Video. The muddy, unattractive transfers of those versions did the film no favours and THE SLAYER, despite garnering a fairly strong fan following, subsequently disappeared from circulation for decades. Working with the original camera negative, Arrow Video commissioned a brand new 4K (!) scan, and it’s quite miraculous just how good it all looks. Detail is perfect, colours are rich and naturalistic, and all of the film’s previously troublesome nighttime scenes are now made abundantly clear, and this development comes as a real revelation for seasoned viewers of the film who are used to seeing it in far-less-than-optimal form. This is easily one of the more attractive restorations of a low-budget film this year. Utilizing the original optical negative, the LPCM mono audio also sounds impeccable, which only enhances Robert Folk’s (quote) “lush, orchestral” music.
Beginning with a very informative audio commentary with director Cardone, production executive Eric Weston and star Carol Kottenbrook, disc producer Ewan Cant nicely moderates the discussion during which Cardone talks about his Val Lewton influences and much of the film’s subtle foreshadowing; Folk’s (quote) “atypical score”; Sarah Kendall’s (quote) “strange quality”, which suited the film perfectly, and Kottenbrook chimes-in about the rest of the cast members; Cardone and Weston go on to talk about some of the difficulties of filming with only four actors, which allowed him to take advantage of the striking location on Georgia’s Tybee Island and (quote) “fill the gap”. It’s a wonderful talk, and he too is very happy that he can finally (quote) “see it” as he applauds Arrow’s new restoration. In the second audio commentary, The Hysteria Continues wax nostalgic about some of the film’s VHS releases and their memories of renting said tapes, including Continental Video’s promotional compilation cassette, TERROR ON TAPE (1985), which featured most of THE SLAYER’s gory ‘highlights’; they also talk about the film’s place amongst the U.K.’s ‘Video Nasties’ furor and Vipco’s VHS and DVD releases. In addition, they casually chat about some of the film’s similarities to both John Hough’s INCUBUS (1982) and Percival Rubens’ THE DEMON (1979), then go on to cover plenty of details about the film, including its unhurried pacing—which they’ve since gone on to appreciate—as well as the film’s (quote) “middle-aged cast”. On yet another audio ‘interview’ (50m22s), Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher talks with the film’s composer, Robert Folk. Initially wanting to be a songwriter and (quote) “pop musician”, he decided to attend New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, where he began studying classical music and obtained his doctorate. Some of his first work included scoring documentary features for the prestigious IMAX. Then, after moving out to L.A., he composed his first feature film score for Robert Collins’ SAVAGE HARVEST (1981), on which, quite incredibly, he had the good fortune of working with London’s National Philharmonic Orchestra. For his SLAYER score, he had John Williams’ work in mind, and in particular Pino Donaggio’s (quote) “melodic approach” to film scoring, and these influences only enhance and underscore the psychological themes of the film. The interview with the composer is followed by ‘Isolated Score Selections’.
In what is undoubtedly the film’s biggest extra, Red Shirt Pictures’ Nightmare Island: The Making of The Slayer (52m54s) is a very thorough documentary from Michael Felsher (produced with Arrow Video), which gathers together just about everyone involved in the making of the film, including director Cardone, writer/producer Robert Ewing, production executive Eric Weston, DP Karen Grossman and camera operator Arledge Armenaki, plus special effects creator Robert Short and creature performer Carl Kraines. Everyone talks very fondly of their experiences on the film, including their time on Tybee Island, which at the time was a (quote) “resort summer community” that was also used as a location for Burt Reynolds’ GATOR (1973). The participants also discuss the film’s (quote) “certain pace” and many of the film’s effects work, one of the film’s showstoppers included, which they did in one take. They also briefly touch on 21st Century’s shady dealings with the film’s distribution, which was quickly released into theatres from a (quote) “non colour-corrected answer print” that eventually made its way to home video, which only makes Arrow Video’s new restoration all the more remarkable to behold.
Other extras include Red Shirt Pictures’ Return to Tybee: The Locations of The Slayer (13m18s), hosted by Arledge Armenaki, which is an excellent tour of the film’s many—still-extant—locations. In The Tybee Post Theater Experience (17m50s), Ewan Cant moderates a Q&A session with Armenaki following a special screening of the film at the newly-refurbished Tybee Post Theater. And, in yet another feature-length audio track (!), Arrow also includes this special screening’s audience reactions. Other extras include the film’s original theatrical trailer (“What you’re about to see may shock you!”) and an exhaustive stills gallery (running a whopping 9m55s!) which includes numerous behind-the-scenes photos and promotional materials. Additionally, as with all of Arrow Video’s first pressings, a thick liner-notes booklet is included, containing an insightful essay by author and film historian Lee Gambin as well as Ewan Cant’s recollections of first seeing the film and his visit to Tybee.