What is nightmare, what is dream, what is madness what is real? For artist Kay Church it scarcely matters anymore, the door open between the two worlds of her life. Troubled by bad dreams since childhood it is her curse and her muse; “I paint what I see,” she says of her work but her husband David contradicts her: “You paint what you dream.”
Worrying about an upcoming exhibition, Kay travels with David, her brother Eric and his wife Brooke fly to a small island for a vacation, “the kind of place folks dream about” as the pilot puts it, but with no telephone service and a storm coming in the isolation is already playing on Kay’s troubled mind since they passed the derelict theatre which she insists she has already painted despite never having seen it before.
Convinced that something is on the island with them, does Kay dream the deaths of her friends or are they premonitions? When she awakens to find David is missing from their bed she tells the others he is already dead, that she saw the aftermath of his murder, but with no evidence and no body how can she know he has not just wandered off for some time alone from what he called “the wall of depression” she builds around herself?
The victim of a collapsed distributor which resulted in the barest cinema release in America of substandard prints cut in order to conform to a preferred running time in late 1982, the later British video release of The Slayer gained notoriety when it was included on the list of “video nasties” though it was merely withdrawn rather than prosecuted, a fact which promises considerably more than the film delivers.
Released on video in 1992 with 14 seconds trimmed before a reinstated release in 2001, The Slayer has now been fully restored from the original camera negative and re-released by Arrow Films, allowing it to be experienced in a presentation significantly superior to any previous offering, though any viewers hoping for extreme violence and gore or anything else to set James Ferman frothing will be disappointed.
Less a horror film than a somewhat mediocre thriller punctuated by killings which are odd rather than shocking – death by trapdoor, death by fishing tackle, Brooke being outwitted by a fishing net – the tension is on a par with an awkward dinner party, the island apparently a relatively pleasant and unspoiled if somewhat unkempt getaway for those inclined towards rustic comfort.
Robert Folk’s soundtrack offering a menace the visuals don’t, the elegant string arrangements reminding of Philippe Sarde’s compositions for Ghost Story released two years before, it is very much a “nighties and bosoms” horror with the uncluttered cinematography of Karen Grossman far more reminiscent of the seventies than the later eighties which would soon become obsessed with overstyling every frame.
Had the film been made during that period it might have focused more on Kay’s art, frequently referenced yet glimpsed as rarely as the titular character; the film also known as Nightmare Island, that alternative title is at least descriptively accurate in that Kay has nightmares about the island, even if the island of endless sand and swaying trees is not nightmarish in and of itself.
Directed by J S Cardone from a script co-written with producer William R Ewing, while Cardone states in the accompanying documentary that he finds the structure of horror to be easy the evidence says otherwise with ten minutes devoted to a hunt for a character already believed to be dead and a five minute montage of moving furniture as the finale approaches and final girl Kay barricades herself into the house.
Released two years before A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Slayer is more ambiguous in blurring the lines between reality and the dreams which are constantly referenced in the dialogue (“When I wake my real life will have gone, my dreams will have taken its place”) but Kay is no Nancy Thompson, pulling the shutters closed rather than booby-trapping the house, though she is similarly distant from those supposedly closest to her
Her husband David neither sympathetic nor supportive, Kay stares resentfully as he splashes in the ocean with Eric and she is constantly left alone by the others and isolated in frame, but she never becomes a sufficiently interesting character to build a whole film around and the wide-eyed Sarah Kendall is no movie star in waiting with only a single further credit on her resume, though Frederick Flynn and Carol Kottenbrook (Eric and Brooke) collaborated with Cardone frequently through their careers.
Largely filmed around Georgia’s Tybee Island, along with the documentary and two commentaries the most interesting of the accompanying features is cameraman Arledge Armenaki’s return to the location for a special screening of the film at the astonishingly renovated theatre which was little more than a shell of bricks during the original production, a homecoming for a cinematic oddity which doesn’t seem to quite fit anywhere else.