With his latest film The Sleeper (2012), indie horror director Justin Russell has grabbed the slasher genre by the ankles and dragged it kicking and screaming back to the decade that birthed it. This is a bold claim considering the number of recent stalk-and-slash films that’ve come out making a similar statements.
Adam Green’s Hatchet franchise is built around a similar claim of “Old school American horror,” though whether or not those films deliver on the promise is highly questionable. Sure, they get the gory set pieces right (often playing like 90-minute demo reels for John Carl Buechler), but the feel, the ambiance, the suspense of your atypical slasher film is totally lost. The same goes for Laid To Rest, the remakes of My Bloody Valentine, Elm St., Friday the 13th, etc.
What sets Russell’s latest film, The Sleeper, apart from the new-wave slasher set? Attention to detail. Russell and his production company, Gamma Knife Films, did their grinhouse and slasher homework. While cherry picking elements from such classics as Slumber Party Massacre, Black Christmas, Girls Nite Out, He Knows You’re Alone and House On Sorority Row, Russell avoids haphazard fanboy worship of said films. Instead, he uses them as a kind of visual and structural reference point, crafting a new film in their wake that feels very familiar while also very fresh and new.
He straddles this line on a visual level, using modern, shot-on-digital photography the same way early slashers used cheap film stock. With a bit of post production work, he conjures a similar fuzz-‘n-grain guerrilla filmmaking look that made the aforementioned movies nostalgic body count classics. Somewhere in the middle of this tightrope walk of modern techniques and nostalgic cinematic style emerges a horror director with the potential to take the genre and turn it on its ear.
Russell’s previous endeavor, Death Stop Holocaust, announced him as a director to watch. That film, about a pair of 20-something gals whose trip to an island summer house devolves into a ritualistic exercise in paranoia, rape, torture, and murder, was also a throwback. Instead of traditional slasher films, Russell’s intent was creating a genuine grindhouse-era, poverty-row drive-in film. I’m not talking your usual exploitation fun either. I’m talking the kind that sends audiences away recoiling in profound disgust, burning vivid images of depravity and evil into their cerebral cortex that can’t be washed off with a cold shower. Last House On The Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Race With The Devil, Cannibal Holocaust – films that go for the throat and refuse to let go long after the credits rolled.
Such is Death Stop Holocaust. On a purely visual level, the film hits with precise impact. Once watched, you will never forget the masked killers pursuing the film’s young heroines, nor will you ever look at a plain white van the same way again. That isn’t to say its perfect – the film is hampered by a crude, sometimes overwrought dialogue and amateurish acting. Not only that, but the relentless pacing of the film’s first act lags as it enters the second and third narrative laps.
Yet as a no-budget freshmen effort, the film blows away the competition, making similar Hollywood efforts like The Strangers seem downright warm by comparison. It’s a relentlessly nihilistic, incredibly well-stylized cinematic appetizer whose attention to authenticity and detail make it very well suited to rub shoulders with exploitation main courses like Grindhouse and Hobo With A Shotgun.
While steeped in a certain nihilistic tone, The Sleeper is a very different experience from Death Stop, going less for the throat than it does for pulse. The premise is a familiar one: In 1981, a hammer-wielding, dead-eyed maniac is harassing and hunting the girls of sorority house Alpha Gamma Theta one by one. With hammer and knife, he submits each one to the big sleep while a local detective endeavors to stop his mad murdering spree.
- Yell! Rating (x/5 Skulls):
- Year Released:
- 31 January 2012 (USA)
- Justin Russell
- Brittany Belland, Tiffany Arnold, John Bloom, Jessica Cameron, Jason Jay Crabtree, Ali Ferda, Bob Ferrato, Jenna Fournier, and Riana Ballo
- Horror, Thriller
- Official URL:
- The Sleeper
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