The title sounds sinister, unless you happen to notice on the DVD cover that "Slasher" is directed by John Landis, the man who gave us "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers." Directors have different sensibilities and ways of looking at the world that, ultimately, will characterize their films' overall style. "Slasher" is a documentary, and to conclude that because Landis makes funny features he must also be able to make funny documentaries is just a little flawed. Yet, I admit to popping "Slasher" in with every expectation that it would have a certain "Animal House" or "Blues Brothers" feel to it. And you know what? I wasn't disappointed. In fact, it turned out to be one of the most entertaining documentaries I've ever seen. (Notice I didn't say "relevant" or "provocative"?)
The Slasher is real-life used-car liquidator Michael Bennett, a hired gun who travels from car dealership to car dealership all but a handful of days each year in order to move cars off the lot that just aren't selling—a more lucrative alternative for dealers than auctions. He's the poster boy for Type-A personalities, a beer-guzzling, Joe Cocker-style body twitcher who couldn't sit or stand still (or shut up) for a minute, even if you promised him a condo on the French Riviera. The "f-word" flies out of his mouth as naturally as the beer goes in, and he would probably say "F--- the Riviera" if you made him that offer. Does he seem like someone John Belushi would have gotten crazy with in a film? Definitely. Would he have fit in with "The Blues Brothers" bunch? Absolutely. And this I thought even before learning that Slasher did time in "the pen." Add the other two guys from his traveling liquidator circus—a "mercenary salesman" who goes by the name Mud, and a burly DJ named Kevin who plays Felix to Slasher's Oscar as this odd couple stays in motel room after motel room—and you have a banter bunch that doesn't need comedy writers or a script to generate laughs. Example? When someone tries to tell him not to be so worried about flying, that when his time is up his time is up, Slasher quips, "What if it's the pilot's time to go?"
Landis sets up the comedic possibilities right from the opening, where Slasher complains that just because he sells used cars doesn't mean that everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie. Quick cut to the president of whom Democrats asked, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" Yes, there's footage of Tricky Dick Nixon saying "I am not a crook" and lying through his teeth about the Watergate break-in, followed by footage of Reagan saying emphatically that no arms were traded for hostages (in the Iran-Contra scandal), George Bush the Elder saying "Read my lips, no new taxes," Bill Clinton insisting "I did not have sex with that woman," and George the Younger claiming that we HAVE found mass weapons of destruction. Which is to say that Landis puts the Slasher right up there in some exalted company of people who have lied through their teeth. Is it the American way? Watch. What follows is a 90-minute documentary on a single start-to-finish weekend in the Slasher's life. The California native is shown grabbing two bottles of beer (for breakfast), kissing his wife and two little girls good-bye, and traveling to the airport in a limo for an early flight east. He's headed for Memphis, the blues and Elvis capitol of the world. Oh, yeah, Memphis, we're told, is also the bankruptcy capitol of the world, and a Toyota dealership there has flown in the Slasher and his crew for a three-day desperation sale. There's no money in the area, but hopes are high anyway, because the Slasher is legendary. The tuxedo-wearing man once sold 200 cars in three days.
(Aside to would-be documentary filmmakers: you're not just looking at three days of filming and a few cassettes of tape. Landis shot over a period of six days for a total of 108 hours of film that he had to edit down to just an hour and a half to tell his story.)
Landis said that he's not too worried about spoiling slasher sales across the country with this film, because he doesn't think the people prone to buy cars at those liquidator sales are the same crowd drawn to independent films. Good thing, because the tricks of the traded are revealed and the trio of benign bad boys can say some pretty damning things about people and places. When Slasher and DJ get their first look at a run-down section of Memphis, DJ quips, "This is ‘Deliverance,' Bro. Get me a banjo." That kind of stuff. And you should hear them talk about the customers. Luring crowds with the promise of an $88 car, they set up patsies for emotional purchases as they SLASH prices that they marked up the previous day. "Slasher," which aired in 2003 as an Independent Film Channel original, does a lot in 90 minutes. It gives us a great look at a nefarious profession, gives us a feel for Memphis, and gives us a look at a man whose life seems (even to him) moving so quickly and erratically that it's almost out of control. There are plenty of moments which are both funny and sad, as when the Slasher, on a rare day home, stands vacant-eyed on his driveway with beer bottle in hand, saying to his daughter as she rides her bicycle in circles around him, "Whose girl are ya?" and she answers, "Daddy's girl." Or when he says to his wife over the phone, in an equally rare muted and less manic voice, "I'll try to drink orange juice in the morning instead of beer."
Landis had one photographer "shadow" the Slasher during those six days, and the family and Slasher's entourage got pretty familiar with the camera—so much so that Landis said it surprised him how naturally they acted. There's also footage (some interview style) of the gang out and about at strip clubs and saloons, along with footage of the car dealership sales manager and his crew, a look at the selection process to hire a few young women to be "Slashettes" and register potential customers, and footage of customers—deliberating, and after they've left the dealership. Yes, the camera is right there when the young woman who bought a car for $88 can't start it up again in her driveway for her father. As she sits there noticing a puddle forming under the car, she says, "I guess I'll be asking for a ride again."
Presentation is full-screen (1.33:1 aspect ratio), which is actually a bit misleading if you're the sort who has a phobia of blackout bars. Because of the 16mm color film stock that Landis and his crew used, the 1.33:1 ratio includes blackout bars top and bottom which, stretched on a widescreen television, measure out to roughly a 1.75:1 ratio. But the picture quality is actually pretty amazing. Landis and Co. obviously used some expensive cameras, not the usual indy filmmaker hand-helds, and even did some digital clean-up in spots. The picture is bright and clear with no bleed or graininess, even in nighttime shots using ambient light where the Slasher is shown on his cell phone talking in front of a motel. You'd expect the neon to blur a bit, but it doesn't. As I said, it's pretty amazing.
Surprisingly the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is sufficient, and not just for the dialogue. Landis has included a soundtrack of Memphis music for a backdrop (including seldom-heard cuts from Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the MG's, and Otis Redding), and it's like concert mode on your system, with sound emanating from the front center and front main speakers, clear and bright. Excellent quality.
A full-length commentary by Landis is almost as much fun as the film. Landis is joined by producers Chris Kobin and Gary DePew, along with editor Martin Apelbaum. There are some pauses, but for the most part the foursome has fun with the commentary while also trying to provide behind-the-scenes information. Landis, for example, admits to staging just one shot the entire film: where a sale sign is placed in front of the Stax Theater. Landis says he had to include a shot of the legendary theater, and that was the only way it would happen. The group is pretty candid in their reactions to the real-life characters they filmed, and point out one spot in the film where a car salesman tells them to "cut the cameras." They debated whether to leave in that "cut" request, and finally did because they thought it preserved the integrity of the film. They also vouch for Slasher's integrity, going on record as saying that the liquidator seemed not to care all that much about the strippers, and "didn't even have a lap dance." At one point, one of them asks the others, "If we didn't have the family, what would the film have been like?" And Landis says, "Willy Loman's not a bad analogy. He's home maybe six days a year, and one of the reasons he works so damned hard is for those girls of his." Also included is a "making of" feature produced for the Independent Film Channel to air as a preview, though it's mostly cobbled-together footage from the film. Rounding out the extras: nine minutes of deleted scenes (the best of which is an extended motel moment between Mud and Slasher) and text-only crew bios.
The best documentaries are compelling in some way, but this one's also a ton of fun to watch. "Slasher" is funny, poignant, revealing, and full of the Landis outlandish style that made "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers" cult favorites. In the world of movie audiences there are feature-lovers and documentary-lovers. If any documentary has crossover appeal, this is it—a truth that's stranger than fiction, and just as entertaining.