Review: Slayground (1983)

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Review: Slayground (1983)

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Product Description

Slayground (1983)
A
nchor Bay DVD (region 1)

Slayground is a curious crime thriller that in effect unites the British and American criminal drama movements of the 1970s with the sleek visual polish of the early 1980s.  Its neglect is considerable and most unfortunate for it is one of the most stylized of low budget crime films to emerge in its decade.  It was based on a novel by Richard Stark (a pen name of author Donald Westlake, one of the most esteemed crime writers of the last few decades) yet put together in collaboration with British resources and directed by first-timer Terry Bedford, who alas did not direct another feature and remains better known as a cinematographer for the early Monty Python movies.  In the 1960s and 1970s, Stark developed a character, a thief named Parker, in a series of books that were critically noted for their extremely tough, hard-boiled pulpiness and their rather bleak determinism.  One of these books was made into a film, the classic Point Blank (later remade as Payback), but otherwise the amoral character remained unexplored.  Although Stark ceased writing in the late 1970s, the popularity of his works led to one final film effort to capture the somber intensity of his world.  The result was the engrossing and grimly oppressive Slayground, a sad film that fully captures the notion of fatalistic “bewilderment” that author Westlake once said was the subject of his work (and is indeed the phrase that introduces his website).

Peter Coyote plays Stone, a master thief.  He is a man with a plan and intends to rob an armored car as it travels down a deserted stretch of road.  However, his regular driver does not show up and his accomplice gets a replacement, a young and cocky man.  The robbery goes as planned, but in the getaway process the driver misses a stop sign and forces another car into a colliding spin.  This car wrecks.  Coyote forces the driver to stop and rushes up to the overturned vehicle.  Peering inside he sees that a little girl is dead.  Driving off he now knows that his luck may have irrevocably turned.  Indeed, the grieving father soon uses his apparent criminal connections to hire a ruthless, sadistic assassin in order to exact revenge.  This killer finds those responsible with alarming ease although Coyote manages to escape the hit-man, but is terribly wounded in the process.  Coyote is surprised by this killer’s ability and so gets a new identity and travels to England, to seek a favor from an old friend (Mel Smith) who owes him a debt.  His wounds, however, have made it necessary for him to have an expensive operation, for which he needs money quickly.  Although told that this new friend is dead, Coyote pushes the case and soon finds a woman (Billie Whitelaw) who operates a dilapidated amusement park where it seems that the friend may be hiding alive after all.  Alas, Coyote cannot shake the killer.

Slayground is an alarmingly fatalistic thriller, showing that the bleak, doom-laden era of film noir is still an imposing and pertinent force both stylistically and thematically.  Indeed, it is one of the few films of the 1980s to be truly worth considering as an update of that genre, all the more fascinating for the ways in which it transposes its American conflicts to Britain, in the process evoking such seminal, and equally grim, UK thrillers as Get Carter.  In that, it is both ambitious and surprisingly up to the task.  Coyote essentially plays a man who is down on his luck and at wits end, forced in desperation to return to his past.  His involvement in the death of an innocent girl is precisely the event that has doomed him: unless of course he can make some kinds of amends and appease Fate’s intentions.  Indeed, all that happens to him after the robbery-gone-wrong is suggested as a kind of penance imposed by Fate, personified in the form of a disturbingly omniscient killer, whose first heard words are “you are talking to a machine”.  It is a cold, hostile world where morality has been eroded into guilt and vengeance.  With Fate thus personified, the evade and pursuit scenario exacts a primal, deterministic allegory and in so doing cuts to the essence of the crime thriller’s obsession with luck running out and the omnipresence of a cruel, punishing fortune.  Few thrillers have been as slyly relentless as this one.

Slayground is one of the most effective of crime genre distillations, a stunning and creepily stylized film.  The central idea of a man gradually realizing that his all-important luck is over but determined to persevere is powerfully rendered.  In that, his complicated efforts to avoid his fate by escaping his would-be assassin are paralleled to the eerily omniscient ability of this killer to find his quarry anywhere.  Some critics have seen this ease as a plot deficiency but it is necessary to develop the film’s allegorical overtones.  Fate thus has no difficulty finding and tormenting its quarry and indeed sadistically thrives on it.  This Fate is wholly unstoppable; a macabre artist of murder and Coyote’s battle becomes an elemental struggle for survival in a desperate world.  Coyote may be waiting for his end but will fight it at every opportunity and perhaps in his stubborn defiance lies the possible means of defeating Fate.  Yet, the law of this bleak existence almost demands that Coyote be punished, as if the accidental killing of the only innocent in this film is an unforgivable transgression, with Coyote’s remorse perhaps the only quality that has so far kept him alive.  Fate, however, can only be eluded only so far before demanding some final act of contrition – death thus being the absolute restitution.  So loaded, the sequence in which this showdown is rendered is one of the most dazzling and surreal showdowns in crime thriller cinema.

There is a stylishly grim amorality throughout this movie and one which the anamorphic widescreen visual transfer captures extremely well.  Slayground is always very grey, stark and downbeat in tone and texture, with drab colors increasingly drained until the tremendous final explosion of surreal color in the climactic showdown.  This sequence gorgeously conveys bizarre, garishly surrealistic funhouse atmosphere and effectively transports the movie into a chilling and ruinous dream.  Director Bedford also makes rather good use of parallel editing – inter-cutting the thieves with the girl about to die – as a means of stressing the idea of fate’s design from the beginning of the film.  It is unusually resonant and evocative of a depressing, downcast world.  The strange killer is rarely seen and then only in glimpses or silhouette, the film making much out of his absence and sudden, brutally taunting appearances.  The death scenes are stylish, suspenseful and increasingly macabre as the killer sees humor in murder.  Indeed, irony is equated with grim sadism in this film and it is in the murder scenes that colors seem most vibrant and alive.  Appropriately, there is a striking use of a red light as a coda to the death scenes.  At times though, soft focus looks oily and the textures somewhat murky, but these are transfer quibbles in what is a cleverly designed film with a fine use of shadows and misty backlights.

The sound transfer, however, is in Dolby Digital mono only.  Although this need not be a problem, there are moments when Slayground cries out for a 5.1 remix and remastering if such were possible – perhaps if a cult reputation eventually develops, a quality enhancement may eventuate.  Nevertheless, the sound design achieves a rare force, whether it is in the use of music (George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone”, also used to good effect by director John Carpenter in Christine) or the eerie manipulation of the killer’s disembodied voice.  It is in the funhouse scene, where this voice pervades all spaces that the directional possibilities of home theatre are particularly missed.  Still, it is a clean and clear transfer, probably as good and full as mono allows.  The score is often deliberately abrasive and affecting and there is much variety as pounding rock alternates with soothing classical to suggest two worlds on what will literally be a collision course.  The gentle music is often used almost as a prelude or even a premonition of disaster, however, making it increasingly tense rather than soothing.  Early scenes make use of street clamor threatening to drown out human voices (a determinist correlation indeed) and the final mélange of carnival noises is disconcerting and fearfully invigorating.  The killer’s odd voice truly does have a mysterious quality – when put through an echo effect, the result is quite startling.

The discovery, or re-discovery, of Slayground on DVD is one of the great pleasures of the DVD phenomenon.  Although there are no special features beyond the stylish original trailer (but of fuzzy visual quality) the film itself is more than compensation especially in as fine a transfer as is provided here.  It is the continued DVD release of such obscure films as this that makes AnchorBay one of the most important of independent DVD companies.

 

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