Sunday, April 14, 2013

Slayground (1983)

What should have been the rather simple robbery of a rural money transport  turns into a bit of a clusterfuck for professional thief Stone (Peter Coyote) afterwards, when the inexperienced escape driver manages to crash their car and kills a rich man's wife and daughter in the process.

Stone does feel a certain degree of guilt over the affair, but certainly not enough to turn himself and his partners in. Rich guy (one suspects dissatisfied with the way the police handles the case, though the film doesn't tell) hires a mad professional killer to find and kill everyone connected with his family's death, which he does with great enthusiasm and slasher movie killer superpowers.

Only Stone escapes the killer's wrath alive - though wounded - for a while, and decides to leg it to the UK where he hopes for some help of his former partner and friend Terry Abbatt (Mel Smith). Yet despite all of Stone's efforts in disappearing, the killer keeps relentlessly on his trail, so a final confrontation will be unavoidable.

Terry Bedford's Slayground is a rather curious film. Supposedly based on Donald E.Westlake's/Richard Stark's Parker novel of the same title, it's more a Chinese whispers version of the story than an adaptation. Parker adaptations always are rather free with their tight and taut source novels, but the film at hand has so little to do with the book it's impossible not to ask oneself why the producers even shelled out for the rights at all. Was it the brilliantly pulpy title?

But even if you ignore its curious status as an adaptation that doesn't adapt, Slayground is still a strange film. One half of it is a bleak crime movie with the expected existential undertones, while the other half seems to attempt to somehow shoehorn slasher movie sensibilities into the crime plot. Apart from his use of guns, the film's killer is a pure slasher invention: shadowy, never directly seen, with a propensity to turn his victims into freak-out art tableaus. Before the film relocates to the UK, the killer also seems to have the knowledge and teleportation powers of your typical slasher killer, being not only always able to know where Stone is going even in cases where there's no logical way for him to do so, but somehow appearing at innocuous places like a random gas station Stone himself won't have planned to travel to before his victim does . The killer even has his own breathing noise on the soundtrack, as well as the traditional synth plink theme.

The film's crime movie sensibilities and its slasher aspirations never quite come together for me. I do appreciate the effort, but can't help and think Bedford would have made a better crime movie or a better slasher movie if he had decided on one of the genres. Slayground also tends to meander a bit, with some plot developments awkwardly explained, others seemingly based on the assumption the audience will just fill in the blanks with crime movie clichés.

Still, Slayground is a film worth watching. It is moodily shot in the early 80s style - just before all films turned into clouds of neon and hairspray - which still keeps the graininess and bleakness of 70s films while feeling slicker than the films of the earlier era. At least half of Slayground's scenes are actually quite memorable: the random way Stone's initial getaway driver dies, the robbery, Stone's second and nearly deadly confrontation with the killer, and Terry's attempt to get his friend back on the straight and narrow are all convincing, clever and/or exciting. I'm pretty sure the film would now run as some kind of lost classic if the semi-slasher parts didn't get in the way (or, depending on your tastes, the other way round). There are also a great climax in an abandoned, downright crazy amusement park that looks inexplicably creepy to me (if it really exists), and a calm performance by Peter Coyote to recommend Slayground.

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