|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 13 July 2004|
The title of “Slasher” automatically brings to mind unkillable fiends armed with knives. In fact, a chainsaw does put in an appearance, but this funny, crafty documentary is not about serial murderers but rather, of all things, used car salesmen. Specifically, “Slasher” is about Michael Bennett, a gun-for-hire rainmaker of the universe, called a “slasher” because he is brought in by dealerships all over North America to stage three-day price slasher events.
There is no narration in “Slasher” – the subjects all speak for themselves. Bennett, a growly-voiced workaholic who can talk up a storm, says he thinks of the event as “a show, not a sale.” He and his crew – including a deejay who travels with him, playing tunes that set the mood on the car lot – talk to the staff at Chuck Hutton Toyota in Memphis, instructing them on everything from methodology to mindset to how to get customers to agree to a credit check (just have them sign an agreement with fine print at the bottom that authorizes a search). Bennett is overwhelming but not slick – he doesn’t have the smarminess we associate with used car salesmen. One of his sales gimmicks is the “$88 car.” He says that, at this price, if the car can be driven off the lot, the customer has gotten a good deal. In economically depressed Memphis, of course, even $88 is a disappointment for a car that will take you no further than home, but Bennett doesn’t come off as mean-spirited. He’s so forceful that it seems that people fall into line around him because they’re not sure how to counter him, and he’s certainly got a masterful grip on the concept of situational ethics, but he’s not a monster. One of the most intriguing things about “Slasher” is the way it shows us how Bennett makes sense to himself. He has a loving family life that, in what we’re shown here, seems as genuine and healthy as any we might imagine. The biggest sign that Bennett’s job gets to him, with its borderline rationalizations, long hours and days away from home, is his open and prodigious drinking. (There might be a whole other movie to be made about how anybody can function as effectively as Bennett does with this much alcohol cycling through his body.)
Director John Landis follows not only Bennett but also the other salesmen and the customers, creating a fascinating look at an environment most of us have contact with at some point, but few of us know much about. Used car salesmen have become synonymous with people who will sell anything for the purpose of making a sale, regardless of outcome – Landis says in the commentary that his original idea for “Slasher” was to juxtapose the slashers with current political figures, but the more he explored Bennett’s world, the more it became compelling in its own right.
The DV video of “Slasher” is so sharp that we quickly forget the medium – this looks like a theatrical film, not “Blair Witch Project.” Although “Slasher” is in stereo, the sound mix is big and beautiful, with only a few instances where the digital sound gets congested – in Chapter 11, when Bennett and his crew become lost in the car, the volume on their yelling gets so loud that the mic starts to fuzz, but otherwise, the dialogue is very clear. Landis uses the Memphis background as justification to brace the soundtrack with a ton of great soul music from the likes of Sam & Dave, Rufus & Carla, Eddie Floyd, Mable John, the Mar-Keys, Steve Cropper, Rufus Thomas, the Baracudas, Windy Rine, Albert King, Booker T and the MG’s, the Bar-Kays and Otis Redding. Seeing Rine’s “Bar-B-Q” laid over a sequence of girls dancing and the sales crew enjoying their meal in Chapter 9 is an especially apt application of song to image. In Chapter 10, a potential customer wows the sales force – and us – with a soaring, happy rendition of “Amazing Grace.” It’s one of those moments that would feel weird in a narrative movie but seems totally joyous here.
Extras include an audio commentary track with Landis, producer Chris Kobin, line producer Gary DePew and editor Martin Apelbaum, which feels like a continuation of the movie, simply adding another layer of perspective to the proceedings. Deleted scenes likewise feel like part of the larger whole, rather than something set aside that didn’t fit. The IFC “making-of” short is agreeable, though it doesn’t tell us much if anything we don’t know from the film and commentary combination.
Intriguingly, “Slasher” seems to be compared to narrative films – from “Glengarry Glen Ross” to “Used Cars” – as much or more than to other documentaries. It has the momentum of fiction, but although it has been shaped from over 106 hours of footage to a lean 85 minutes, it doesn’t overtly engage in fiction’s tendency to demonize, spoof or ennoble. As in reality, but not so often in films, we understand why everyone acts as they do. “Slasher” feels like a slice of especially hectic, intense, sometimes sad and often scabrously funny life.