Monday, February 20, 2012


If there was ever a film with a misleading title, this is it. Yes, the fellow at the center of the movie goes by that name, and yes, he does some slashing; but he is no Jack the Ripper, and this is not an updated version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That fact alone may have misled some moviegoers, disappointed others, and kept a bunch of folks from checking out this – for want of a better word - fascinating documentary.

So if it’s not about murder and mayhem, what then? Well, it’s about cars―used cars, and an over-the-top used car liquidator named Michael Bennett, a.k.a.,The Slasher.

If you’re of the opinion that all used car salesmen are bottom feeders, preying on the wants and needs of those who can least afford it, this documentary—which could have just as easily been called, Buyer Beware, is not likely to change your mind.

Prior to watching Slasher, I was of the somewhat naive opinion that such salesmen and tactics were reserved for the lowest of the low: small, generally sleazy-looking showroom-free used car lots with names like “Honest Johns”, signs that said, “Low credit – No credit – No problem”, and an inventory full of clunkers dating back to the Dark Ages. So it came as somewhat of a surprise that a well-respected Toyota dealership in the Memphis market had hired The Slasher to put on a three-day sales event. More surprising still, was the fact that the dealership gave the film crew complete behind-the-scenes access to the event.

I came to this film anxious to see how Memphis would be portrayed, and learn a little something about the used car business in the process. It had received several awards, and boasted a sound track full of Stax recordings, thanks to the director’s friendship with Steve Cropper and the music director’s father, who apparently had “connections”.

The idea for the documentary came about at a birthday bash for Chris Kobin, the man who would become the film’s executive producer. Some time during the evening, Kobin happened to mention to director John Landis that some ten years before, he had been a slasher. Intrigued, Landis wanted to know more.

Tale by tale and slash by slash Kobin reeled Landis in with outrageous accounts of super salesmen who would come into town with a suitcase full of fluff, putting on sideshows that drew people in and move cars out. By the end of the night, the director knew he wanted to make a documentary about these road warriors. He even batted around the possibility of putting Kobin in front of the camera to revisit his past, but Kobin’s wife quickly put the kibosh on the idea.

The following weekend, the producer took Landis to an over-the-top themed event in Sacramento that had drawn a crowd of some four-to-five thousand people. “They had a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, go-go girls, [and] cotton candy,” he recalled in a 2004 interview for the A.V. Club. “It was just such Americana, capitalism at its purest, [and] I thought this would be a great subject for a film.”

His first impulse was to draw parallels between these Harold Hill-like pitchmen and politicians, specifically some of our more recent presidents, comparing the things both groups had said to make a sale, get a bill passed, or justify something. All that would change once Landis saw Bennett swing into action. Only the germ of the idea remains in an early 'presidential' montage.

As you might suspect, the slashing community is a small but sturdy group of some fifty or so employees and independent contractors. Apparently two companies "own" the bulk of the business, with Caliber retaining the rights to the word “Slasher” as it applies to car liquidation. Though it is never mentioned in the film, one would assume that by referring to himself as “The Slasher,” Bennett is, or at least was attached to Caliber in some way.

By Landis’ own admission, his decision to feature Bennett had less to do with his potential star power, than the fact that he had an up-coming event in Memphis. “I thought ‘Ooh, Memphis barbecue’” said Landis, in that same 2004 interview.

If, you find this explanation to be a bit absurd, you’re not alone, especially given the fact that the Memphis event was small potatoes compared to the amusement park-like push Landis had witnessed in Sacramento. I personally believe that it was more about getting a dealership to sign on to the project than it was about the joys of a pulled pork sandwich and the chance to―you’ll excuse the expression―pig out.

Either way, the payoff was palatable. Upon seeing the frenetic pitchman swing into action, the director was so captivated that he switched gears (notice the automobile reference), making the pitchman rather than the pitch –and any political comparisons, the focus of the film.

We meet Bennett in his modest Los Angeles apartment, where he is preparing for his trip to Memphis. He is, we see, a family man, who loves his wife and adores his daughter, though he is home but a handful of days a month. We soon learn that he is being brought to the bluff city by a local Toyota dealership, where he will oversee a be all and end-all, come-and-get-it, three-day blowout event designed to move stale merchandise, boost sales and jack-up a sagging bottom line. For this he will be paid some $16,000, with the promise of a handsome bonus if he closes more than 50 sales within that 72-hour period.

He arrives in Memphis with bags full of prizes he will giveaway, and a bunch of faux Montblanc pens for the sales crew. The pens are more props than presents (Gotta look successful), although one has to wonder if their target customer will appreciate the significance of owning what appears to be the real thing.

But no matter, the pens are only a small part of a far bigger picture. As the weekend draws closer, signs, spots and slogans proclaim that The Slasher is coming to town, slashing prices and just about giving away drivable cars for eighty-eight dollars.

Fresh from a successful push in Pittsburgh, Bennett is, as they say, hot to trot. A study in boundless energy, he is a man with a plan―the Energizer Bunny on steroids. He drinks. He smokes. He paces. He roars. He is wired from head to toe, pausing only to call home, down a few brews and have some of that great Memphis barbecue Landis had been dreaming about.

We watch as on the days preceding the sale, Bennett and his crew audition almost-beauty queens to charm the male customers―explaining that, “We don’t want them too pretty, or the wives won’t like them.” The girls who make the cut will spend the holiday weekend smiling, waving, mixing and mingling as they hand out forms allowing the dealership to check a would-be buyer’s credit before he or she has even settled on a car. Later it will become apparent that most of the people who will fill out and sign these forms have no idea what they’re signing.

But in these days before the sale there is work to do, a sales staff to train, and a setting to stage. We watch as Bennett and his team cordon off the lot with yellow “Caution” tape (the kind you see in crime-scene sequences), setting chorus lines of red, white and blue balloons into the air, and creating a code within a code beneath each of the brightly colored oversized prices that have been poster-painted onto the windshield of every car, letting Bennett know just how much the dealership has in it, and therefore how much price he can slice.

It is at this point that we learn that what appears to be the dealer’s cost, is an inflated number designed to deceive even the most skeptical of buyers. In my opinion, the film is worth seeing for this bit of information alone. For while most of us know that in order to stay in business, a sales organization has to make a profit on every sale, we still like to believe that occasionally we beat the system, or at least hacked away at it. That won’t be happening on this lot―at least not while The Slasher is in town. Over time we will see him raising prices in order to cut them, baiting and switching and seemingly taking those who can least afford it, for a ride.

What is perhaps most troublesome here is that the people who brought Bennett in to run the sale appear to embrace his tactics – if only for three days, destroying (at least in my mind) any credibility they might have earned over the lifetime of the dealership. To tell you the truth, I’m amazed that all these years later, they appear to have suffered little if anything from the experience. But I still have to wonder why any sales manager would want to put his dealership up to that kind of scrutiny.

The fact that John Landis was at the helm of the project may have had something to do with it. Landis, after all, is a well-known director, having produced some of the biggest box office draws in the 1980s: films like National Lampoon’s Animal House, Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, An American Werewolf in London and a game-changing video called Thriller. The manager and his superiors may have also felt that, as in the world of show business, there is no such thing as bad publicity. As for future repercussions, they might have believed, as Landis did, that the people drawn to these events weren’t likely to watch a documentary, and it wouldn’t make any difference to those who did. “No matter how much we reveal here, people are still going to buy cars, and still get screwed,” says Landis on the film’s commentary track, adding, “Pretty much like going to Las Vegas. I don’t think people get it. The odds are with the house.”

So much for the adage, forewarned is forearmed. But both the film and the director’s commentary version, are still worth watching, unveiling the strategies some (certainly not all) used car dealers employ to make a sale. Some, like the bait-and-switch tack, have been exposed before. Others, like Bennett’s code-within-a-code and the role the dealer’s finance officer plays, are both fascinating and revealing.

At one hour and twenty-five minutes, Slasherr is a bit long and somewhat repetitive, and not as funny or fantastic as some of its reviewers would lead you to believe. But it is worth seeing, if, for no other reason than to get an inside look at the used car business. It also provides some insight into how a filmmaker’s perspective, concerns and editing choices can influence the way a subject is presented. Landis candidly admits that in the opening hours of the sale, “So many African-Americans showed up [that]...for a moment it was all black,” causing him to fear that it would look like the dealership was exploiting poor black people. Relief came when―in his words, “…poor white people showed up.” A sad revelation, no matter how you look at it.

I have purposely omitted the name of the dealership in this post, as it is not my intention to vilify anyone. Hopefully, in the eight years following the film’s release they have dashed the slash and taken the high road. I am also hopeful that Landis was wrong in his belief that despite any revelations garnered in the film, viewers would keep taking the bait; believing what they wanted to believe, even if it was too good to be true.

Is this the best documentary you’ll ever see? Hardly. But, it is a fascinating look at the belly of the beast, where super pitchmen, like the red white and blue balloons that announce their arrival, are often filled with nothing more than a lot of hot air.