Axe | Varied Celluloid

Axe

Posted by Josh Samford On October - 27 - 2011
Review by Prof. Aglaophotis


Axe (1977)
Director: Frederick R. Friedel
Writers: Frederick R. Friedel
Starring: Leslie Lee, Jack Canon and Ray Green



The Plot: Our story begins with three criminals: Steele, Lomax and Billy. Steel and Lomax are two well-dressed violent thugs; while Steele is the leader and Lomax is the wheelman, Billy is just along for the ride. One night, after beating a man to death, the three take off to hide from the authorities until the heat blows over. They drive into the countryside and seek shelter in the farm house of Lisa and her grandfather. Lisa is a quiet teenage girl looking after her equally quiet wheelchair bound grandfather. The three men settle in with their trigger fingers ready. While a violence-shaken Billy clearly wants to escape from his cohorts, Lisa finds herself hiding behind lies and preparing for the worst as she tries to defend herself from the two violent men with her only moral support being her own twisted psyche.

The Review
I sometimes wonder if the days of the Herschell Gordon-Lewis/Drive-In Horror movies should have really died out. I know I’m not the only person who appreciates such styles of film, and I know others in the modern day have emulated the ‘70’s Drive-In Horror movies as well. However, there’s this rare Gothic feel to some of those movies I haven’t seen in what feels like forever; the kind of rural, psychological atmosphere that is captured with the help of a creepy, yet attractive, Southern State home and an equally creepy and attractive lead female. Such an atmosphere is captured in movies like Kiss of the Tarantula, Don’t Open the Door and today’s film, the surprisingly brutal Axe. Unfortunately, while present, the atmosphere is quickly lost due to the poor writing and editing choices… and the fact that this is a ‘70’s Drive-In Horror film.

Axe is a functional, yet oddly arranged movie that has a fittingly dark, bleak personality. Our main characters consist of three criminals who eventually meet up with our heroine, Lisa, and the events that transpire before and during the encounters makes for some top-notch exploitation. The movie opens with what can only be described as a Mafia style Gay Bashing, which is shocking in itself but is intensified given the build-up and well-shot brutality of it all. I have to say, Axe has its share of subtle but disturbing, and sometimes even vile, imagery. There’s one part where Lisa slaughters a chicken and she keeps its headless body near the sink for a really long time. The last shot we see of that sink, after the mess Lisa makes out of it, is enough to make me cringe just thinking about it. The director really played up the dark grittiness within the movie, and I honestly can’t help but commend him for it. This guy took his characters, found his actors, looked at the settings and said: “How can I make this movie disturbing as Hell?” The characters in the movie are all pretty memorable too, especially considering how sadistic they are.

What I love about the main character Lisa is that we don’t get into her back story. There’s a lot of unknown stuff about her, like why she’s alone with her grandfather, how she makes a living in the house (I’ll bet she lives off of grandpa’s Veteran/retirement pay), where her parents are, why she’s so messed up or what drove her that way. Lisa is one big mystery, and it makes her a scary presence here as intended. Played by little known actress Leslie Lee, Lisa is played convincingly enough as a responsible, but clearly insane, girl in a bleak mundane world. There’s only one instance where we remotely get into Lisa’s perspective and it’s probably the best, yet oddest, scene in the movie. The scene I am speaking of shows her locking herself in the bathroom, and just staring at herself in the mirror.

The characters of Steele and Lomax are very entertaining, and both are surprisingly well acted. The two are violent, well dressed, heavy smoking, perverted bastards who bring chaos with them everywhere they go. Now, a bad actor could make these villains seem cartoonish, and their actions would simply seem like feeble excuses for the audience to hate them. Jack Canon and Ray Green on the other hand come across as genuinely intimidating thugs and disgusting criminals, yet they manage to be lively characters in the process. They kind of remind me of the two thugs at the beginning of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.

Billy, on the other hand… well, he’s no Junior Stillo. Played by the movie’s director, Billy is supposed to be the gentle thug starting out fresh in a life of vague crime, and not liking it much. However, it’s hard to sympathize with the kid: He shows very little emotion and despite trying to sound concerned ends up sounding bored throughout the movie. He has some physical range, but he doesn’t do much beyond sitting around. It’s like watching James Franco play a heartfelt, family-first scientist; the character depth is there, the actor just isn’t selling it. Maybe if the actor was younger it would be more effective, or maybe it’s the beard matched with that silly afro wig, dunno. I will say though, Billy is his most convincing as a character near the end of the movie when he finds out what happened to one of his cohorts. It’s a realistic verbal moment correlated to a mental breakdown I always like to see in Horror movies and the director plays it fairly well.

The cinematography isn’t too bad, as there are a lot of good shots and imagery. There are moments where the camera bobs too noticeably, however, and there are a lot of dark spots where the lighting fails to elucidate. The movie has an easy pace to it, but the flow is broken up by awkward editing choices. In one scene, Steele and Lomax are eating in the kitchen but Billy runs out. The two chase after him as he runs around the barn with some urgency in their actions. The next scene after that is of Billy and Lisa in the house, with Billy calmly apologizing to her. That scene is quickly followed by all five characters in the TV room. It would’ve been more efficient if they had simply faded out at the end of every scene to tell us that some time elapsed. It kind of reminds me of the transition in Hell of the Living Dead where Lt. Mike London’s squad jump from a completed mission in Spain to a parachuted jeep in New Guinea: new scene, just like that! It’s also funny how useless that scene is, because Billy’s clothes change color as he runs away!

I’ve called this movie violent, but it never goes as far as most Herschell Gordon Lewis movies. The gore effects really come down to just fake blood, off-screen hacking and one dead chicken. All of which is fine until we reach a scene that actually requires some gore effects, but instead we see a re-used shot of the now dead character from when he was being killed. And I’m not talking Tom Savini gore requisites here, that shot could have easily just been of the actor sticking his head out of fake blood and torn clothes! Also, I love how the back of a character’s neck is slashed with a knife, but it has the same affect as though the knife cut their throat. It’s especially funny how the slashed character screams multiple times in the middle of the night, and this brings NO attention to the sleeping criminals.

The soundtrack can be a little annoying at times due to its choice instruments. The title and main theme of the movie consist of some kind of flat wind instrument that gets painful to listen to, fast. In some cases, the instrument makes some of the subtly weird moments of the movie sour, like when Lisa is caring for her grandad. Sometimes even the most intense bongo drumming, or triangle tapping, sounds right, but is usually off cue. Overall though, the soundtrack manages to be effective throughout with its combined use of a rattling tambourine, thudding bongos and bass synth tone. An attempted rape scene is made especially hectic and frightening with the simultaneous clash of every instrument.

The only genuine problem I found with this movie is the abrupt and rather out of place ending. It comes up out of nowhere, offers no closure and only serves to raise more questions than the movie needs; in context, it feels like the kind of ending Coleman Francis would come up with. Hell, S.F. Brownrigg could write a better ending complete with all the lacking closure and lingering questions at the end. The movie itself is only 68 minutes long and the movie creeps past the sixty minute mark due to the extra long opening and ending credits. Was it really that hard to come up with a cohesive ending to this??


The DVD
But oh, Axe just wouldn’t be complete without some extras, would it? Brought to us by Something Weird Video, the movie comes packed with theatrical trailers for the movie under its several alternate titles (the funniest has got to be the one for Lisa, Lisa) as well as trailers for other movies. Oddly enough, the movie also comes with two Archival Shorts, one of which you’d expect to see on MST3K. Also, this is a Double Feature DVD. Axe precedes a J.G. Patterson movie called The Electric Chair with a similar runtime as Axe. Now if this were any other collection of Short Films, such as on the 2-Disc Limited Edition of Driller Killer, I’d comment on them, but those movies didn’t last 80 minutes, nor did they feel like an eternity to watch. I’m going to have to review The Electric Chair another day… whoo.


The Conclusion
Honestly, you could do a lot worse than watching Axe, maybe even buying it: it’s pretty well shot, decently played, violent and even psychologically creepy at times. I’d recommend it over at least one modern movie released this year based off a classic ’70’s film franchise, but the null writing talent rears its ugly head too often to get a full, hearty recommendation.




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