Sunday, 12 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Axe (1977)


Dir. Frederick R. Friedel

Somehow this Halloween season has become a Video Nasties series by accident. Covering Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) was just a coincidence, the others a result of how the choices for films to cover has panned out. So far, my belief from one of the reviews of the nasties I've done, that they have a higher quality to them then their reputation suggests they have, have been true. Maybe I defended something like Frozen Scream (1975) too much, but in comparison to what a Video Nasties list would look like if it was collected films from now onto it, the real list has a lot more variability and quality for all the films on it that are poor. Call it dismissive of today's horror and cult cinema, but it's also baring in mind that the ability now for anyone to make a film, a great thing, comes with a bad side that the technology and distribution allows anyone to make a film. With the older films that populated the video nasties list, only the determined seemed to be willing to make a movie because of the resources and time needed. Axe is one such example, a low American exploitation film which for the most part is the one film that feels inappropriate to have covered for this season. Three criminals, (Jack Canon, Ray Green and director Frederick R. Friedel himself), run from the law, two of them committing brutality for fun against anyone they encounter. They eventually get to a house in the country where the quiet, introverted Lisa (Leslie Lee) lives with her disabled grandfather (Douglas Powers). As they become more forceful, she eventually snaps, leading to incidents that do make Axe appropriate for the season in its gruesomeness.

Like Whispering Corridors (1998), these two drastically different films, of different themes and countries of origins, are nonetheless genre films that are drama heavy, with emphasis on the dialogue and the acting rather than horror, and like the other film, Axe is a lot more compelling than most award worthy dramas because there is no pretence to the material. The dialogue at times is rudimentary, and the story to its end is slight, but there is enough detail and texture to both to make the drama interesting. It's an incredibly short feature film, only sixty six minutes long, and to its benefit, with vibe comparable to fellow Nasty The Last House on the Left (1972), it's many scenes of drama before the titular axe comes into play never become tiresome, and the film is unable to have an flab to it, so everything onscreen and heard is of importance for the drama or the plot. For the most part, the film is a sombre, slower paced work that is very realistic and downbeat in tone. When it gets closer to the breaking point for Lisa, the transition to the final act, the film uses a few moments of unreal imagery, such as an edit showing a bathroom mirror broken with blood, to represent the psychological effect the events are having on the Lisa character. As a film with a minimal cast, and in one environment after the first quarter with the criminals, including a pretty nasty sequence in a grocery store with a female employee, it works as an entertaining, grimy feature that feels like a chamber piece. It never drags its feet along, procrastinating, yet neither does it become paper thin to the point its vacuous. There is enough in each character that they stand out, including one of the criminals being sympathetic, stuck with the others, adding to the conflict as the film reaches its conclusion.

As a nasty it's not shocking in terms of an offensive work. It is pretty grim though instead. The opening scene in a hotel as the criminals terrorise someone, the reasons why never explained, merely establishes their characters as reprehensible killers that sets up the character dynamics. As is the grocery store sequence which is probably the most horrifying moment, still shocking today, as it involves humiliation and an improvised game of William Tell. The actual axe brutalisation is slight, as the film is much more casual and moody in tone, removing any potential bad taste from the material. It takes itself seriously, so the violent never becomes lurid, instead effective when required. That doesn't stop it from being creepy, but through tension, as some inexplicable drops of red are seen on the stairs in a lengthy dramatic moment. The closest to full blown horror is in the final scene, involving dinner and a fireplace, which does have an impact and really freaked me as a viewer, despite the obvious of it but because the concept evoked so much in little actually seen. Altogether Axe works as a subtle, quiet work; a lot of the films on the nasties list, along with the ultraviolent schlock, were surprisingly subtle like Axe when you see many of them, suggesting that horror and genre cinema was as capable between the eras covered in the list, the sixties to early eighties, of subtlety as they were shock and revulsion. I confess that the last time I saw Axe, the first time many years ago, I found it unbelievably dull, but that was in response to a slow, muted style to the work - little gore, emphasis more on the drama, low budget and raw around the edges - that I was not capable of "getting" into from a diet of more lavish or ultraviolent films I was on as a younger adult. I was not able to appreciate films like it through their original contexts, but if seeing these video nasties again here, or the first time, has taught me anything in this season, they have developed characters which shine out, virtues that have been ignored when even covering the nasties decades later when most were unbanned and available.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Axe has moments that take advantage of feeling nightmarish, or part of Lisa's mental collapse, but the whole film is more of a rough toned, slightly mean spirited genre film with more realism and heavy drama.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
Instead it belongs in the camp of fascinating American films that shifted the line between genres and tone from the seventies, those that could be incredibly idiosyncratic in their styles and unique. Axe is a film for the blog, though stuff like this that never intended to be surreal or peculiar would be better served if discussed in another way. Something which might be worth looking into for myself.

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