Thursday, 22 April 2010

Axe (1977)

Country: USA


Axe is a largely innocuous movie that didn’t deserve to find itself in the same company as garbage like Cannibal Ferox (1981) and Gestapo’s Last Orgy (1977) in the early 1980’s. The reason for its banning was no doubt attributable to its title, and one wonders if it had been released in the UK under its original title of Lisa Lisa whether the film would have slipped quietly away into obscurity. Innocuous it is, but it is also a strange little film with a peculiar atmosphere and tone that was unusual for both the horror genre and the Grindhouse method of distribution for which it was designed. It was one of a proliferation of films regionally shot and independently produced in the 1970’s and naturally quite often betrays its amateurish origins (shaky handheld camera work, poor acting etc). However writer/director Frederick R. Friedel (who also plays the bearded Billy in the film) makes good use of his rural North Carolina location and concocts a weird, dreamy, and enigmatic film with an inscrutable and unforgettable protagonist in the shape of Lisa (Leslie Lee).

The film opens in a city apartment as a gang of thugs lie in wait for their victim. They are led by the sadistic Steele (Jack Canon) and also include the repugnant and perverted Lomax (Ray Green) and the conscious of the group Billy. This opening act is probably the most brutal sequence in the film. It shows a cross dresser and implied homosexual having a cigar jammed down his throat before being beaten to death. We never learn the purpose of this sadistic assault nor are we given a single scrap of background detail about this trio. This is something the film continues throughout. Every character is shrouded in mystery, and aside from one or two hints we are not permitted the opportunity to see the motivating forces that lead them to their behaviour. This is of course the result of the budgetary restriction of low budget Grindhouse filmmaking, but its effect on the film is to give the proceedings an eerie timelessness. The gang are soon on their way into the countryside to lay low. Along the way they torment a convenience store worker, before happening on the isolated farmhouse in which Lisa and her mute and paralysed grandfather live. By this point the film is heading into the traditional territory of the home invasion narrative. Naturally we get the obligatory rape attempts. Firstly by Lomax, who is murdered with a cut throat razor and then chopped into little pieces for his troubles. And then by Steele who is axed to death and then stuffed up the chimney (quite how Lisa manages this remains unexplained). Even Billy, who pretty much doesn’t do anything wrong in the film, apart from having fallen in with a bad lot, gets shot dead by the usual late arriving authorities.

Friedel attempts to include some weird symbolism in his film. Lisa breaking an egg at the start of the film, and then feeding her grandfather raw eggs, and then a shot of broken eggs in the fridge seems to suggest some comment about fertility. Lisa is innocent and virginal in her white dress (apart from when it is spotted with blood) and her distant and faraway look seems to stem from a life without normal parental figures. We are never told whether she is mentally ill or not, but her near catatonia hints at a troubled past. In one scene we see her attempt suicide, but this is soon forgotten as she is able to take her frustrations out on the men. The grandfather sits in his chair watching a television that has no reception, totally at the mercy of his granddaughter. A photo of him in an army uniform hints at a proud military past, and possibly gives us a clue as to the fate of her father. The film has a very short running time of about 65 minutes, but despite this it still drags in places. Certain scenes feel padded and unnecessary and one can tell that Friedel included such scenes just to tip into feature length status. The camerawork is very unsteady, with a multitude of close ups, but mercifully no zooms. The lack of dialogue and its stilted delivery only adds to the strange tenor of the movie. One area in which the film excels is in the original music which was composed by George Newman Shaw and John Wilhelm. The use of a simple electronic leitmotif gives the film a creepy resonance and continues something that seems to unite all the films banned as video nasties - impressive synthesised soundtracks.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. Its funny, but reading your comments about this amateurish and obscure horror film made me remember a bit about my movies.

    Ive never been to film school, so Ive learned filmmaking on my own, little by little, mistake by mistake. By watching my movies with an audience, I have learned the importance of keeping the camara steady, and moving it only when the story requires it.

    This is something that Im going to be working on for my next film, framing the shots to perfection, using that tripod and keeping the shots as steady as I can. Of course, there are times when getting up close and personal is necessary, but whenever possible, Im gonna go Kubrick on my next project!

    But still, I appreciate movies like these. They show the love and passion someone must have felt for filmmaking, even if their filmmaking knowledge isnt vast, they still went out there and did it. So kudos to this kind of film for that alone.

    Making a movie, any kind of movie, is like giving birth! But here we are, talking about this obscure horror film, it is still moving about, being seen. Whoever did this, left his mark somehow in the world. I salute it for that alone.

    Its part of the reason why I love films like The Dead Next Door, Darkness or The Deadly Spawn. They were films made by people who simply went out there and did it.

  2. I totally agree! It takes determination and intelligence to see a film through to completion and then to have the fortune to see it distributed must be a great feeling. In that respect I admire filmmakers like Frederick R. Friedel. The film might be amateurish, badly shot and badly acted, but it exists. It remains an object to be viewed and appreciated. The films released in Grindhouse cinemas in the 1970's were by and large terrible films, but I'm sure they were fun to make - and maybe some of the filmmakers made a little money out of it too. I love watching these films as much to see different parts of America, I like these regionally produced films.

  3. You've seen the Basket Case movies? The first one is along the lines of films like Axe. Its got that Grindhouse feel to it. The sequels kind of cleaned up a bit (but not entirely, they are still sleazy and strange) but the first feels like they filmed it right smack in the middle of the dirtiest , scummiest streets of NYC. I like that movie because of that raw feeling it has.

    Theres something about an unpolished, no budget movie that makes it a bit more real for me. More raw somehow. Have you seen Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer? Its a film similar in feel to Basket Case as well. Highly recommend it. Ferrara had a very raw beginning! I reviewed it a while ago!


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