Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: E is for Edge of the Axe (1988)

Our rather large body count kicks off with a bang -- well, make that opens with a splat, a really cool and sinister splat -- several of them, actually, as a nurse steers her car into a automatic car wash in the sleepy little mountain town of Paddock, and then waits patiently as the machinery kicks in with the soap and the water and the whirring brushes. But in the midst of all this soggy cacophony, the woman catches a passing glimpse of someone lurking nearby. But as she turns for a closer look to the right, through the obscured rear window, the person she saw managed to circle around to the driver’s side undetected. 

And I suppose one should point out this person is wearing some kind of obscuring rubber mask, featureless, and stark white in color, and is armed with an axe, which they use to shatter the front windshield, giving them a clear shot at the startled nurse, who is subsequently, and rather ferociously, beaten and cleaved to death as the car’s interior is bathed in her blood. And once the deed is done, as the crime scene continues to trundle along until its eventual discovery, the killer manages to escape unnoticed.

Later that night, while a fierce lightning storm rages, this same killer strikes again, terrorizing some poor farmer’s wife as he stalks around the pig pens until seizing one of the animals by the ears. Drawn out by this ruckus, the woman can detect nothing amiss and heads back inside, where she finds the pig’s severed head leaking blood and brains all over her bed. And while this woman, whom the film never even bothers to name, is eventually killed later in nearly the exact same scenario, for now, this near miss was all a setup so we could meet what passes for law enforcement in this community; for when her husband reports the incident the following morning, the loutish Sheriff’s response to this brazen attack is to just ignore it by handing the farmer a quarter, and then brushes him off with instructions to use the currency to “call someone who gives a shit.” Your tax dollars at work, folks. Thus, while his given name as Frank McIntosh (Holliday), we’ll be referring to this guy as Sheriff Hole. Sheriff Ass Hole.

Meanwhile, we’re finally introduced to the nominal hero of the piece, Gerald Martin (Faulks), who has recently moved to Paddock to live with his grandfather. Here, we learn Martin is a tinkerer in electronics, who loves his computer and video games, and makes money on the side repairing appliances and doodads. But Martin’s main source of income, which he spends mostly on the upkeep of his totally boss computer, is working for his buddy, Richard Simmons (Moseley), who runs an exterminating business. And today, they’ve been called out to a local bar where something apparently died up in the rafters and is currently stinking up the joint. And while expecting the culprit to be a dead rat or squirrel, neither Martin, or Simmons, nor the bar’s owner figured on it being a woman’s dead body stuffed into the attic crawlspace.

The corpse is identified as Marie West, a waitress at the bar who hadn’t been heard from in about a week. And while the coroner won’t sign off on this being a suicide like Sheriff Hole wants him to, he is eventually bullied into just “sewing her up and putting her in the ground” as soon as possible; no muss, no fuss. Because god forbid Sheriff Hole from actually doing something about the alarming number of bodies currently piling-up around his town. But, nope. Mr. Move Along, Nothing to See Here, swears this was just another boating accident. I mean, another suicide. And it kinda makes you wonder how he wrote off the body at the car wash, don’t it?

Anyhoo, once they’re cleared from the scene, Martin and Simmons head over to Nebbs’ Bait Shop and Fishing Emporium. Along the way, we find out Martin doesn’t like talking about his past much or his parents, and Simmons is nothing more than a garden variety gigolo, who only married his much older wife, Laura (Shepard), because she’s loaded and hopes to outlive her. Simmons also figures his wife might be having an affair with old man Nebbs, which he uses as a ready excuse to screw around with Nebbs’ older but more age appropriate daughter, Susan (Blackburn). Martin, meanwhile, strikes up a relationship with Nebbs’ youngest daughter, Lillian (Lane), who is back in town for the summer before returning to school in the fall. And hit it off so well they do, Martin makes a gift of his old computer so they can constantly stay in touch with what passed for the internet back in 1988.

And while those two share some confidential bits and bytes, on the other side of town in a noisy juke-joint near the railroad tracks, a Rita Miller (Moro) is called to the phone and agrees to meet up with the caller elsewhere. But as she leaves the bar and crosses the tracks on foot, Rita realizes she’s being followed but then recognizes who’s been stalking her. What she doesn’t realize is the danger she’s in, when the unseen killer whips out a familiar mask and tugs it on before taking several swings at the victim with his trusty axe. 

When the body is found, in several pieces, Sheriff Hole had hoped to write this off as a pedestrian vs. train accident but the location of the body doesn’t jive with this custom theory and the coroner won’t cover for him anymore. And so, Sheriff Hole finally faces the fact a mad-dog killer is loose in his town. Unfortunately for the health and safety of the residents of Paddock, Sheriff Hole, who never met a crime scene he wouldn’t jerk-off, will be the one in charge of solving this mystery. And so, yeah. I’d expect a few more bodies to show up before the identity of the killer is resolved...

As one digs into the history of Eurosleaze filmmaker and earnest provocateur, José Ramón Larraz, one can find copious amounts of reviews, dissertations, and hot takes on his early career and films from the 1970s, where ghastly graphic horror and sensually explicit eroticism met on the graph with films like The House that Vanished (1973), Symptoms (1974), Vampyres (1974) and Stigma (1980). There’s also plenty to read on his farcical sex adventures, The Violation of the Bitch (1978) and The National Mummy (1981). What you won’t find, however, aside from a few fleeting mentions of his late career contributions, is much information or background on Larraz’s two straight-up conventional horror films, Rest in Pieces (1987) and Edge of the Axe (1988), which he shot under the alias of Joseph Braunstein. And while I’ve never seen Rest in Pieces, having finally watched Edge of the Axe for this retrospective, I think I have a pretty good idea why they’ve always gotten the short stick when it comes to expounding on the director’s oeuvre.

Born in Barcelona, Spain, in 1929 to a left leaning family, not an easy thing to be under the Franco regime, Larraz dropped out of college when his father passed away to help support his family as a full time illustrator and comic book writer. Inspired by Tarzan, his cinematic hero, Larraz specialized in jungle adventures. Around 1952, the artist got married and moved to Paris, where he landed a lucrative contract with the King Features syndicate. When the 1960s rolled around, Larraz also dabbled in fashion photography but found the beautiful models too tempting to fool around with as a married man and soon returned to illustrating, where his work started showing up in the United States via Warren’s Creepy and Eerie magazines.

For all of his life, Larraz had also been a passionate film fanatic but his career in filmmaking came about by sheer dumb luck. Seems Larraz was friends with one of the producers on Sergio Leone’s seminal spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and the artist just so happened to be on set the day an extra got sick and couldn’t perform. Thus, Larraz stepped in; and though it was only a bit-part, he was hooked for good.

Around this same time, one of Larraz’s Belgian-based publishers had some money burning a hole in his pocket who also wanted to dabble in film production. Softcore sex films were huge business in Europe at the time, and were even starting to make their way over to America. And so, Larraz punched out a script about a couple of murderous pornographers and their latest victim. When filming commenced, Larraz also wound up in the director’s chair. And while he had no experience whatsoever, he had plenty of enthusiasm and an artist’s eye for composition and an illustrators sense for filling the frame for the most dramatic effect. Beyond that, he freely admits to relying on the crew, especially the lighting technicians and his cinematographer, who helped establish Larraz’s signature look. And once the cheap exploitation film was completed, Larraz used his Italian connections to find a distributor out of Denmark with Sam Lomberg, who released and marketed Whirlpool (1969) around the world as Adults Only, and the rest, as they say, would be Eurosleaze history.

Over his near two decade career one of Larraz’s signatures be it horror, thriller, or comedy, was how the act of sex was integral and moved the plot along as opposed to other adult films and filmmakers, where the sex scenes can be seen as more of a time-out to get the required skin quota in to square things up with the audience while derailing everything else, momentum wise. Edge of the Axe, however, is startlingly chaste; and as a latter day slasher movie cash-in I was kinda surprised by the lack of any T’n’A whatsoever. A lot of grisly violence, sure, but not even one single solitary shower scene or boob shot can be found and ogled. This may be explained away by it’s jumbled production history, as Edge of the Axe was a Spanish-American co-production, which some sources claimed was shot as a TV series or a TV movie, Al filo del hacha, for Spanish broadcast sometime in 1988, which would be later cut together and dubbed over into a feature and released directly to home video in 1989. To me, this doesn’t quite jive, especially with that kind of gory and blunt force trauma content, and feel the whole thing reeks of being a DTHV shot feature all along.

It looks like the film was shot, or at least did some extensive location shooting, somewhere in northern California or Oregon (-- other reviews say it was all shot in Greece). And Edge of the Axe has a strange Twin Peaks vibe to it even though it predates that TV series by almost two whole years; a rural off-kilter keen in both oddball location and quirky characters, enhanced by the screwy, not quite in sync looping of the Spanish actors as we run through the list of possible axe-murder suspects as Sheriff Hole starts to follow up on the Rita Miller homicide. And while not technically a prostitute, Miller kept a little black book filled with the names of all the married men she’d slept with and later extorted cash from -- Sheriff Hole included, who honest to god brags about tapping that piece of tail while her body parts were still being tagged and bagged-up at the crime scene.

And so, while the Sheriff starts running down names in the book to stir-up some spoiled herring gone red, let's stick with the folks we’ve already met because there’s a lot of baggage to sort through there. First we have Lillian, who admits she used to be on a ton of medications but has recently gone off them cold turkey. (Whether these meds were for physical ailments or mental defects isn’t known -- yet.) Lillian also bears some childhood trauma scars concerning a cousin, Charlie, who suffered a catastrophic brain injury after he fell from a swing when she accidentally pushed him too hard and too high. Haunted by flashbacks of the incident, which seem to be getting worse, Lillian has been trying to track Charlie down for several months now since he no longer seems to be at the mental hospital, where her father and uncle swore he was, using Martin’s computer to hack into the hospital records to see where he went but can find no trace of him.

And while digging further, Lillian discovers Martin also spent some time in the same mental ward, and there are ominous clues and cues saying Martin may just be Charlie or the killer or both. For Lillian also finds a file containing the names of all the victims collated with the location and cause of death on their shared computers. And let’s not forget the offhand comment Martin made to Simmons, saying if he asked nicely maybe the axe killer would take out his wife, Laura, next, solving all of his money problems. But, turns out Laura was totally bankrupt due to some bad investments, which her husband recently discovered, throwing some suspicion on Simmons, too, I guess. But there’s also a creepy priest acting creepy, the church organist who keeps vanishing, and then there’s the possibility of Charlie being the killer -- if indeed he and Martin aren’t the same person. And I wouldn’t rule out Sheriff Hole, either. I mean, Maybe there’s a reason he doesn’t want these murders investigated too closely?

And while all this speculating is going on, the killer strikes again, chopping up the farmer’s wife; and again, teaching holier than thou church gossip, Anna Bixby (Heatherly), a harsh practical lesson in judge not lest ye be judged; and again, when the severed head of ...SOMEONE, is found floating in the lake; aaaaaaaaand again, ambushing Laura out on the road, causing her to crash. Her passenger, with whom Laura was having an affair, not Nebbs but the organist, dies on impact, while she manages to limp away but doesn’t get very far before *whack* *splat* *gush*.

I swear a person almost needs a scorecard for Edge of the Axe to help sort through all the characters and help keep the suspects and victims straight, and keep a running tab on who was screwing who since no one actually does any screwing. Not helping matters much is a script written by a quorum of four whose English was obviously a second language, resulting in some pretty preposterous dialogue to make everyone sound more ‘Murican. But all these plot contrivances really don’t matter much once we breach the climax, which hits us over the head with one late twist after another as Lillian feels she has finally found proof that Martin really was Charlie and the killer all along. But before she can do anything with this information, Martin stops by her house with a few accusations of his own.

And, well, turns out Charlie never existed according to Martin, and was just a figment of Lillian’s imagination. See, it was Lillian who fell out of the swing and fractured her skull ten years ago, says Martin, which caused some catastrophic brain swelling, which triggered a constant psychopathic state, making Lillian very unstable and very dangerous, which is why her father had her committed. Charlie isn’t some split personality, she just made him up to distance herself from this other person suffering from these psychotic breaks, not realizing it was herself all along; outbreaks which were kept under some modicum of control with medication once she was deemed fit for release -- medication she’s no longer taking. As for why she killed all those women? And only women, I might add. Seems Lillian was afraid they’d discover her secret as all of them had some ties to the psychiatric hospital she stayed at in some capacity or other. I think. Maybe. Eh, who the hell knows.

Confronted with the truth, Lillian refuses to believe any of this (-- and frankly, so do I), and tries to get away from Martin. And as they scuffle around the house, they eventually tussle over a handy axe. And as this fight intensifies, Lillian manages to break away and flees from her house, just as the Sheriff and his posse arrives. And who called them? No. No. I’m asking you! Whoever or whatever I got five bucks says Sheriff Hole shoots them both just to be safe. And as they arrive in force, they hear Lillian screaming as she flees from the pursuing Martin. And as the sobbing Lillian collapses into Sheriff Hole’s arms, Martin, still holding onto that axe and looking a little suspicious, gets cut in half by the deputy’s shotgun. And as Martin bleeds out, and the Sheriff assures Lillian it’s all over, we see a clandestine smirk from the girl, who just got away with everything.

OK, so, turns out I have a long and sordid history with this film. Well, sort of, but not really. And it all dates back to the early 1990s and the Video Kingdom, my local video rental store that was both awesome and then some. There I was, wondering the Horror aisle, when the VHS box for something new called Edge of the Axe caught my eye. And I will give this to the Forum Home Video VHS release; it had some truly kick-ass cover art, which was complemented by some excellent grue-filled stills on the back. Alas, the film had been checked out. As it was the next time I came into rent something. And the next, and the next time, too. Several months passed, I think I might’ve even put a reserve on it, which was pretty long, but I never did get the damned thing rented and watched before the old VK dumped their VHS stock to make way for DVDs. In fact, I think the rental tape was long gone before then.

From there, I kinda forgot about the film, and the title, but the image of the VHS box still lingered and I tracked down a couple of titles later -- I remember something called The California Axe Murders (1974) and Axe (1974, thinking it might be the same film but, alas, they were not -- though those two films did turn out to be the exact same damned movie. And it wasn’t until a few weeks ago, as I massaged the web, looking for a film that began with the letter E for this nonsense, when Edge of the Axe once more got on my Must See radar. Of course it hadn’t made the digital leap yet, and those old VHS tapes were stupid expensive on eBay. Further digging showed Arrow Video had a remastered release of the film due sometime next year, but that didn’t do me much good right now. Luckily, I knew a guy, who new a guy, who knew a guy, who got me a rip of this film -- thanks, Doc; and so, now, finally, I have seen Edge of the Axe.

Which leaves the question, Was this closure worth the wait. Enh, it wasn’t that terrible. It definitely lacks the usual psycho-sexual razor’s edge and the true doomed delirium of Larraz’s earlier work. One easily gets the sense the director treated this as work for hire, and it's perfunction shows. Still, there are a few flashes of brilliance -- the opening sequence in the car wash is just amazeballs, but nothing that follows can recapture the energy of that first bloody salvo. As a slasher film it’s passable, just so. The plot makes little sense, which is not helped by that desperate Hail Mary of an ending that fell way short of the goal line. The score is fairly effective if not highly derivative. And the only thing really going for Edge of the Axe is the signature look of the killer, with his hooded black rain slicker, axe, and the white featureless mask, giving that contrast a nice spectral quality as he/she moves around in the dark. The film is also very, very graphic as we see the axe impacting the flesh and the resulting explosion of blood and gore, making Edge of the Axe effective enough for those into such things but it’s just not really in service to a whole lot else.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's five reviews down with 21 to go! Up Next: Ever wonder what would happen if somebody took a skeevy pornographic horror movie, gave it a soft reboot, and turned it into an ersatz Lifetime Original Movie? Yes? No? Mabye? Well, tune in tomorrow to find out either way.

Edge of the Axe (1988) Calepas International :: José Frade Producciones Cinematográficas S.A. :: Forum Home Video / P: José Frade / D: José Ramón Larraz / W: Joaquín Amichatis, Javier Elorrieta, José Frade / C: Tote Trenas / E: Barry B. Leirer / M: Javier Elorrieta / S: Barton Faulks, Christina Marie Lane, Page Mosely, Fred Holliday, Patty Shepard, Alicia Moro, May Heatherly

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