What is in a name. Director Frederick Friedel’s debut film title, Axe!, is the kind of exploitation title doesn’t just insinuate – it screams there will be at least one gruesome murder, probably with a sharp instrument. Its confrontational nature appeals to a base instinct. But Axe! is also the kind of title whose inherent anonymity doesn’t necessarily stimulate one’s imagination. Friedel’s original working title, Lisa, Lisa, suits the themes a bit better by appealing to that universal curiosity with horror pictures. Its repetition invokes a kind of seance, an invocation of a spirit or idea. If one were to go Biblical, any repetition of a name elevates the person to a position of power. It might also allude to a double identity – two Lisas either at odds or in union. Or no identity at all – the loss of the surname, alluding to an orphan, an outcast; one forgotten and dejected. Trapped. So, there is more to Axe! than one would initially assume, and the reason why I chose this special film for October’s Friday the 13th entry. It may be my favorite of the unsung Video Nasties.
That brings up a point. I’ve been doing my best to figure out just why Axe! was considered to be on the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) 39 list – those that were consistently on every iteration of the DPP list, and successfully prosecuted. By any comparative, salacious measure, it is rather tame. Friedel himself in Nightmare U.S.A. says he took the Hitchcock approach by imparting the more gruesome moments to the audience’s imagination – suggesting rather than showing. There is never any moment of an axe and a person ever actually connecting on camera. But Friedel, through clever ellipses and narrative ambiguity, leaves a lot of unanswered questions and manipulates the imagination in unsettling ways. What probably bothered the DPP (I have been trying to figure out just what was edited for release, but can’t at the moment), is the way we assume things about the lead character Lisa. When interviewed about the film, Friedel says the contemporaneous Los Angeles Times review attacked him for allowing so much depravity towards an underage girl (when Leslie Lee starred in the film, she was 22); the U.K. box synopsis says she’s 13 (more proof that the Video Nasty backlash was more about taming the Wild West of distribution at the time than the films themselves). This is another one of those times where the exact age of the character does not necessary matter – what does matter is how Lisa represents youth and innocence, vis-a-vis what she does with this innocence, and what is done to her.
But we do not even get to Lisa until about 15 minutes into the 65 minute feature. We begin on a stakeout with three hired goons (there is Steele: the depraved, dangerous one; Lomax: the seasoned veteran who has numbed himself to his surroundings; and Billy: the inexperienced, naive one still uncomfortable in his own skin). Dressed in the black-suit-black-tie ensemble, their employer is never quite stated. All we need to know is they are professionals in violence and abuse. There are five glorious, inexplicable minutes of their small talk waiting for their target to show up. Here, the reverberations to Tarantino’s similar archetypes in Reservoir Dogs are inescapably strong. When they do shake down and accidentally kill their target in his apartment, it is all Pulp Fiction. When they eventually retreat to hide out in a random stranger’s house (Lisa’s), only to get their retribution, From Dusk til Dawn comes to light. Axe! is an essential fever dream of exploitation film texts.
The three criminals are shown, through their various deeds and dialogue, to be scared and confused man-children in a perpetual state of masculine one-upsmanship; which points to their insecurity. So when they do succumb to torture (especially in an extended sequence at a convenience store with a clerk, so incredibly uncomfortable it could be called refined) or attempted rape, Axe! says these deeds are desperate attempts to assert power when they feel most powerless. It is a remarkable subtext to a 65-minute amateurish film. This creates just a hint of sympathy with these deplorable hitmen, a feeling more subversive than any gore could be.
So when we get to Lisa, Lisa, isolated from society in the secluded southern Gothic house she shares with her invalid “Grandfather”, we are more confused than anything. Lisa is shown emotionally vapid and aloof – when she breaks an egg, she stares at it for a few seconds invoking a Kuleshov-esque mystery to her inner state of mind. Then she chops a chicken’s head off. This off-screen violence is intercut with some her Grandfather in close up staring just below camera. Throughout the film, the Grandfather’s gaze is his expression – he cannot move – and this one expression is connected with violence through ellipsis: with film language, the Grandfather may have summoned the criminals to the house. He later directly witnesses the attempted rape of his young caretaker, and then a murder. When he is not seeing these acts through Axe’s clever editing construction, he’s watching a TV, showing only static. A part of me whenever I watch this film wonders if his paralytic state is self-imposed, a kind of sick restraint – as if through inaction, he is the true villain.
So it is that, God help me, Axe! is of a kind with Nicolas Roeg, Terrance Malick, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and David Lynch’s impeccable distortion of temporal space to access internal and primal states of their characters. When Lisa does finally comeuppance her captors, it feels natural. The criminals, the Grandfather, and Lisa all share a state of depravity, and serendipitously interact in this house in gruesome fashion. When Lisa cuts one of the criminals into pieces to fit into a trunk, another criminal unknowingly helps her lug it up the stairs. When Lisa is almost raped, the Grandfather watches. When the most ‘innocent’ of the criminals, Billy, feels most safe, Lisa puts a ring from a dead man into his soup. Axe! says the heroes and villains are cut, violently, from the same bloody cloth – that perversity hides in the most unexpected of places. It’s actually everywhere.
Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!