Sight unseen, Axe was shaping up to be one of my favorite Video Nasties -- it already had me at its 67-minute running time. But what really whetted my appetite was the critical love letter to its director, Frederick Friedel, featured in Stephen Thrower's incredible Nightmare USA (the book devotes an entire chapter to Friedel's limited career). For those unfamiliar with this massive tome on the subject of independent American exploitation of the ‘70s - with an emphasis on the obscure - this is essential reading, folks. It's a humongous compendium of reviews, photographs, original interviews and analysis that works as great investigative journalism, and as a critical thesis of a kind. Besides, Thrower's taste is great; his ability to pan through the muck for gold nuggets and recognize the beauty in some malformed, stillborn rape-revenge flick is commendable, and not easily counterfeited.
One of the recurrent motifs in his book is that the exploitation swamp of the era is actually a fertile breeding ground for talent, perhaps one more worth exploring than the cinematic savannas of mainstream film. I would add, with the death of drive-ins and grindhouses, we also lost a place where a young filmmaker could cut his teeth, practice his craft (with relatively low barriers to entry, and even lower expectations), and - in a distinction that remains key today - still have the pleasure of having made a movie that’s seen by people. The final results of their work still played on 35mm, in a theater. You could even have a premiere! I can't help but think there’s something inherently demoralizing about making a film that disappears into the world, as but a piece of circular plastic, where the filmmaker never gets to see an audience watch it together - or, even worse - their film only streams, going out to points unknown like a message in a bottle.
This is probably one thing that appealed to Thrower about Friedel. An ambitious, extremely young director (....) making a film on $25,000 of family loans and on an eight-day schedule, working with his limitations. Sure there's sadism and kicks, but his studious love of Polanski, his strong frames and clean images, and genuine desire to evoke an atmosphere all make Axe rise a little above. At the end of the day, this is a familiar story - but there are other qualities that make Axe a touchstone of muted Seventies oddness.
There's a sense of desolation to Axe's tiny landscape that works well with its limitations: the barren trees, the gothic farmhouse. Single images of a headless chicken lying starkly on a kitchen table, or a woman feeding her mute grandfather raw eggs closely meet with the muteness of our "heroine," a potential victim (and probably victimizer) whose isolation may be hiding a lingering madness. While blood itself is a pretty dull visual motif for a horror film - and I'm not usually a fan of that off-color, mixed-textured paint they used in most early gore films - Friedel finds a way to concoct a nice rhyming visual, as ketchups and tomato soups are constantly mixed up with the “real deal," in ways that are surprisingly humorous and affecting.
But, you know what really gets our ‘70s horror goat going? Creepy girls with long, straight hair. Why do scary girls always have long, straight hair, and why do we love them so much? The evocation of pubescent sexuality and maidenhood - think Rapunzel - seems to mix with a kind of wildness if the length is too long; split ends and split psyches just go together. I guess I feel like I need to pull a Jungian thing in on this one, ‘cause this stuff goes way back - just think about the tradition in Japanese ghost stories alone.
Take a gander at these for a second:
LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH
HAUNTING OF JULIA
THE MANSON GIRLS
I saved the Manson Girls for last (love those clasped hands!), because I can't help but think that the haunted hippy thing left a long shadow on ‘70s horror. That might partially explain the fascination. Well, Axe has a keeper in Leslie Lee. A young Friedel became quite enamored with his heroine, and purportedly had a brief sweet affair.
Oh, and as for Nastiness - there isn't really much here in that department. One of the pleasures of our screening last night was a visit from David Gregory, co-founder of Severin Films, whose previous DVD label had released Axe in the UK. He had a lot of first-hand knowledge about the original Nasties panic to share with the crowd; as a teenager in London, David grew up "swapping nasties" on the schoolyard (I told him he should reconsider the phrase, or there might be a misunderstanding). All of these films have great resonance for a British horror fan of his generation, so he proudly re-released Axe in the 90s - and met with his own bizarro world experience. Apparently, when he resubmitted Axe to the BBFC (under a different title, hoping to sneak it by), the film was given a rating of "15": the equivalent of our “PG-13." It was clearly a title that had just gotten banned in all the original ‘80s Nasties confusion, probably for having a scary name as much as anything else.
Once in their system, the BBFC immediately recognized Axe as a "nasty," and the law required that something be cut. Because, you know, otherwise they would have had to acknowledge there was nothing objectionable there in the first place, and that they were wrong the first time around. But when the censors went over Axe, they couldn't come up with anything to cut! Eventually they settled on just a brief thirteen seconds to remove. Which thirteen seconds those were, however, David wouldn't reveal at the screening.
‘70s Cool-Meter: 9