Edge of the Axe (1988)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: January 28th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
When it was released in 1988, Edge of the Axe represented the beginning of the end in more ways than one. Not only was the slasher boom that defined the decade dwindling, but director Jose Ramon Larraz was winding down an illustrious career that would culminate with Deadly Manor just two years later. Before turning to the slasher genre in its waning days, Larraz quietly fashioned an unsung filmography boasting the likes of Whirlpool, Symptoms, and Vampyres. And then there’s Edge of the Axe, a goddamned ridiculous and wild hack at making an American slasher movie by way of Larraz’s native Spain. The result is quite something, a rare slasher where the slashing is among the least interesting things going on because you cannot convince me that this is the work of actual humans. We’re perhaps accustomed to slasher movies featuring questionable gaps in logic, phony dialogue, and strange character behavior, but the stuff in Edge of the Axe doesn’t even resister as anything belonging to this planet.
Your first suspicion that something is amiss comes quickly, with the obligatory opening stalk-and-slash sequence to set the tone. It’s a routine that’s been done a dozen times before and since, but, to my knowledge, this is the only one that unfolds in an automated car wash. Consider the arc of the slasher genre: within a decade, it went from the masterfully tense elegance of Michael Myers slaying his sister to this, an asshole in a Shape knockoff mask clumsily bludgeoning some random woman in broad daylight. Truly, I can think of no better introduction for Edge of the Axe, which opens a trans-dimensional warp to Paddock County, a fictional Northern California mountain community that could only exist in minds of the deranged Spaniards trying to approximate what America should feel like.
To their credit, it’s not completely off because Paddock County sure is full of a bunch of dumb assholes. Some of them, like Richard Simmons (Page Moseley, best described as “discount Tom Cruise) are incredibly greedy and sexist to boot. See, Richard married an older woman (Patty Shephard) for her money, leaving him to openly whine about it to his buddy Gerald (Barton Faulks). On his way to his next exterminating gig, he bemoans his wife’s age and looks, admitting that he was more attracted to her stock market portfolio, all while pining over a local barmaid. It’s too bad she recently quit, he laments, before launching into a song about how he’d like to play with her “bodacious tatas.”
He soon discovers that she did not quit, though. The bad news, however, is that the mysterious smell emanating from the bar is her rotting corpse, which was hacked up and stowed away until he stumbles upon it, allowing it to lurch down from an attic in a gnarly display of mangled flesh. It’s the latest in an ongoing killing spree that’s befuddled local officials, who are more worried about keeping up the town’s peaceful appearance than getting to the bottom of it all. The barmaid clearly died by suicide, the sheriff insists, even if that’s obviously impossible. Likewise, other deaths are dismissed as accidents despite the protests of a medical examiner who points out each murder clearly involves a blade of some sort.
In most slashers, that butchery would provide most (if not all) of the highlights. And to be fair, Edge of the Axe offers some delightfully grotesque carnage, including a couple of axe attacks that are unflinching in their brutality. Where many filmmakers cleverly cut around such acts of violence to achieve their gnarly effects, Larraz captures it all in one take, creating the impression that someone is being chopped to death right before our very eyes. It’s an inelegant and blunt approach that’s completely befitting Edge of the Axe, an altogether gangly and gnarled impersonation of an American slasher movie.
However, while the carnage is plentiful, it’s somehow reduced to a footnote amongst the increasingly ludicrous subplots that unfold along the way. Discontent with his marriage, Richard embarks on an affair with Susan (Joy Blackburn), the daughter of the man he suspects his own wife is boning on the side. It gets better: his buddy Gerald—who has an unhealthy obsession with computers but otherwise seems well-adjusted by our meager standards here)—starts a fling with Lillian (Christina Marie Lane), Susan’s sweet younger season and quite possibly the only person who seems downright normal. The two take their relationship to the next level not with sex but with a program that allows them to message each other over their respective computers, leading to some fairly cringe-inducing exchanges.
Usually, this would be the kind of stuff you barely tolerate in exchange for what you’re really here for in a slasher movie. The genre has often operated on the tacit understanding that everyone feigns some interest in the characters so that the slashing has some bit. On some rare occasions, movies genuinely invest in character work that spins into a compelling story; more common are those that just go through the motions and usher characters across the screen to their inevitably gory demise. Then there’s whatever the hell is going on in movies like Edge of the Axe, where nobody in their right mind would consider this “good” character work. And yet, it’s utterly fascinating in its own right because you find yourself watching just to see how awkward, puzzling, and just plain weird it’s going to get.
Dates tersely end with cryptic conversations about how much Lillian and Gerald love their parents; Richard and Susan go boating, careful to avoid both his wife and her father, who might be having a tryst of their own; an entire subplot about a church choir unfolds, apropos of just about nothing; Lillian reveals a traumatic childhood memory that could be the key to unlocking the mystery behind the axe murders; Gerald conducts a solo investigation with his computer because this was 1988, when we all absolutely believed computers were capable of doing anything. It makes for the extremely rare instance of a slasher movie where I wanted everyone to live just so they could carry on with their strange lives and keep exchanging bizarre dialogue. I’m loath to quote any of it because doing so would spoil the unique charms of Edge of the Axe. I will mention that there’s also a recurring upbeat folk song that essentially narrates the events of the film. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard someone croon about women being brutally murdered as a segue to a nice day out on the lake.
We’ve seen this sort of nonsense before, specifically from Spain even, as that land blessed us with the likes of Pieces and Slugs, which is the sort of company Edge of the Axe can claim. While it doesn’t reach the delirious heights of that film because of its mostly mundane slashing, it features the same kind of eccentric energy that makes it a singular experience. Just when you assume you’ve seen it all from slashers or even Eurohorror as a whole, something like this is finally unearthed and rewires your brain all over again. At this point, I would say there are few things in life more rewarding than stumbling across a cult object that delivers like this. I always knew I had more room in my life for unseen slasher movies, but I didn’t know I needed one where a dude tries to thwart someone in a hairless knock-off Michael Myers mask with the help of a talking computer program.
Edge of the Axe is one of those immediately intriguing titles that you earmark in your brain in the hopes that it’ll eventually surface with a legitimate release. For whatever reason, it’d been noticeably absent even from DVD for the past two decades until Arrow finally released it earlier this year on Blu-ray. They gave it their customary restoration, meaning it looks and sounds better than it has since its theatrical release, and outfitted the disc with tons of extras, including a pair of audio commentaries. One features Faulks and moderator Matt Rosenblatt, while the other features the crew from Hysteria Lives. Faulks also appears in a newly-filmed interview, as does Moseley and effects artist Colin Arthur. An image gallery and the film’s trailer fill out the release, which also boasts a reversible cover art featuring a newly-commissioned piece from Justin Osbourne and the original poster art.
Lucky folks will also recognize the latter from the VHS tape that may have graced their fine rental establishments years ago. Either my store didn’t have it or I simply overlooked it, but I am glad to rectify this glaring omission in my slasher canon all the same. More importantly, Arrow has been doing some fine work in highlighting Larraz’s career: between this release, Deadly Manor, and the Blood Hunger box set, contemporary audiences have plenty to enjoy from this unsung filmmaker who was equally capable of helming dreamy vampire erotica and cut-rate slasher nonsense. Get a man who can do both, as the kids say.
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