Saturday, January 2, 2016

#222: Axe (Frederick R. Friedel, 1974)

Axe is a very odd low-budget slasher indie from the early '70s, made even odder by the difficulty in parsing out the origins of that oddness. Is the film strange by design or by accident? Does it stumble into its oddball detached artiness by virtue of its makers' lack of filmmaking experience or was this approach a conscious stylistic, formal choice? Either way, Axe is a fascinatingly strange film even though it's not particularly good and even though not much actually happens.
The following plot description makes Axe sound much more conventional than it is, but movies live in the how, not the what. Axe uses a shop-worn '70s horror template -- a degenerate group of criminals on the run who find the wrong place to hide out -- but it bends this template into strange, distorted shapes through genuinely weird editing decisions, character motivations, and omissions of clarity, exposition, and back story. We don't know why any of these people got where they are now or why they make these particular choices.
Filmed in North Carolina, the movie opens with a trio of snappily attired criminals breaking into an apartment and impatiently awaiting the occupant's return home. We know the man they are waiting for is named Aubrey, that he has a closet full of women's clothes even though he lives alone, and that he unexpectedly arrives with another man, but we don't know the connection between these men or why Aubrey is on their bad side. He is not surprised to see them, but he's not happy about it. Two of the three criminals torture and kill Aubrey, and the man Aubrey brought home jumps out the window to his death to avoid the even worse fate he just witnessed. 
Our trio of creeps continues on to a rural convenience store. One of the men, Billy (director Friedel), has a pang of conscience even though he was the one who sat out the killing. He stays in the car while the other two go inside. They bully and terrorize the woman behind the counter, which is a pretty dumb move for guys who are trying to avoid the police. After they tire of their own shittiness, they continue on to an isolated farmhouse. The farm is occupied by a young woman, Lisa (Leslie Lee), and her paralyzed and catatonic grandfather (Douglas Powers). The creeps decide the farm is a great place to hide out for a while. They obviously get more than they bargained for, and the movie's title starts to make sense.
This all sounds like a typical '70s exploitation slasher movie, but writer/director/star Friedel has a highly unconventional take on continuity, narrative, and structure. The whole thing proceeds like a hazy, weird dream. Lisa sometimes seems practical, sometimes deranged, sometimes as catatonic as her grandfather (who is really only old enough to be her father), but we never learn what happened to her parents or how her grandfather became paralyzed and trapped in his own body. Things happen faster than you expect but also at an odder pace, and the whole thing is over in 68 minutes, which includes the five-minute credit sequence and the roughly four to six minutes of shots of Lisa's feet. (Like a surprising amount of filmmakers, Friedel is most likely a foot fetishist.)
I don't know if I like the film, but I wasn't bored. I found this strange thing fairly hypnotic and fascinating, a low-budget artifact that could only exist in the 1970s. I know very little about writer/director/actor Friedel, but he has managed to write and direct two more low-budget exploitation films, Kidnapped Coed in 1976 and My Next Funeral in 2000. I see he's being compared to David Lynch and Terrence Malick online, which is an insane and inaccurate leap, although it shows how hard he is to categorize as a filmmaker. Oddly enough, a Blu-Ray of Axe was released this week, if you want to get weird in high-def. Happy new year, weirdos.

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