Axe/Kidnapped Coed Double-Feature Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
For most of his career, Frederick R. Friedel languished in obscurity. His claim to fame was a pair of extra-low-budget exploitation quickies – Axe (aka: Lisa, Lisa, California Axe Massacre, and The Virgin Slaughter) in 1974 and Kidnapped Coed (aka: Date with a Kidnapper, House of Terror, and The Kidnap Lover) in 1976. Both films appeared derivative on their surface and were largely dismissed by fans and critics alike as they wasted away on the drive-in circuit. Then, the home video market began to kill off the grindhouses and drive-ins and, soon enough, Friedel’s movies found their way into living rooms across the world on VHS tape. But, even then, reevaluation really didn’t take hold until Axe was named a Video Nasty and banned in Britain as part of the Video Recordings Act of 1984. Suddenly, every horror fan in the UK had a check-list of these must-see atrocities and (assuming they wrote it out alphabetically) Friedel’s feature debut was three from the top. This fascination with Video Nasties eventually led a young genre writer named Stephen Thrower to discover Axe and grow into Friedel’s biggest cheerleader. Countless articles, documentary appearances, and a book later – Nightmare USA (FAB Press, 2007), which spends twenty double-panel pages on the auteur’s films – Thrower almost single-handedly managed to turn the tide of opinion on Axe and Friedel’s second (and, until pretty recently, final) film, Kidnapped Coed.
Depraved killers on the run find solace in an isolated farmhouse, where they hold a young woman, Lisa (Leslie Lee), and her invalid grandfather hostage. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
Before I’d even heard of the Video Nasties or read anything by Stephen Thrower, I rented Axe under its alternate title California Axe Massacre, because the Malibu Video ‘big box’ VHS caught my eye with its title and tagline, which promised “At last...total terror!” The claim was perhaps too grand and my younger attention span was perhaps too short, because I dismissed it as yet another cash-in on Wes Craven’s genre-re-defining rape/revenge thriller, The Last House on the Left (1972). I was half right. Axe really is designed as a Last House cash-in with an emphasis on the home invasion aspects of the rape/revenge subgenre, itself spawned by Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). Fortunately, like many (most?) of the movies that Craven’s film inspired, Axe is actually a better, more satisfying experience. It doesn’t have the raw immediacy of Last House, the nerve-shattering cruelty of Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), or the political subtexts of Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders (Italian: L'ultimo treno della notte, 1975), but what Axe lacks in visceral thrills and thematic meat, it makes up for in ethereal, dreamy imagery. I’d call it an arthouse version of Last House, but that would actually be Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), which was the film that Craven’s had ripped off himself.
The one post-Last House and Straw Dogs exploitation revenge thriller that best reflects and contrasts Axe’s specific structure is Robert A. Endelson’s racially-charged Fight for Your Life (aka: I Hate Your Guts, 1977). Both films feature early scenes of criminals causing mayhem at a small town grocery store before retreating to an isolated home where they take advantage of and torture a Black family who fights back. Stylistically, the two films have little else in common – Axe is largely internalized, esoteric, and oddly unpredictable experience, while Fight for Your Life is an expressionistic, hyperactive, and formulaic crowd-pleaser – but it says something about their similarities that they both ended up on the BBFC’s original Video Nasties list. In fact, all of the movies I’ve mentioned here – Last House, Straw Dogs, I Spit on Your Grave, Night Train Murders, Fight for Your Life, and Axe – were at some point officially banned on home video in the UK (Straw Dogs didn’t make the final Nasties list, but had been previously banned).
This leads me to the question I inevitably ask myself in regards to every Video Nasty I review: did it deserve to be banned? Was Axe depraved and violent enough to garner outlaw status? It certainly doesn’t in terms of actual on-screen viscera and carnage, but it’s easy enough to understand why its tone and ideas upset the censors. The film opens with a brutal beating that is mostly shot from the victim’s point-of-view, which forces the audience to identify with the pain and fill in the visual gaps. Soon after, there’s an upsetting sequence where the baddies psychologically torture a convenience store clerk, forcing her to disrobe, pouring Coca-cola on her (still covered) breasts, and playing ‘William Tell’ with a gun and a bottle of ketchup. Later, the most revolting of the thugs attempts to rape Lisa (the main character). Frieidel fixes the camera on her face during the ordeal, again leaving the intricacies of the assault to our imaginations. The bloodiest, most objectionable scene follows directly after, as Lisa slashes her attacker’s neck with a straight razor, drags his body to the bathtub, and chops him into pieces completely off-camera (Friedel does his best Hitchcock impression and cuts away with every chop). She dispatches with the other home-invaders in similar ways, but the violence continues to occur just out of frame. More than anything, I think that this is a case of the director’s amateurism disturbing the censors more than the actual content. Axe doesn’t follow any set rules of filmmaking – edits are non-linear, the performances are unrefined, the plotting is tenuous, and the camera angles are sometimes completely absurd. Yet, there’s still an undeniable confidence that beams from the film and the irrationality of its success was probably perceived as “dangerous.”
As I mentioned earlier, Axe was a pretty big deal on VHS. It was banned in the UK and the US tape was fitted with a giant, eye-catching box. It was subsequently released on 1.33:1 US DVD via Something Weird Video as part of their Harry Novak collection and on 1.33:1 UK DVD via 4 Digital Media. Severin has rescanned the original negatives in 2K for the film’s Blu-ray debut. This restored version is also presented in an expanded 1.78:1 aspect ratio (and 1080p, obviously), which brings up questions as to the film’s ‘preferred’ AO. Imdb.com lists 1.85:1 as the theatrical AO, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The Blu-ray is, in fact, not cropped closer on the top & bottom of the frame and even has some extra information (sometimes including the camera gate). In addition, the DVD version was slightly horizontally squeezed. The only advantage the DVD has over this new scan is the slightly warmer colors, but this is only noticeable when you’re viewing image captures side-by-side. The 1080p image is much tighter and cleaner than any previous version. Textures are only slightly marred by grain and minor posterization effects. Dynamic range is impressive and lines are sharp without notable compression noise. Besides the marginally whiter/softer colours, hues appear pretty natural, overall, but there are minor discrepancies and some chemical pulsing throughout the film. Darker scenes tend to appear somewhat faded, including orangy skin tones and greenish black levels. There is plenty of artifacting all throughout the film, but nothing outrageous or distracting (mostly white specs, slight chemical staining, a little frame shake, and a few cigarette burns).
The original mono sound is presented in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The film’s low budget and Friedel’s strange choices ensure that this track can’t compare to more boisterous efforts, but the tidiness of the noise makes for an even-keeled listening experience. Not surprisingly, a lot of sound was added in post – a fact that Friedel uses to his advantage as he overlaps the noises from different locations, like when the droning sound of Lisa’s television extends to scenes of the bad guys driving to her house. The quality is inconsistent between the ADR’d/foley’d/looped noises and the set-captured sound, but there isn’t any major distortion to speak of. The music, which is credited to George Newman Shaw and John Willhelm (who, according to the commentary, were both killed in a car accident a year after working on the film), is the track’s strongest element, even though it doesn’t come into play all that often. The score was composed and performed with keyboards and various percussion instruments. The tracks are clear and neatly separated.
Kidnapped Coed (1976)
Sandy (Leslie Rivers), the teenage daughter of a wealthy family, is kidnapped from the boarding house she calls home by a small-time criminal named Eddie (Jack Canon). While on the run, the two form a perverse relationship. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
Friedel's second film was shot directly after the first (literally the same year, despite the two-year span between release dates) with some of the same cast and crew. Whereas Axe took inspiration from home invasion and rape/revenge pictures, Kidnapped Coed was his interpretation of the Bonnie & Clyde story or, rather, the Bonnie & Clyde myth, as it is usually portrayed on film. In Friedel's version of the story, the star-crossed lovers are stymied not by the police or rival criminals, but the trials and everyday psychopaths that inhabit the Friedel-verse – a place so horrible that falling in love with your kidnapper is the only sane thing to do. After all, without him, you’d be at the mercy of all of the free-roaming rapists and pitchfork-wielding Santa Clauses. Kidnapped Coed is a considerably more obscure movie than Axe (I was completely unaware of it until I read Thrower’s book), probably because the distributors didn’t know how to sell. It was usually delegated to the bottom half of a double-bill and advertised as either a horror movie or sexy thriller, seemingly because those were the kinds of movies that Harry Novak’s Boxoffice International Pictures knew how to sell. It’s too bad, because Bonnie & Clyde movies were pretty popular in the ‘70s, beginning with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), naturally, and continuing with Terrence Malick’s dreamy Badlands (1973), Steven Spielberg’s Sugarland Express (1974), and Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972).
Axe is the more interesting and unique film, but Kidnapped Coed shows significant growth on most technical levels. It includes ‘regular movie stuff,’ like tracking shots, linear editing, palpable suspense, and sure-footed performances. The screenplay has more meat on its bones, the characters have more, erm, character, and there are actually a couple of unexpected and sometimes even funny turns in the plot. Probably best of all, there’s enough story to fill a feature runtime, so there isn’t nearly as much filler. The sexual violence is actually a lot more pronounced and disturbing here than Axe. Again, the camera mostly fixes on the actress’ face while the deed is done, but, this time, there is no question that the victim is being violated and no question of the terrible psychological damage the rape causes. Though graphic violence is still obscured by cuts and framing (the production clearly couldn’t afford squibs, because the gunshots produce imaginary wounds), I suppose that Kidnapped Coed would’ve been the more ban-worthy movie, had it not been so obscure at the time. I also suppose that dramas didn’t tend to make the Video Nasties list too often. This is certainly a more conventional affair than Axe with legitimately great performances from Leslie Rivers (who bears a passing resemblance to Sissy Spacek in Badlands) and Jack Cannon, but the director’s signature practices – strange camera angles, long silences, and delightfully random cutaways – are still prevalent enough to make one wonder what might’ve happened, had Friedel's career taken off. Could he have continued honing his technical skills as he refined his eccentricities? Were we robbed of a uniquely American cinematic voice? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly worth further investigation.
Kidnapped Coed spent almost its entire North American distribution life at the bottom of a double bill. First, it was in drive-ins and second-run theaters. Then it was paired with Irvin Berwick’s Hitch Hike to Hell (1977) on BFV Home Video’s VHS release and Something Strange Video’s DVD. Now, it’s paired with Axe for Severin’s Blu-ray. Anyway, like its sister film, Kidnapped Coed has been scanned in 2K and the resulting 1080p image is presented in 1.78:1. Again, the DVD was 1.33:1 and, though I don’t have that disc on hand to make comparisons, I imagine that it was cropped and squished (either way, the framing here looks very nice with no head or foot room issues). Generally speaking, this is a more consistent-looking transfer than Axe, at least in terms of color quality and overall detail. It has slightly fewer artifacts and slightly tighter patterns/textures (there is a flashing effect towards the end of the film that the filmmakers claim was a problem with the original material). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound is a bit busier than Axe, because the movie itself is a livelier, more action-packed affair. There’s less ADR and foley this time, so the sound quality is persistent throughout. The slightly tinny and sometimes muffled quality is softened by the fact that there’s basically no high end distortion or cracks (a few scenes do have this problems). Shaw and Willhelm once again supply the music, which is as crisp and neat as its Axe counterpart.
Axe and Kidnapped Coed commentaries with Friedel, production manager Phil Smoot, makeup artist Worth Keeter, and production assistant Richard W. Helms – These two new commentaries are busy and eclectic. Friedel is more or less in charge of both tracks, but doesn’t take total control of the conversation. Also, moments when the discussion wains into yammering about the quality of performances aside, every person involved is able to apply their personal expertise at some point. Extra points for the sheer quantity of soda (beer?) cans being opened in the background.
Blood Brothers (1:29:10, HD) – As if both of Friedel’s official ‘70s era releases weren’t enough, Severin has also included Blood Brothers – a third movie that the director concocted using footage from both Axe and Kidnapped Coed. Though technically made in hopes of recouping some of the money that Friedel lost when Harry Novak gave him a bum distribution deal, it’s almost as if he made his own fan film that connected elements from his previous work and, as such, is pretty fascinating. The idea behind this 2003 experiment is that actor Jack Cannon portrays a lead antagonist in both movies, so why not pretend they characters are twins, separated at birth, and embarking on simultaneous crime sprees? The footage looks pretty good, aside from the few scenes exclusive to this movie, which were culled from a VHS source. It was seemingly composited using Severin’s 2K scans (there are more compression effects, probably because space was at a premium by the time they added the third feature).
Blood Brothers commentary with Stephen Thrower – Apparently, this commentary was actually recorded for a pseudo bootleg DVD-R version of Blood Brothers that fans put together with the help of Friedel. It apparently had a limited release with some copies of Nightmare USA. Thrower uses this track as an excuse to discuss both movies extensively and is in typically fine form.
At Last... Total Terror!: The Amazing True Story of the Making of Axe & Kidnapped Coed (1:01:40, HD) – A sweet and nostalgic retrospective look back at the making of both films with the cast & crew. It’s a nice mix of talking heads, still slides, footage of the filmmakers revisiting locations, and clips from the movies (as well as other movies that the crew and distributors worked on). There is, naturally, some overlap with the three extensive commentary tracks, but lots of new info, too, including a more in-depth description of how Harry Novak effectively stole the films from Friedel and the story behind this Blu-ray restoration.
Moose Magic: The George Newman Shaw & John Willhelm Story (38:40, HD) – An unexpectedly fascinating, charmingly produced featurette on the duo behind the Axe and Kidnapped Coed music.
Stephen Thrower on Axe and Kidnapped Coed (9:20, HD) – Even more discussion from Thrower (recorded at the same time as the At Last… Total Terror! interview).
Trailers (under the Axe, Lisa, Lisa, Virgin Slaughter, and Kidnap Lover titles), TV spots (under the Axe and Kidnapped Coed titles), and Axe radio spots.
Bonus CD featuring both the Axe and Kidnapped Coed original motion picture soundtracks (plus bonus tracks) by George Newman Shaw & John Willhelm
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page (all of them are from Axe, because I’ve misplaced the Kidnapped Coed caps). Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.