Edge of the Axe Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: January 28, 2020
Audio: English and Spanish LPCM 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 91 minutes
Director: José Ramón Larraz
The rural community of Paddock County is being rocked by the crazed exploits of an axe-wielding psychopath, who stalks the night in a black trenchcoat and mask. As the victims pile up, the authorities attempt to keep a lid on the situation, whilst computer whizz-kid Gerald and girlfriend Lillian seek to unmask the killer before the town population reaches zero. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces (Spanish: Mil gritos tiene la noche, 1982) is the ne plus ultra of trashy Spanish slasher cash-ins, that much is true, but it certainly wasn’t the region’s final word on the matter. By the end of the ‘80s, European horror was struggling to hold its place in the international market. North American slashers were already dying out, to say nothing of the pre-slasher Italian gialli that Spanish filmmakers had been mimicking since the ‘70s. Following this downturn, Simón himself was among the region’s genre filmmaking leaders with goofball creature features Slugs (Spanish: Slugs, Muerte Viscosa, 1988) and The Rift (Spanish: La Grieta, 1990), after which a new guard took over and brought “prestige” to Spanish horror. But, before that brief period when Simón’s brand of lovable rubbish made its impact, Spain’s genre output was (similar to Italy) a healthy combination of Saturday morning serial-type throwbacks, sexploitation, thoughtful, adult-aimed stories, and arthouse horror. Director José Ramón Larraz’ movies sat right at the crossroads between each of these styles.
Larraz’ work as a genre director began when he helmed a series of violent, Pete Walker-esque British thrillers, including The House That Vanished (aka: Scream... and Die! and Please! Don't Go in the Bedroom, 1973) and Symptoms (also released as The Blood Virgin, 1974). The combination of sex, violence, and artsy ambiguity he developed was exemplified by his sapphic bloodsucker opus, Vampyres (1974), which remains his signature film. Following Vampyres, he returned to Spain and broadened his genre scope with respectable melo/psychodramas, like El mirón (Spanish: The Voyeur, 1977), artful softcore, like The Coming of Sin (Spanish: La visita del vicio, 1978), and horror comedies, like The National Mummy (Spanish: La momia nacional, 1981), but, following a bit of a lull (and a TV miniseries covering the life of Goya in 1985), the market had turned towards Juan Piquer Simón’s brand of schlock, leading to the production of two gory, straight-to-video, American co-productions: Rest in Pieces (Spanish: Descanse en piezas, 1987) and Edge of the Axe (Spanish: Al Filo del Hacha, 1988).
Larraz had made the two movies under a pseudonym (Joseph Braunsteinn) and his champions tend to ignore them (authors Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs devote a couple of sentences to them in Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies 1956–1984 [Primitive Press, 1994] after devoting several pages to the rest of his filmography). Rest in Pieces is pretty easy to overlook, frankly, because it’s so dull, but it was very easy to find on North American home video, so quite a few people actually ended up seeing it. Edge of the Axe, on the other hand, was harder to find and really deserves a second chance, if not for its innovation (of which it has little to none), then for its wacky and sometimes successful attempts to connect Larraz’ arthouse sensibilities to the pure exploitation of gory slasher cinema. Like the best Eurohorror schlock, it’s fun to laugh at the film’s strange storytelling choices, the uncanny ESL dialogue, and failure to cover its European roots, yet just as easy to respect its technical expertise and genuine attempts to match their Hollywood counterparts at a fraction of the budget.
This particular film sets itself apart by fixating on computer technology and how it could possibly help amateur twentysomething detectives solve the mystery behind a murder spree. Screenwriters Joaquín Amichatis, Javier Elorrieta, José Frade, and Pablo de Aldebarán don’t really understand how computers work (Larraz amplifies the issue by adding audio narration to the internet messaging scenes, as if the characters are using a teletyper/textphone), but they successfully use them to connect characters and give them something compelling to do between murder set pieces. Some viewers might be baffled by the intensifying convolution behind the killings or bored by the lengthy sequences of people discussing their feelings for each other, but I found the commitment to character development rather refreshing and the romantic scenes quite endearing, even as I found myself increasingly confused by how everything connected. The shock twist ending is a doozy by any accounts.
Edge of the Axe isn’t Pieces-level gory, but it’s redder than the typical late-’80s Friday the 13th movie and has a nice sense of kinetic energy that make it scarier – or at least more intense – than most of its Hollywood competition. While Larraz doesn’t exactly sleepwalk through the expositional and romantic scenes, there’s no comparison between them and the stylistic overload of the murders and their protracted lead-ins. What it lacks in suspense, it more than makes up for in ferocity, evocative images, cool lighting techniques, and bloodshed. Because of its Spanish roots, Pieces remains the obvious touchstone, but I’d also favorably compare Edge of the Axe to even artier slasher pastiches, like Dario Argento’s meta-giallo Tenebrae (1982) and Donald Cammell’s neo-noir thriller, White of the Eye (1981).
Edge of the Axe made its North American VHS debut from MCEG under their Forum Home Video line. After that, it essentially disappeared from the face of the Earth. It was never re-released on tape, it never showed up on Laserdisc, and no one ever saw fit to remaster it for DVD. Arrow has stepped up to release the first digital version on any market and done a nice 2K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative to boot. The resulting transfer is presented in 1080p and, for the first time, in the intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Larraz and cinematographer Javier Elorrieta’s imagery fits the popular late ‘80s aesthetic – cool blue highlights, a slightly fluorescent tinge, and touch of soft focus – but isn’t too overtly stylish, leading to simple, natural colors, evenly spread details, and relatively tight close-up textures. The film grain has some heft, but still appears natural, given the film’s age and those stylistic choices. Clarity is very impressive, to the point that some scenes look as if they were filmed a couple of months ago, rather than three decades, though there are still notable inconsistencies in the material, such as softened/bluish black levels (usually during night scenes), white spot artifacts, and some posterized clumps.
Edge of the Axe is presented in its original English and optional Spanish, both in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono sound. As an American co-production, the film was designed for an English-language market, so the English track is the “official” option. That said, I assume that protocol in Spain at the time was still to shoot most movies without sound. In this case, many scenes appear to have been filmed with working on-set audio, but the Spanish cast members have been dubbed to cover their accents. The lipsync is decent, but the volume and clarity levels between the set and dub audio is quite notable. Some people might be put off, but I find that it adds to that delightful “European movie pretending to be an American movie” experience. Despite this, English track is the better mix, balancing incidental effects/music and dialogue and leaving room for the brassier noises and music, rather than drowning everything out with loud, flat dialogue, like the Spanish track does. There’s not a lot of depth to either track and aspirated consonants hiss, but the bigger issue is that everything aside from the Spanish dubbed dialogue is overly compressed, leaving ambient effects and low volume performances nearly inaudible. I don’t think this is a disc issue as much as an original material issue. Javier Elorrieta’s score is an amusing combination of eerie electronics, Miami Vice adventure, and ‘80s sitcom that sounds best when blaring romantic saxophone or scary synth stings.
Commentary with actor Barton Faulks and Matt Rosenblatt – Apparently, Faulks was a high school drama teacher and his former student, Rosenblatt, roped him into talking about the experience of making the movie, the locations, and his fellow cast members.
Commentary with The Hysteria Continues Podcast – Pocasters Justin Kerswell (also author of The Teenage Slasher Movie Book [CompanionHouse, 2018]), Joseph Henson, Erik Threlfall, and Nathan Johnson discuss the film’s history, its cast & crew members, and compare it to other slashers, while taking occasional breaks to crack jokes.
Gerald’s Game (11:04, HD) – Faulks retreads and expands a bit upon his commentary track with a slightly bigger focus on his early career and training.
The Actor’s Grind (11:23, HD) – The other male lead, Page Moseley, also recalls his career, being cast, traveling to Spain for the shoot, and making the movie.
The Pain in Spain (7:47, HD) – Special effects and make-up artist Colin Arthur wraps up the interviews by breaking down the process of making fake axes, axe wounds, and the killer’s Michael Myers-esque mask. He also mentions edits made to some of the gorier effects, possibly indicating that the production fought for an R rating.
The images on this page are taken from the BD (and the MGM BD for the sliders) and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.