Wednesday, January 6, 2016

AXE (aka LISA, LISA) (1974) Blu-ray Review

Axe (aka Lisa, Lisa) (1974) d. Frederick R. Friedel (USA)

After beating a former partner to death and sending his male lover out of a high rise window, three desperate criminals flee the city to lay low for a while until the heat blows over. Steele (Jack Canon), the leader of the bunch, Lomax (Ray Green), the ruthless muscle, and Billy (writer/director Friedel), the clearly conflicted newbie, finally decide to roost at an out-of-the-way farmhouse, inhabited by a young woman, Lisa (Leslie Lee), and her mute, invalid, unnamed grandfather (Douglas Powers). The thugs proceed to bully and boss their way into the house and make themselves part of the “family,” with Steele and Lomax clearly creating unsavory designs for their beautiful, unwilling hostess. But beneath a meek exterior, Lisa’s still waters run deep and dangerous, with a knack for utilizing sharp implements when the occasion calls for it.

This unusual independent exploitation effort was the brainchild of Friedel who was only 25 at the time of its genesis (inspired by Orson Welles, who had completed Citizen Kane at the same age), and his unique stamp is all over the pic, from the laconic pacing to the almost threadbare plotline to the daring and/or frustrating lack of backstory for any of the characters.

We don’t know exactly why our crooks have it in for the unfortunate gay lovers at the beginning of the flick, nor do we know what fate befell Powers’ stricken character or how he and Lisa came to live their solitary existence together. We don’t know how they survive day to day. (We do see our soft-spoken lass is more than capable at butchering chickens with hatchets, but does she also till the fields? Who knows.) And yet, as with many a worthy campfire story, none of that really seems to matter. We have a given set of circumstances and characters and the events play themselves out with a certain sense of inevitability, with Friedel’s haunting, out-of-time atmosphere providing the perfect accents.

There’s not a lot of technical grace on display – the cinematography is barely passable, the sound is a notch below that, and the blood never resembles anything other than so much paint spilled – but the ensemble of performers elevate things considerably. In Canon’s capable hands, Steele is a cold-blooded sadist, but he’s also the brains of the operation and knows how to keep his underlings under his thumb. Green’s Lomax is an ugly brute, enjoying any opportunity to exert his power, and Friedel is fine as the conflicted Billy.

Given the extreme limitations of his character, Powers manages to communicate volumes with his tortured thousand-yard stare, while Lee manages to avoid the pitfalls of going from damsel in distress to avenging angel; her actions grow violent without altering her internal makeup. It’s a lovely, nuanced performance that overcomes potential “one-note” criticisms.

Severin’s presentation of this drive-in staple, now on Blu-ray for the first time, is one for the trophy shelf. The well-seasoned genre connoisseur is likely aware of the film’s unfortunate (and completely undeserved) legacy as one of the 72 official BBFC Video Nasties, but the hour-long documentary “At Last… Total Terror!” provides a wealth of information about Friedel’s conception of the film and its spiritual blood brother, Kidnapped Coed (also included in its entirety), produced a year later with Canon again in the lead and with many of the same creative team intact. Said team includes production manager Phil Smoot and makeup artist/general dogsbody Worth Keeter, both of whom join Friedel in revisiting the North Carolina locations and fondly reminiscing over the trials and triumphs of the brief but memorable shoot.

Also playing a key role in the documentary (as well as his own 10-minute featurette) is author Stephen Thrower, who celebrated both movies in his indispensable tome Nightmare U.S.A. (His chapter on Friedel is pretty incredible, allowing readers to appreciate both foibles and flourishes in greater detail.) Thrower was instrumental in tracking down the director and his collaborators for his own purposes, but went on to fly Friedel to England for a screening of Axe (originally titled Lisa, Lisa before notorious distributor Harry Novak got his hands on it, even re-dubbing it California Axe Massacre for future releases), and helped facilitate retrieving the actual film negatives from Novak’s warehouse for the Blu-ray’s restoration. If there is an MVP for this high-def presentation, it is this soft-spoken Englishman with the look of a college professor and the heart of a drooling gorehound.

“Mouse Magic,” the piece on musicians George Newman and John Willhelm, who lent their talents to both Axe and Kidnapped Coed before dying in a tragic auto accident, is an interesting curiosity item. By no means essential viewing, it does offer a respectful tribute to two young artists and those that knew and loved them during their brief careers. (A music CD of the two soundtracks is included, with bonus songs – someone at Severin really dug these cats.)

Both films come complete with informational and enthusiastic commentaries by Friedel, Smoot, and Keeter, even if much of the material is touched on over the course of the aforementioned documentary. But the real treat comes in the form of the bizarre hybrid feature Bloody Brothers, a spliced-together recut of both features by Friedel into a single twisted crime epic! You wouldn’t think it possible, but it almost kinda sorta works, and the commentary by Thrower is the icing on the cake. Trailers, TV and radio spots round out the extras.

Axe and Kidnapped Coed are available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Severin Films and can be ordered HERE:


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