Movies: Edge of the Axe (1988)

In terms of horror movies, the 1980s was the decade of the slashers: they were relatively cheap to make, could go direct to video, and had a built-in audience of fans who would rent anything that promised creative, grisly kills (and maybe some nudity).

By the latter part of the 80s, though, slashers were on a bit of a decline, at least in the United States, though European filmmakers were still cranking them out for the American video market. One of these films, which was not exactly “lost” in the sense of being completely forgotten, but went direct to VHS in 1988 and subsequently slipped under the radar until getting a recent Blu-ray release from the always-reliable Arrow Video, was the Spanish-American co-production known as Edge of the Axe (aka Al Filo del Hacha).

This oddball slasher was directed by José Ramón Larraz, using the pseudonym Joseph Braunstein. Larraz is probably best known for helming the 1974 erotic horror film Vampyres and the 1987 slasher Rest In Pieces; his final horror film, released in 1990, was another slasher titled Deadly Manor.

I admit I had never heard of Edge of the Axe until Shudder added it to their lineup a while back, and I was intrigued to check it out; slashers aren’t my favorite subgenre of horror (that would probably be haunted house movies), but because it was being touted as an underseen gem, I figured I needed to give it a watch.

While I will say that Edge of the Axe isn’t a particularly notable example of the slasher form, it does have enough quirks to make it worth watching; it’s not especially gory and there’s no sex or nudity, but the killer has a creepy look and some of the axe kills and other special effects are really decent. The characters are largely unlikable and obnoxious, and there are way too many red herrings and subplots that don’t factor into the overall story, but that aspect of the movie gave me kind of a giallo vibe, so I didn’t mind it all that much; on the other hand, keeping track of all the characters and their relationship to one another was confusing, and I was able to guess the big twist ending without too much trouble, in spite of all the deliberate obfuscation and false leads.

The story of Edge of the Axe takes place in a small mountain town called Paddock near Big Bear Lake, California, and most or all of the exteriors were shot on location; I believe most of the interiors were shot in Madrid, Spain. At the very beginning of the movie, we see a woman sitting in her car as it goes through the car wash, and she gets not-all-that-graphically axed to death by a dude in a white mask who very determinedly walks right through all the swirling car wash machinery to dispatch his victim. There’s a close-up of a red medical cross sticker on the woman’s car window, which will actually make some sense later on.

Anyway, so now that we know there’s an axe murderer on the loose (as if the title didn’t already clue us in), we ease into the main story. Our lead character, sort of, is a young man named Gerald (played by Barton Faulks), who arrived in Paddock a short time before for an unclear reason and has been staying in a cabin on the property of a cranky old coot named Brock. Brock is always giving Gerald shit because all his computer equipment—Gerald is a computer nerd, you see­—is apparently causing the electric bill to skyrocket. At first I thought Brock was Gerald’s grandpa or uncle or something because of the way they spoke to one another, but I guess not? Brock is just an old man who Gerald rents a cabin from, I think.

Anyway, Gerald’s best friend is this budget-Tom-Cruise looking douchebag named Richard Simmons (really), who is played by Page Moseley, best known for being on the 80s soap opera Santa Barbara. Richard is an exterminator, and is also married to an older woman named Laura (played by Spanish actress Patty Shepard), who he frequently bags on, low-key threatens to “fumigate” one day, and openly admits to marrying only because she’s rich. About five minutes into the movie, Richard is already enthusiastically trying to kick off an affair with a younger woman who works at a tavern in town, with an able assist from his wingman, Gerald.

So it turns out that Richard has been called out to this tavern to investigate a terrible odor coming from somewhere in the basement. He brings Gerald along, saying he “needs his nose,” but as we will see, the smell is so overpowering that I’m not sure why you would need an extra person to triangulate where the stench is coming from. Unsurprisingly, the stink is coming from the dead body of a former employee named Maria, which has been stuffed up into a crawlspace. Incidentally, I think the corpse effect here was probably my favorite in the whole movie; it looks really good.
So, even though it’s pretty clear this woman was most likely murdered (she didn’t cram her own ass up into the crawlspace, after all), the local sheriff calls it a suicide, and basically wants to sweep everything under the rug. This is the same sheriff, by the way, who assholishly dismisses a farmer who comes into his office to report that someone has beheaded one of his pigs, broken into his house, and left the pig head in the middle of his bed. The sheriff literally tells him to “call someone who gives a shit.” Um, you’re actually paid to give a shit, and it doesn’t look like you’re doing anything else important right now, so…? Yeah, the sheriff in this is a real twatwaffle who literally tries to write off every gruesome murder as an accident so he won’t have to, y’know, investigate anything or move an inch from his desk chair. Both him and his deputies are also super insensitive about the victims, making jokes and victim blaming.

Meanwhile, Gerald has a meet-cute with a nice young girl named Lillian (Christina Marie Lane), who is apparently the daughter of a guy who owns a bar or restaurant type establishment. Gerald tries to impress Lillian with his vast knowledge of video games and late 1980s computer technology, while also throwing some condescension into the mix (“I don’t think you’d understand,” he says after telling her something that’s actually really easy to understand), and she is charmed by his nerdy-but-possibly-dangerous drifter vibe, so the two of them start a bit of a romance. Gerald, who has just set up a brand new, state of the art computer system in his cabin, even offers to give Lillian his old one so that they can communicate with one another on a very early iteration of instant messaging. Give this movie credit, it’s one of the few slashers I can think of that incorporates what was then kinda advanced computer tech into the actual plot; the tech angle even features some pre-internet shenanigans where Gerald’s computer can answer questions you ask it by accessing a “central terminal.” Predictably, Lillian uses this cutting edge feature to ask the computer (named Icarus) if Gerald is gay, for some reason.

I’ll note here as well that some of the conversations people have with one another, especially the interactions between Gerald and Lillian, are really weird, like not at all anything like real-life humans would actually say. It’s strange, but kind of entertaining, to be honest, because you never know what bizarre turn of phrase is going to fall out of a character’s mouth next. Oh, and the music in this is really odd too; it’s mostly like these silly, upbeat country songs, one of which has lyrics directly referring to the murders, but sung in a paradoxically cheerful way. This is kind of a kooky flick, you guys.

So as the movie goes on, more people fall prey to the roving axe murderer, including a beautician and part-time prostitute named Rita, Richard’s older wife Laura (who had recently learned she was bankrupt), Laura’s bit on the side and briefly possible suspect Christopher (played by Jack Taylor, who I recognized from Pieces and The Ninth Gate), the farmer’s wife from the earlier pig-head incident, and the leader of the church choir, a woman named Anna, whose dog also gets it, sadly (though at least it happens offscreen and we only see the aftermath).

Along the way, several people are fleetingly hinted to be the killer, including Christopher (who is literally in maybe two scenes before he’s killed), town priest Father Clinton (who acts sort of vaguely sketchy in one scene but totally normal otherwise), and jackwagon Richard, who laughs about the axe murders and cracks that he should talk the killer into taking out his wife (which he does, obligingly, later in the film).

The scenario the movie is trying hardest to sell, however, is that the killer is Lillian’s cousin, Charlie. Lillian explains that when Charlie was a kid, she pushed him too hard on a swing, and he fell off and fractured his skull. The injury apparently caused some brain damage, and Charlie had to be institutionalized for a time, though he’s recently gotten out, and Lillian has deduced that Charlie has come back to town and is taking revenge against people who had some involvement with putting him in the mental hospital, or who worked there (hence the woman in the car wash at the beginning, with the medical sticker on her car window). This doesn’t really make all that much sense, though, since most of the victims were clearly not medical personnel, but Lillian waves this away by saying that Charlie is also killing women that his father had the hots for (I think).

It’s further implied that Gerald, who just arrived in town not long before, is actually Charlie; Lillian even accidentally calls him Charlie at one point, and comments on a scar on the back of his neck, which viewers are supposed to think was caused by falling off the swing.

But because I’ve seen lots of giallo movies and slasher murder mysteries of this type, I was very aware right from the jump that the narrative they were pushing so hard was simply a misdirect, and indeed, I was vindicated. As I surmised, the killer actually turns out to be (SPOILER ALERT, OBVIOUSLY) Lillian, who actually did fall off a swing and get brain damage as a kid, was institutionalized, and spun off her murderous impulses into another personality named Charlie. I did actually like this twist, even though it was fairly obvious, but I will comment that when the axe murderer is shown during the kill scenes, it’s clearly a man, so I’m not sure if the movie was trying to imply that Gerald was actually the killer all along and was trying to gaslight Lillian into thinking she was Charlie? The scene at the very end—where Gerald gets shot by police and the useless sheriff hugs Lillian and tells her that there won’t be any more murders, only to have her smile maniacally over his shoulder—would seem to imply otherwise, but maybe I’m putting way more thought into this than anyone else did. Which would be just like me, honestly.

All in all, this is a pretty enjoyable slasher with a quirky, almost off-putting vibe that makes it kind of interesting to watch. It’s nothing to really write home about, but the axe kills are decently handled, and the special effects are pretty good for the era. The characters are generally unappealing jerks (except for Lillian), and there is entirely too much time spent on meaningless subplots and characters that are only crammed in there to have more red herrings, but I suppose that’s par for the course for a low-budget murder mystery, so I can’t judge too harshly. If you like slashers and want to see one that’s more of the same, but also has some eccentricity to it, then it’s worth checking out, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a lost classic or anything. The Arrow release has been restored beautifully and looks really nice, and has lots of extras on it, if you want to delve deeper into the film’s history.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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