By the late 1980s, the seemingly endless proliferation of slasher films that had been inaugurated a decade earlier with the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween was experiencing a sort of doldrums, with most new titles entering the market as direct-to-video releases. Some of these were even shot on videotape, often resulting in a crapulent, low-resolution aesthetic approach. But such was not the case with Edge of the Axe, a Spanish-American coproduction that does its darnedest to emulate the look and feel of prior American entries in the slasher subgenre. The film’s moody, frequently color-drenched cinematography, courtesy of Tote Trenas, is one of its biggest draws.
It almost comes as a surprise that Edge of the Axe was directed by José Ramón Larraz, a master of Spanish horror whose ’70s films, like Vampyres and Symptoms, tended to feature acts of startling sexuality and violence set against the idyllic backdrop of the British countryside. Adopting the Anglicized pseudonym Joseph Braunstein for Edge of the Axe, Larraz rarely indulges his more flamboyant impulses, which can be traced back to his early training as a comic strip artist. The most notable exception would be a scene set during a funeral that’s shot with a wide-angle fisheye lens, grotesquely bending and bulging the mourners’ physiognomies, which lends an aura of disorientation and uncertainty to the proceedings.
Reclusive computer nerd Gerald (Barton Faulks) lives in an octagonal cabin in the woods somewhere near Big Bear, California. Sometimes he helps out his best bud, Richard (Page Moseley), with his job as an exterminator. On one of these calls, they discover the hideously mutilated body of a barmaid crammed in the attic of her workplace, a death the authorities soon somewhat inexplicably decree to have been a suicide. In truth, it was the work of a blank-face-masked, axe-wielding maniac who will go on to accrue a respectably high body count for a slasher film antagonist. Blissfully ignorant of this fact for the time being,
Gerald meets cute with Lillian (Christina Marie Lane), the daughter of a local innkeeper who’s helping out around the place while she’s home from college.
Opening with a stunning murder set piece in an automatic carwash, Edge of the Axe doesn’t stint on the red stuff. The carnage on display in this and other set pieces isn’t graphic so much as it is brutally unrelenting. A lot of this has to do with the work of prop and makeup guru Colin Arthur, who created the fake axe used in the film, which allowed for shooting unbroken sequences where it crashes repeatedly into its victims without the necessity for the usual cutaways and inserts used in most horror films. What’s more, these set pieces are stylishly executed, with an eye for vibrant primary colors and evocatively diffused lighting. The film also contains some truly odd flourishes, like the sight of a decapitated pig’s head in a farmer’s bed or blood dripping from the ceiling and slowly filling a bowl of soup to overflowing.
Unlike most slasher films, Edge of the Axe works just as well as a murder mystery, bearing a passing family resemblance to the giallo film. This might to attributable to the participation of producer and co-writer José Frade, who was involved in the distribution of classic early ’70s giallo titles like Lucio Fulci’s masterwork A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. Edge of the Axe offers up a rogue’s gallery of perfectly reasonable suspects, including the local priest (innocent here, but often enough the killer in a giallo), unfaithful husband Richard, and local man-about-town Christopher Caplin (Euro-horror stalwart Jack Taylor). In its final act, the film does a commendable job of toggling suspicion between our two leads, Gerald and Lillian, before capping it all off with one terrific twist ending: a haunting final freeze frame strangely reminiscent of the one that concludes Sleepaway Camp.
Arrow presents Edge of the Axe in a 2K scan from the original camera negative. Colors look really vibrant, with appealingly deep saturation of the leafy greens and sanguineous scarlets. Grain levels are mostly well resolved, with just some minor blocking evident in the low-lit scenes, and black levels remain largely uncrushed. Depth and clarity of detail are both consistently maintained. Arrow provides both English and Spanish LPCM mono tracks, though the film was clearly shot in English, with a predominantly American cast, so that’s probably the way to go. The English track sounds clean and clear, with proper emphasis given to the eerie synth score from co-writer and composer Javier Ellioreta.
The bonus materials begin with three fairly brief on-screen interviews: actor Barton Faulks talks about getting his first starring role and his subsequent switch to a career as an acting teacher; actor Page Moseley discusses his early training, getting the role, and shares anecdotes from the location shoot in Spain; and makeup artist Colin Arthur shares some trades secrets, going into his designs for the prop axes, severed fingers, and his design for the blank-faced mask. There are also two commentary tracks. The first features actor Barton Faulks in conversation with one of his drama students, Matt Rosenblatt. It’s a loose, conversational track that dives deep into Faulks’s experience in Spain, his approach to acting in film and theater, and his current thoughts about his work in Edge of the Axe. The second track comes from the slasher-centric podcast collective known as the Hysteria Continues. With four knowledgeable and often amusing participants, there’s hardly a downturn in the conversation, which focuses extensively on the film’s European pedigree, its innumerable links to other American and European slasher films, as well as its place in director José Ramón Larraz’s body of work.
Unavailable on home video since the VHS era, Edge of the Axe gets a finely honed Blu-ray presentation from Arrow Video.
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