Monday, October 28, 2013

Edge of the Axe (1988) dir. José Ramón Larraz

a.k.a. Al filo del hacha

Logline: A psychopath in a white plaster mask is axing the women of a small Northern Californian town some deadly questions. Though the cops couldn't care less, there is, in fact, a pattern to this killer's madness, and it will take the combined efforts of a drifter who moonlights as an exterminator, a girl who once pushed her cousin too hard on a swing, and a pair of personal computers circa-1988 to unravel this bloody mystery.

Crime in the Past: Allegedly, Lillian (Christina Marie Lane) once pushed her cousin Charlie's swing so hard that he flew off, banged his head on the ground, and spent the next near decade in a coma. Over that period, Lillian forgets about Charlie and her guilt over his accident until she learns that he indeed recovered and was recently released from the hospital. We wonder: might Charlie be seeking revenge against his cruel and forgetful cousin, who never even sent him a "Get Well, or At Least Out of Your Coma" card? Might Charlie be connected to the murders, all the victims of which appear to be suspiciously connected to a particular hospital? How many letters do you have to exchange in the name "Charlie" before you wind up with "Red Herring"?

Bodycount: 8 swings of the axe that connect. Additionally, one piggie and one puppy.

Themes/Moral Code: There's an awfully surprising bit of prescience lurking in this bloody affair: it predicts the forthcoming effects of computer and internet technology on relationships. When weirdo computer savant Gerald (Barton Faulks) gifts Lillian a personal computer after they've started dating, things take a short trip to suspicion and e-snooping. Beyond their awkward chats to one another (read aloud by a proto-Siri), the couple individually scan the web for incriminating information about one another and browse each other's internet history without qualms. We also see an incipient form of computer-assisted dating selection on display: Lillian queries a program on Gerald's computer about whether or not he's gay. Ah, love in the age of dial-up.

Killer's Motivation: Psychogenic amnesia, cranial encephalitis, and acute psychopathy. Also some daddy issues. And I suppose also a multiple personality disorder. See, the killer is "Charlie," Lillian's nonexistent cousin, who is actually Lillian herself. The childhood swing accident detailed above in fact befell Lillian herself, and the figure of Charlie was created by Lillian's mind as a sort of coping mechanism (I guess?) to justify and explain her post-coma homicidal tendencies. She's attacking and murdering anyone involved in her long-term care at the hospital (one of whom have gone on to an illustriou career as a prostitute, naturally) as well as anyone her father had a romantic interest in. I cannot explain or read much into any of this. Most of this information is imparted to the audience in a final minute exposition dump, up until which we'd been led (rather hamfistedly) to believe that nebbish Gerald is the killer. Whatever: sometimes a girl has just gotta dress up like a dollar-store Michael Myers and avenge herself against... herself?

Final Girl: See above. Perhaps our alarms should have sounded in re: Lillian's final girl prospects when she is shocked by discovering a creepy file of info concerning the killer's victims on Gerald's computer, only to then proceed to go out with him on a pleasant date in the very next scene. The killer alone would have such confidence in being flirty with such an obvious suspect. The killer, or someone who has bumped her head very hard. In this case, both.

Evaluation: With films like Symptoms (1974), Vampyres (1974), and The House That Vanished (1974), José Ramón Larraz established himself as one of the finest Spanish horror filmmakers of the 1970s. Those early films, released in brief succession, are enigmatic and bizarre, nearly inscrutable through the blanket of fog concealing both their English countryside locations and the motivations of the their damaged characters. But 1974 is a long way away from 1988, and a film like Edge of the Axe does little to herald its filmmaker as one of the latter decade's greats. This is not to say that it's a lousy entry in the slasher subgenre (in fact, it's quite enjoyable, in no small part due to its quaint technological eccentricities), but it lacks that dim, perverse atmosphere that had infected (and so made exhilarating) the best of Larraz's previous features. Edge of the Axe is too sedate and predictable for the reputation of its director. Barring a few inspired moments-- such as an opening attack by the killer on his victim while she sits in a car moving through an automatic car wash, masterfully realizing and exploiting the potential of that singular tension created by those big sponges whomping the space just above our heads-- one might expect the film was constructed by any old independent American hack with a rented camera. From Larraz crediting himself as "Joseph Braunstein" despite being surrounded by the Spanish names of various other crew members, to the cow spotted dress that his heroine unfashionably dons at one point, to the Dolly Parton knockoff that leads us through the end credits, that unmistakable faux-American quality is discernible throughout the proceedings. And that's a shame: the film could have benefited from some European weirdness creeping into frame. I would never have dreamed of a day in which I would wish for a Larraz film to be more like Black Candles (1982), and yet here we are.

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