Cash in? Perhaps! Rip Off? Well, not any more than The Last House on the Left is a rip off of Virgin Spring (which it is). The fact that one of the several alternate titles of this film (originally released as Lisa, Lisa) was The Virgin Slaughter just might clue you in that "Cash In" wasn't too terribly far from the advertisers' minds. Want to hear another one? Well, this little "bad guys bite off more than they can chew" horror flick was also released as "California Axe Massacre". Surprisingly, Axe isn't truly a rip off of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, even if its debt to other flicks is undeniable.
Even more surprisingly, as much as I'd like to write Axe off as yet another "Banned In England" Video Nasty, deserving more to be forgotten than remembered, it's not really that bad a film. It had the approximate budget of your average stop at a convenience store and there is much more than a spoonful of bad acting and lame gratuity... but Axe has a little something to it that makes it worth watching.
Writer/ Director/ Star Frederick R. Friedel, while by no means an "auteur", manages to pull out some strikingly good framing in one or two places, and succeeds in others at the one thing that is truly vital in any good horror movie: Atmosphere.
A man named Steele (Jack Canon) leads a jackass named Lomax (Ray Green) and an unwitting villain named Billy (Friedel himself) on a sadistic journey across what (one of) the title(s) would have us believe is California, but is really North Carolina. Steele and Lomax are dressed like precursors to the Reservoir Dogs, while Billy looks a lot like Rumors-era Lindsey Buckingham. They start by killing a couple of gay guys, then terrorize a shop keeper with produce and ketchup.
After a hard day's night of assholishness, The Billy Lomax Steelworks crew figure, hey, it's Miller time and all, so they decide to hole up in a farmhouse. There an unsuspecting Lisa (Leslie Lee in what was sadly to be her only big screen appearance) is busy taking care of her paralyzed Grandfather (Douglas Powers, whose acting job must've been almost as easy as John Hurt's was in The Skeleton Key).
What follows is pretty predictable for anybody whose seen a Revenge Thriller from Virgin Spring to Kill Bill. There's not a whole lot, plot wise, that Friedel invents on his own, but he does manage to make a familiar vibe feel somewhat fresh with a satisfying final act, some interesting camera work that belies the nearly nonexistent budget and, actually, some fairly decent acting from Lee and from Friedel himself.
Look, nobody involved in this film warranted an Oscar and, in truth, this is an overall bad film. But there's enough in here that, somehow, makes it work. It also feels like a pretty complete film, in spite of its 68 Minute Run Time.
As with many of the cheapie Grindhouse and Drive-In fare, Lisa, Lisa went by many names under many advertisements before it ended up on the UK's Video Nasty list (as Axe, probably the title it's best known as). Some of the previews made it look like Lisa was the villain (sort of a young, attractive Leatherface, waiting for her victims). Some showed the Bad Guys for what they were. None were quite accurate but also like most exploitation fare, each one showed way too much. Anything to sell those tickets, right? Just don't watch the previews first. You can predict what's going to happen without them, but the how and why... that's what makes Axe worth checking out.
Interestingly enough, even the marketing material of today doesn't seem to quite know what to make of Axe. The Netflix sleeve gleefully declares that this 1977 flick was "a drive-in favorite in the early 1970s". Man, I knew Frederick R. Friedel had SOME talent, but time travel? Bravo.
I'm surprised to give Axe Two and One Half Stars out of Five. It's cheaper than a pair of swap meet panties, but it's atmospheric and surprising and very satisfying in places. No nudity, though. Okay, then, moving on. This is a VIDEO NASTY, all right, with all the ingredients to prove it. But it's less nasty than its brethren, I'd say. Ah, yes, to be Banned in England. Seems that it's a recipe for immortality.
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