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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

AXE / KIDNAPPED COED -- Blu-ray + CD Review by Porfle

Sometimes a disc falls into my hot little hands which is an all-round cinematic experience in itself, and goes beyond simply watching a movie or two and some extras. Severin Films' new 2-disc set, AXE/KIDNAPPED COED (one Blu-ray disc, one soundtrack CD) is just such a heady film-fan experience. 

Representing the entire filmic output of 70s independent writer/producer/actor/director Frederick R. Friedel (save for an obscure 2000 comedy called MY NEXT FUNERAL), it's a saga of how someone with a little money and a lot of talent made his mark in the regional movie industry, had his films robbed from him by a crooked distributor, and finally found a "rainbow at the end of the storm" decades later when his work was rediscovered by a whole new audience of fervidly appreciative fans.

Watching the first film, AXE, aka "Lisa, Lisa" (1974), my initial impression was that this guy Friedel is one of those creative talents who can take the kind of budget and resources usually reserved for the lowest drive-in dregs and work a kind of rough-hewn magic with them.  Even as the film's look and feel still have that unavoidable bottom-drawer ambience, there's something sharply intelligent about the camerawork and editing, as well as performances by a uniformly fine cast, which elevates it all into a much higher realm of watchability.

Two plotlines are introduced which will eventually intertwine--in one, three gangsters are on the lam after having dispatched some unlucky mug in his cheap hotel room, in luridly violent fashion.  Jack Canon plays Steele, the icily psychotic leader, Ray Green the equally sadistic thug Lomax, and Friedel himself is Billy, a novice criminal still hampered by a nagging conscience.  After the murder, they disappear into the North Carolina backwoods to find a place to lay low for awhile.

This brings them into a collision with plotline number two, in which a curiously disaffected young girl named Lisa (Leslie Lee) is the sole caretaker for her catatonic grandfather (Douglas Powers) in a remote two-storey farmhouse.  Scarcely into her teens, Lisa already seems shell-shocked by life, and barely reacts when Steele, Lomax, and Billy forcibly invite themselves to stay. 

While Lisa's deceptively placid countenance hides a fierce inner turmoil, the evil men now invading her life force her to take overt actions to defend herself.  This comes to a head when Lomax enters her bedroom at night with bad intent, and Lisa displays an aptitude for slicing and dicing heretofore reserved for chickens.

This is where AXE starts to live up to its lurid trailers and print ads (which scream the tagline "At terror!"), with winsome nutcase Lisa wielding a straight razor and an axe in bloody fashion without ever breaking that strangely calm but troubled fascade.  Still, the film is never in the same league as THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (alternate titles include CALIFORNIA AXE MASSACRE and THE VIRGIN SLAUGHTER) nor does it try to be.  It's mainly a compelling and pleasingly morbid character study with splashes of gore but little that could be called "graphic", although that didn't stop it from being condemned as one of England's infamous "video nasties" of the 80s.

As for the cast, the leads couldn't be better.  Leslie Lee is an ideal Lisa, pretty but strange, her sad face always interesting to look at as you wonder what the heck's going on behind it.  As Steele, Jack Canon is a classic big-screen tough guy that you just can't look away from.  He'd have been perfect as the lead in one of those tacky 70s or 80s TV cop shows like "Hunter"--as it is, one can only wonder why he never went farther as an actor.  Ray Green's bloated Lomax is sleaze personified, and Friedel himself, bearded and Brillo-haired, is a convincingly conflicted Billy who ends up trying to help Lisa. 

As a director, Friedel takes his time and lingers artistically over every sequence as much as the brisk shooting schedule allowed, drawing out every nuance of visual interest possible while admittedly playing fast and loose with the script.  An early scene of Steele and Lomax terrorizing a poor convenience store clerk (Carole Miller) is like a foretaste of Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS.  Never one to rely on sheer exploitation, Friedel shoots this and Lisa's rape scene later in the film--as well as the subsequent killings--not just as visceral exploitation but as an opportunity to indulge in a form of raw cinematic poetry.

Wanting to fully explore the potential he saw in Jack Canon during the making of AXE, Friedel then concocted the entire screeplay for his follow-up film KIDNAPPED COED, aka "Kidnapped Lover" (1976) around the actor's charismatic appeal.  Thus, Canon appears in almost every single scene and makes the most of his screen time with a performance that should've been a ticket to broader fame.

Equally compelling is young Leslie Ann Rivers as ginger-haired, bespectacled Sandra, a well-to-do teenage "coed" whom small-time crook Eddie Matlock (Canon) abducts in hopes of a big ransom.  Both actors have faces that are fascinating to look at and naturalistic acting styles that bring their characters to life. 

Friedel has a bigger budget here (around $40,000) which allows for more elaborate camera moves and other relative indulgences that really pay off in the movie's look and style.  Again, he takes plenty of time for character development as the two leads get to know each other and gradually even form a tentative romantic relationship, all done in a series of quirky exchanges taking place during some wildly unexpected situations.

These include a brutal, Scorsese-esque sequence in which both are attacked in their seedy hotel room by a couple of violent thugs who force their way in at gunpoint so that they can beat up Eddie and rape the horrified Sandra in another scene that's stunningly executed.  Continuing the theme that this just isn't his day, Eddie later encounters unfriendly shotgun-wielding farmers while simply trying to get water for his car radiator, and finally ends up in a life-or-death struggle against another bearish farmer who has just welcomed him and Sandra into his home before suddenly going pitchfork-wielding berserk. 

As all this happens to them, Eddie and Sandra's relationship wanders through different stages as the film itself passes, with varying degrees of finesse, through such disparate genres as thriller, horror, action, character drama, quirky romance, and even comedy.  Friedel admits in the commentary that he doesn't even remember whether or not there was a written screenplay for the film, but this only contributes to its off-kilter charm.  Mainly, though, it's Canon and Rivers that keep our eyes glued to this wildly uneven but compelling little film right up to its abrupt and somewhat anti-climactic ending.

The full story surrounding these two films from conception to oblivion (and, lucky for us, joyous rediscovery) is recounted in the hour-long bonus documentary "At Last… Total Terror! – The Incredible True Story of AXE & KIDNAPPED COED", which sees the warm reunion of Friedel and several key members of his production team who also gather to provide excellent commentary tracks for both films.

"Moose Magic – The George Newman Shaw & John Willhelm Story" (38 mins) tells of the two young musical geniuses who scored the films shortly before their tragic demise in a car accident.  Shining lights in the Charlotte, North Carolina music scene, these wonderfully creative and eclectic musicians contributed some offbeat, often minimalistic tracks to AXE and KIDNAPPED COED that are preserved in this set's second disc, a music CD which also includes several bonus tracks of the duo's non-movie-related jazz compositions that provide scintillating listening. 

A ten-minute interview with author Stephen Thrower ("Nightmare USA"), who helped bring Friedel and his films to the attention of new audiences, is followed by several trailers and TV spots for them. 

No doubt the oddest of all the bonus features is the full-length feature film BLOODY BROTHERS, which is actually a later re-edit by Friedel of both AXE and KIDNAPPED COED into one strange, disjointed narrative in which Jack Canon's "Steele" and "Eddie Matlock" characters are presented as identical twins unaware of each other's existence.  Their unrelated stories are intercut with little rhyme or reason, while recurring intertitles tell us that the two are gradually drawing closer to one another ("Five miles away", "One mile away", "1/2 mile away", etc.)

Since we know they'll never meet, we wonder what this is all leading up to, if anything. The main interest is seeing which scenes Friedel decides to include and how he cross-edits them, as well as what he leaves out, including the entire subplot of Eddie and his mom.  There's one scene that's entirely new, which shows Eddie on the beach performing a Jewish prayer ceremony even though he isn't Jewish.

This interesting oddity comes with another winning commentary track by Stephen Thrower. I really can't say how it would play for someone who hasn't already seen the two films on their own. 

Severin Films has restored AXE and KIDNAPPED COED from the original negatives (rescuing these from movie purgatory is part of the main documentary's gripping story) for this HD Blu-ray release, which is in 1.85:1 widescreen and mono sound.  No subtitles. 

AXE, KIDNAPPED COED, and their bastard sibling BLOODY BROTHERS, along with the abundance of extras that go along with them, add up to several hours of movie watching that are engrossing, enriching, and just plain fun.  It's all very satisfying in an exploitation vein, but not only that, Friedel's low-budget films are small-scale artistic wonders which yield all sorts of aesthetic rewards and make one wish he'd done more before being soured on the business. Rather than "so bad, they're good", his films are actually so good, they're great.

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Stills used are not taken from the Blu-ray.


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