That would be a high bar to clear even for someone with a lifelong passion for filmmaking. Friedel wasn't one of those kids hammering out backyard epics on a Bell and Howell 8mm camera, though. He'd never stepped foot on a film set. Hell, as he was lining up financing for the movie that he'd title Lisa, Lisa, he hadn't even gotten around to writing a script. Sure, Axe -- as Friedel's debut as a filmmaker would be best known -- is a long, long way from Citizen Kane. Where inexperience and ill-temperment torpedoed other amateur genre filmmakers whose grasp couldn't hope to match their reach, Friedel crafted something unique and memorable in all the right ways. Axe isn't mimicking other directors' successes in the hopes of getting a foothold in Hollywood. Being unaware of cinematic conventions freed Friedel to experiment. The fledgling writer/director brought out the best in his cast and crew, so much so that many of them eagerly reteamed with Friedel mere months later to do it all over again.
1974's Axe plays like a head-on collision between the arthouse and grindhouse. It's savage, ugly, bloody, and brutal. At the same time, it's also quiet, haunting, ethereal, and almost dreamlike. This is a film that repulsed me my first time through, but by the time I'd finished delving through the extensive extras throughout this collection, I found myself wholly and completely fascinated. Part of what makes Axe so unique is that it lives very much in the moment. None of its characters are weighed down by any backstories. Their motivations aren't entirely clear. We're not guided towards any understanding of what compels them to commit such horrific acts...what led them down the dark road they currently tread.
The film opens with three heavies (Jack Canon, Ray Green, and Frederick R. Friedel) laying in wait for their prey to return to his apartment. They beat him. They cut him. They burn him. They debase and humiliate him until his bloodied, lifeless corpse is splayed out across his living room floor. This obese, middle-aged gay man can't muster much of a fight, fitting his killers' M.O. of gravitating towards easy prey. It's why they strip a homely, overweight cashier at a corner market, whip out a pistol, play a few rounds of William Tell. I'm sure that's also what makes the hopelessly remote farm home of young Lisa (Leslie Lee) and her mute, paralyzed grandfather (Douglas Powers) such an alluring place to lay low for a while as well. Quiet, reserved, beautiful, and too numbed to fight or flee, Lisa seems like a best case scenario to serve as both hostess and hostage. Then again, the three thugs have no idea that they're starring in a movie titled "Axe".
The most grueling thing about Axe is that it hardly qualifies as a feature film, barely creeping past an hour in length without credits and padded with filler to reach even that point. So little footage was on-hand after this eight and a half day shoot that they just had to use whatever was in the can during post-production, which causes some scenes to drone on endlessly and others to be almost disorientingly choppy. As difficult as Axe was for me the first time through, I can't help but be intrigued. The violence and debasement early on are so extreme that these sequences remain challenging to watch even forty years after the fact. More traditional grindhouse fare would've felt as if they were marching towards a very inevitable conclusion, but Axe remains somewhat elusive. Because we're left as in the dark about Lisa and her true nature as the three mobster-types are, I wasn't completely sure what to expect. Her near-total lack of dialogue or backstory ultimately proves to be an asset, and her internal struggles resonate despite being conveyed almost entirely through blank facial expressions. It's similarly appreciated that the three thugs are so distinct from one another, particularly in the way they view and relate to Lisa. Although an assault is the catalyst for Lisa first picking up a straight razor, I also appreciate that Axe isn't exactly a revenge film in the same vein as I Spit on Your Grave or Thriller: They Call Her One Eye. She's never reduced to the same level as the killers' previous victims, and it's made somewhat clear that Lisa had this anguish lurking within her long before the three of them darkened her doorstep.
If I didn't have a stack of other movies looming over me to review, I'd love to have given Axe another look before sitting down to write all of this. Having immersed myself in so many hours of extras has already heightened my appreciation of the film, and I'd be curious to watch it again with better informed eyes. Though it's my less favorite of Friedel's two films in this collection, I'm still impressed by how thoroughly Axe bucks convention and by the way it so deftly weaves together its brutal and strange, dreamlike storylines.
I didn't think much of Kidnapped Coed when I first saw it on Something Weird's double bill with Hitch-Hike to Hell well over a decade ago, but it won me over pretty much from word one this time around. Axe marked Friedel's first time stepping up to the plate as a filmmaker, but just a few months afterwards, he was ready to swing for the fences. Kidnapped Coed is an immensely more polished production in every conceivable way, benefitting from a bigger budget, a considerably lengthier shooting schedule, a meatier runtime, and a more robust screenplay. While Axe's $25,000 budget limited it to a few select locations, with the majority of the film shot in and around Lisa's house, Kidnapped Coed is practically a road movie. It plays in a lot of ways like a series of vignettes, with a two-bit hustler named Eddie (Jack Canon) dragging barely-out-of-her-teens heiress Sandra (Leslie Rivers) from place to place as he waits for the ransom to roll in. Those who found Axe's pacing insufferable will have little to grouse or groan about here. Hell, true to the film's title, you're treated to a kidnapped coed barely two minutes in!
The same as Axe before it, Kidnapped Coed doesn't let itself get mired in backstory. At the outset, we're aware of as little about its two central characters as they know about each other: basically nothing beyond "kidnapper" and "payday". Bolstered by smart casting choices and a remarkably efficient screenplay, Eddie and Sandra are given fairly substantial personalities without the movie having to stop dead in its tracks and explain things. Kidnapped Coed is pretty much always on the move, and at every stop, something goes nightmarishly wrong. The first of the encounters is unnervingly intense and disturbing, but after that, it's almost played for laughs. Eddie doesn't appear to be a seasoned criminal, and yet he's put together a pretty effective scheme and seems to be making all the right moves. It's just that he's a bad man in a world in which seemingly everyone else is even worse, with damned near everybody screwing him over even when they have no reason whatsoever to stab him in the back. Something happens between Eddie and Sandra -- some combination of Stockholm syndrome and a Poor Little Rich Girl tale of woe -- and it's not entirely clear if he's her captor, her savior, or a little bit of both.
One of the most exceptional things about Kidnapped Coed is how the film refuses to let itself be pinned down. It's savage and visceral, it's a quiet character drama, and it's an absurdist comedy in which everything that can go wrong does...and things that can't go wrong still find a way to go tits-up anyway. There really isn't anything else out there quite like it, and seeing as how the same can be said for Axe, that sounds like a hell of a double feature, right? Severin Films isn't content to stop there, though, having assembled what is perhaps the most lavish release in the label's nearly decade-long history.
When the late, great Something Weird Video released Axe and Kidnapped Coed on DVD nearly fifteen years ago, the mattes were stripped away to deliver them exclusively in full-frame. Severin Films' high-def revival brings these films closer to the way they looked splashed across a drive-in screen, presented here at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. These are new remasters as well: so new that they weren't even ready when Frederick R. Friedel and company were recording their audio commentaries.
Despite being shot months apart, Kidnapped Coed is by far the more polished of Friedel's two films, benefitting from a lengthier shooting schedule, a different camera, better lenses, and a superior lighting setup as well. Presented here with the onscreen title The Kidnap Lover, its colors are a complete knockout, and I continually found myself marveling at how richly detailed the image so often is. I mean, check out the intricate pattern on Sandra's dress, and look at how you can discern each individual link in the chain lock:
Axe looks nice enough but doesn't impress in quite that same way -- something the filmmakers note in their commentaries even with the older transfers they were watching at the time. The photography here is noticeably less crisp, and I can't shake the feeling that it looks more digital and filtered as well. No one else is complaining about this, so maybe it's all in my head, but:
I wish that film grain were better resolved in both halves of this double feature. I can't help but think that the fuzzier, less distinct grain and the sheer volume of material go hand-in-hand. To be fair, even though there are right at six hours of 1080p video crammed onto a single disc, Axe and Kidnapped Coed do get the lion's share of the bit budget. That's really the only thing worth griping about, though. These are otherwise terrific presentations, and even the dust and very light wear on display are all too mild to ever really get in the way. Sometimes it even works to Axe's benefit, with the speckling at its most frenzied throughout the film's most intense sequences. Whatever expectations I had bobbing around in my head beforehand, this double feature of Axe and Kidnapped Coed easily exceeds 'em.
Axe and Kidnapped Coed's lossless, 24-bit, two-channel mono soundtracks, though...they sound exactly like what I went in expecting to hear. I don't mean that in a bad way, of course. The scores by George Newman Shaw and John Willhelm are easily the aural highlights of both films and are reproduced well, particularly the percussion early in Axe that makes such an immediate impression. Living up to all those shots of Shaw and Willhelm's Minimoog in the extras, the analog synthesizers throughout Kidnapped Coed repeatedly had this synth-geek's toes curling as well. Neither film's dialogue sparkles and gleams, but it's all still consistently intelligible. It's noted in the commentaries that the on-set dialogue for Axe was recorded with a single mic that wasn't even meant for this sort of work, but I can't say that I had much of an issue with it. The light background noise and occasional light pops are just as easily shrugged off. These DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks are a long way from reference quality, sure, but they both still hit the marks I'd hoped they would.
There aren't any captions or subtitles this time around, but Axe and Kidnapped Coed do feature Dolby Digital 2.0 dubs (192kbps) in German.
Here's hoping you haven't already published your year-end "best of" list; Axe and Kidnapped Coed deserve a seat at the head of that table.
It's also very much worth noting that this is an all-region release, so those of you outside of the U.S. can import away!
The Final Word
If Severin Films had issued a straightahead high-def double feature of Axe and Kidnapped Coed, I'd still probably be writing an enthusiastic recommendation right about now. That it is instead such an extraordinary collection -- not just showcasing two remarkably distinctive films that defy categorization, but piling on seven and a half hours of compelling extras in the process -- makes this one of the year's most remarkable genre releases. DVD Talk Collector Series.