[review by Luisito Joaquín González Martín]
Without a doubt, Hollywood will probably always be the kingdom of cinema. However, Tinsletown has relinquished some of its movie-making empire over recent years, due to the immense improvement of filmmakers from across the globe. Whilst Asia’s consistent excellence in horror has been a breath of fresh air to the genre, it has been Europe that has been leading the way with new, outstanding and unpredictable cinematic inventions. This has left the conventional and at times bland efforts from the States trailing in the wake of their European counterparts.
German expressionism, Italian neorealism, Portuguese cinema novo, French new wave and the inventive scripting talents of authors from the film school of Poland have all recently been mimicked by producers from the motherland of movies, which has resulted in various remakes and the acquisition of talent for bigger-budgeted productions. However, it has been the significance of democratic-Spain pulling itself from the annals of movie obscurity to become a major influence on modern-cinema that has been the most surprising and in many aspects the most influential.
The emotionally driven, often dark and almost gothic approach of contemporary Spanish cinema is unique in the fact that it urges the viewer to almost become the protagonist and almost always relies on specific and obvious social commentary. ABRE LOS OJOS (1997), which was remade - albeit poorly - as VANILLA SKY (2001), was unfairly recognised as an ingenious thriller with a classic dream-ending, when actually it was a observation on how modern society is far too dependent upon image and materialistic possessions. Steal the looks from a beautiful person and what are they left with?
Interestingly, Spain's contribution to the slasher genre has not been by any means prolific, but my country of birth has made a few noteworthy inclusions. Admittedly, the lacklustre THE ICEBOX MURDERS (1982) was not the most memorable of titles, but Jesus Franco's BLOODY MOON (1982) and Juan Piquer's PIECES (1982) gained notoriety by joining the lengthy DPP list in the United Kingdom. Whilst no one can argue that Spain’s record with the Giallo is close to exceptional (LA RESIDENCIA (1969) / LA ULTIMA SENORA ANDERSON (aka THE FOURTH VICTIM) (1971)), we as of yet have nothing concrete to export to the legion of slasher admirers.
Jose Ramon Larraz, the Catalonian born filmmaker, first sprang to public attention with the outstanding thriller SYMPTONS (aka SINTOMAS), which earned him a Golden Palm nomination in 1974. Many regard his greatest cinematic project to be EL MIRON from 1977. The movie was impressively visual and had very little dialogue, which meant that everything was suggested with body language and eye contact and it made Héctor Alterio's award winning lead-performance much more of an outstanding achievement. Throughout the majority of his career, Larraz has demonstrated an ability to convey a cohesive and fluid plot without depending on gratuitous shock tactics. He continued to work steadily in cinema, travelling from his home in the United Kingdom to shoot pictures across Europe. In 1987 he directed the ambitious REST IN PIECES, which was the first of two American-Spanish produced direct-to-video splatter flicks. It boasted a creative synopsis but was plagued by a collectively inept cast and struggled to find a sizeable audience.
Released in 1988, EDGE OF THE AXE was Larraz's first slasher movie, although it wouldn't be his last. He returned to the category in 1990 with DEADLY MANOR, which signalled his exit from horror pictures. After the uninspiring comedy SEVILLA CONNECTION in 1992, Larraz has remained anonymous in cinema, briefly resurfacing to direct a TV movie at the turn of the century.
Shot on location in Mexico, EDGE OF THE AXE tells the tale of a masked maniac stalking a small Northern Californian suburb. In the opening, a woman is brutally murdered in a car wash, which is the first of many successfully conveyed set pieces. We are later introduced to a likable cast, including Page Mosley playing a technically gifted drifter called Gerald Martin. After relocating to Paddock County, he meets with Lillian Nebbs (Christina Marie Lane), and the couple begin a romantic liaison. Meanwhile, as the psychopathic killer continues his rampage across the county, Gerald uses his online resources to find a link between the victims. Could his girlfriend be the killer's intended target?
Whereas REST IN PIECES boasted a logically creative plot, which mixed everything from suicide and reanimation to DEAD & BURIED (1981)-alike hostile small-townsfolk; Al filo del hacha is a typical slasher-whodunit that swims comfortably in the ocean of genre trappings. But unlike the huge majority of category inhabitants that relied so heavily on their heritage, Larraz's opus makes excellent use of the standard format to deliver an atmospheric and impressively dark environment.
Despite a lack of gratuitous gore, the murders are impressively realistic and at times it feels almost like we are watching a snuff movie. The opening killing has become something of a favourite amongst collectors, although personally I found much more creativity in some of the later slaughters. Larraz is an experienced director and it shows consistently throughout the runtime. In places he manages to build some credible suspense and the tense final is competently handled. Javier Elorrieta's simple but unsettling score creates a harrowing mood and Tote Trenas' cinematography is visibly crisp.
Whilst the cast of REST IN PIECES incredibly poor to the extent that they ruined the feature in places, EDGE OF THE AXE marks a significant improvement in terms of dramatics. Semi-prolific slasher star Page Mosley (OPEN HOUSE (1987), GIRL'S NITE OUT (1984)) delivers a career best performance as a likable lead, whilst the majority of cast members are approachable in supporting roles. Suspicion points at almost every character and Larraz wraps the plot neatly with an ambitious conclusion. Although the ‘final twist’ will be somewhat old-hat to slasher stalwarts and has been done before in a popular dorm-slasher from ’82 (which I will not name in order to save from spoiling); EDGE OF THE AXE has enough in its rucksack to keep you watching throughout.
Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that this is a slasher movie devoid of stereotypes. You'll find no horny beer-swigging teenagers here. John Carpenter spoke elegantly of his decision to set HALLOWEEN (1978) in a normal everyday neighbourhood, in order to distance his movie from the haunted houses and dilapidated castles that have signified the genre. By doing so, he brought terror into our front rooms and reminded us that horror can strike in any place at any time. Giving us ordinary victims in ordinary environments, Larraz incorporated Carpenter's philosophy and avoided the platitudes so commonly linked with the slasher cycle.
The killer looks creepy in Michael Myers-like blank mask and rain slicker, and the movie transcends its budget. The beautiful summer-laden backdrops are visually picturesque and there’s enough plot expansion to relate to the main characters. It’s also worth mentioning that EDGE OF THE AXE was arguably the first slasher to incorporate an early version of the Internet in to its plot structure. Back then; we of the Facebook generation were unaware of what would be coming our way some ten years later.
There are numerous flaws throughout the runtime, which are barely worth mentioning to hardened cheese addicts and they never detract from the overall enjoyment and the flick excels far more than it disappoints.
EDGE OF THE AXE may have been released too late to make an impact on the category, but reflection proves that its one of the best late entries to the cycle. Finally after a few attempts, we Spaniards have a slasher movie to be proud of ...
female:6 / male:2
1) Female hit repeatedly with an axe
2) Female found dead
3) Female hit repeatedly with an axe
4) Female hit repeatedly with an axe
5) Female hit repeatedly with an axe
6) Male killed (off screen)
7) Female killed (off screen)
8) Male shot dead