Directed by Frederick R. Friedel
Starring Leslie Lee, Jack Canon, Ray Green, Frederick R. Friedel
A claustrophobic slice of semi-sleaze distributed by Z-movie zeitgeist Harry Novak (Kiss Me Quick, Please Don't Eat My Mother), Axe (or, Lisa, Lisa) was filmed in the mid-1970s in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the time still a drive-in hotspot where many exploitation entries tended to play.
Coming in at a little over an hour, Axe is a lean, mean little picture offering a twist on the rape/revenge formula to create a moody, modest cinematic triumph.
The film opens on a starkly-lit leafless tree and farmhouse at sunset, an organ and piano ambling through an unnerving theme as the credits roll. The soundtrack then abruptly switches to cymbals and other percussion as the scene shifts. Hand-held cameras follow three thugs up to one of the top floors of an apartment building located elsewhere.
The trio settles into one of the units to await the return of its inhabitant. There’s Lomax (Ray Green), kind of a Charles Durning-type chomping a cigar; Steele (Jack Canon), maybe looking a little like Robert Pine (the Sgt. from CHiPs); and Billy (writer-director Friedel), whose ’fro and beard make some of us think of Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra.
The group explore the apartment a bit, finding a blonde wig and women’s clothing, items that encourage them to refer to the apartment’s inhabitant as a “fairy.”
Genuine suspense builds as they spot from a window the man -- Aubrey (Frank Jones) -- for whom they are waiting. He arrives with a male companion, and soon Lomax and Steele rough up Aubrey while his partner watches in horror.
The beating ultimately proves fatal, and as Steele and Lomax advance on Aubrey’s friend he leaps from the window.
“Why’d he do that? It’s 12 floors?” says Steele. “It’s only nine,” deadpans Lomax.
Soon after the thugs are on the road and looking for a hideout. Billy sits in the back seat, expressing misgivings over what’s happened. They stop at a convenience store, and while Billy waits in the car, Steele and Lomax get unreasonably offended at the poor quality of fruit. They start out throwing apples at the frightened female cashier, then practice skeet shooting with the produce right there inside the store.
“Lady’s got some nice melons, Lomax,” says Steele as they approach the counter. “Maybe she’s got some other nice melons, too?” Once they force her to remove her top, you’re really starting to hate these sadistic-seeming jerks. They try to play a game whereby they make as though they’ll shoot apples off the cashier’s head, William Tell-style.
More abuse follows, then the creeps finally get bored and leave.
As they drive along, frequent crosscutting happens between the trio and the farmhouse from the credits. There we find young Lisa (Leslie Lee), shown gathering eggs and killing a rooster.
By herself she cares for her catatonic grandfather (Douglas Powers), entirely unresponsive as she feeds him a raw egg, then bathes him.
As Lisa slowly performs her duties, she’s nearly as expressionless as her grandfather, seemingly resigned to living out this decidedly morose existence.
When the men arrive, we’re already feeling unsettled, with the scene at the convenience store readying us for more trouble to come. The trio force their way into the house, initially claiming to Lisa, “We don’t mean any harm, ma’am.” Once they discover it is just the young girl and her grandfather, that settles it.
“This place’ll do just fine,” they conclude. (Shudder.)
Policemen soon arrive, and following the thugs’ orders, listless Lisa is able to convince them to leave, after which she feeds the fugitives. Meanwhile, Billy is getting increasingly agitated, and when he tries to run off the other two go after him.
We stay behind with Lisa, alone in a bathroom. She looks in the mirror, then begins to hallucinate -- going mad, it appears.
In this, her only starring role, Leslie Lee manages to exude a genuinely haunting vibe throughout. A moment later she grabs a straight razor and is amid an attempt to cut her wrist when Billy, having snuck back into the house, arrives to interrupt her.
The other two return, and we resume this interesting and tense dynamic. We have Steele and Lomax, killers without consciences and clearly ready to commit further atrocities. There is Billy, caught in between but implicated nonetheless. And Lisa and Grandpa, two seemingly helpless, mostly silent victims-in-waiting.
That the remainder of the film pushes things over into a rape/revenge formula might seem predictable, but the execution (pun intended) from here on out is anything but.
While not as brutal or intense as Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, or other such films of the subgenre, there remain several stylish -- even uncanny -- sequences that together lift this low-budgeted thriller into something a bit more memorable than your average grindhouse fare.
In other words, Axe should satisfy those of a certain taste.
- Triple S