Monday, September 6, 2021

“Just Talk it Over with the Axe Killer” - Edge of the Axe (1988) - Film #212

Now is a good time to review another of the later films directed by José Ramón Larraz, Edge of the Axe (1988). Here, Mr. Larraz abandons the supernatural mystery of the previous year's Rest in Pieces (1987) to create an atmospheric slasher movie with some gialloesque trappings, perhaps practicing for his somewhat more subdued slasher film Deadly Manor (1990).

Some of your universe's critics fail to understand Mr. Larraz's oeuvre. For example, reviewer movieman_kev writes, "This was one of the more forgettable slasher films from the late 1980's, having nothing special to distinguish it from any myriad of similar sub-par slashers." Reviewer bombersflyup writes, "Edge of the Axe is pretty damn awful, offering next to nothing, with a nonsense plot and any lack of reasoning." And reviewer barbell_28 writes, "The acting, although i expected to be sub par, was sub sub par, the story was boring and the kills were so cheesy i just didnt care. The characters are unlikable. Its just a bad movie all around."

Read on for a fair assessment of the slasher classic that is Edge of the Axe...

The film begins at a Los Angeles car wash as a smoking woman is axe-murdered by a man wearing a white mask and a rain poncho.

The final shot of the sequence lingers on a red cross sticker attached to the car’s window next to running soap and a spatter of blood.

A jaunty tune begins playing over the opening credits. The camera follows a young man riding a motorcycle in the alpine town of Bear Valley, California. The motorcyclist, Gerald, arrives at a cabin in the woods, where an old man greets him, scolds him about wasting electricity with Gerald’s electronics gizmos, and announces his new computer has been delivered. While Gerald turns on pop music to set up the computer, one of their neighbors finds a pig’s head in her bed.

Later, the woman’s husband confronts the sheriff about the maniac who slaughtered a pig and put its head in their bed, but the sheriff dismisses the complaint. “Go call somebody who gives a shit,” the sheriff says.

Back at Gerald’s cabin, the old man reads from a newspaper about the car wash murder from the film’s opening. When Gerald tells him he’ll be driving around with his friend Richard Simmons, the old man pleads eloquently, “Turn off those confounded machines that you always have on.”

Gerald ignores him so the old man turns the topic of conversation to his new shirt with blue hexagonal patterns, which Gerald says he hates. When the old man asks why Gerald bought it for him, Gerald sneeringly explains it was free with a purchase from the May Company. He adds, “I love you, old man,” to which the old man shakes his head and grins.

Richard is an exterminator, so he and Gerald drive to a place called Coggie’s Bar to check out a smell coming from the cellar. Though the proprietor, presumably named Coggie, says he has checked out the premises for the source of the smell, Gerald uses his nose to trace the odor to a trapdoor in the ceiling of the cellar, which was apparently overlooked. Thrillingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, when the trapdoor is opened a rotting body, somehow stuffed into the tiny storage area, swings down.

In the aftermath of the discovery, the sheriff wants to cover up any hint of suicide (not mentioning the possibility of murder). He says to the doctor/coroner, “Just sew her up and put her in the ground, okay?”

In the next scene, Richard is driving Gerald through town in a different car. Richard reveals his true character as he provides his backstory, telling Gerald that he married his older wife Laura for her money. “One of these days,” the exterminator says, “I’m going to fumigate her.”

“It could only help,” jokes Gerald (our protagonist).

“That’s true.” Richard pulls up to a lakeside restaurant and both he and Gerald comment about the waitress Susan’s breasts. Richard flirts with Susan, and to his credit he tells her he is married to Laura. Meanwhile, Gerald plays the arcade game Cosmic Alien (though we hear Space Invaders sound effects) and impresses another waitress by telling her the program “misses two beats every fourth frame.” He tells her, “I don’t think you’d understand anyway.”

Cosmic Alien:

They flirt with even more savoir faire than Richard and Susan. “Are you from around here?” Lillian asks.

“Well, where do you think I’m from? The lake?” Gerald asks aggressively.

“No, you aren’t the type.”

“What type is that?”

“You’re no sea monster.”

“I didn’t know monsters had types.”

“Do you think it’s easy being a monster?”

He shakes his head and drinks his beer. Then Lillian challenges him to a game of Cosmic Alien (though we never see or hear who won).

Later, Gerald shows Lillian the computer setup at his cabin, explaining that his computer will connect with a “central terminal” if it doesn’t have necessary information in its “data bank.” He offers to give her one of his old computers so they can communicate whenever they want, and then she plays with his new computer (not a euphemism). She kisses Gerald, then reveals that she asked the computer if Gerald was gay.

At night, a blonde woman named Rita leaves a bar and walks along the railroad tracks to meet a friend. She becomes aware she is being followed by someone wearing a raincoat so she starts running. When the man confronts her, she is familiar with him and asks if he has a cigarette, but he pulls on a creepy white mask and reveals the axe he has been carrying. He attacks her savagely with the axe.

For unexplained reasons, the film follows Richard as he begins an affair with Susan by driving a boat around the lake. Of course, the conversation turns toward the slasher murders. Ever sensitive, Richard says, “There’s some maniac who’s running around chopping women up.”

This is apparently news to Susan, who lives locally. “It isn’t you, is it?”

“No,” Richard laughs.

Meanwhile, Gerald continues his courtship of Susan’s sister Lillian by driving a Sperry computer (in three heavy boxes) to Lillian’s father’s bar/house. A worker named Jimmy helps him carry the boxes into the house. Jimmy comments quite smoothly, “This house was built by an architect who was crazy.” He adds, “You know how many doors this place has?”

“I have no idea,” Gerald replies.

“I think there’s 29.”

“You’re not sure.”

“There’s always one door or one stairway missing.”

At night, there is another murder, this time of the woman the murderer terrorized by putting a pig in her bed. She runs to the barn with the pigs, only to be surprised by the killer lying down in the straw with the pigs. He buries his axe in her back, then bonks her on the head with the axe to kill her.

Also at night, Lillian uses her new computer at home. She tries to connect to Gerald on his computer but the computer says no access. However, in a helpful break in the case, and prompted by nothing in particular, the computer shows Gerald’s file, which is a list of the women who have been murdered and where they were murdered. The computer believes Gerald is the slasher!

Meanwhile, as in all high-quality slasher films, the narrative follows the local sheriff as he investigates the murders, the details of which I will not relate because they are too suspenseful and breathtaking for mere words to describe.

Later, Lillian questions Gerald while they date and his answers imply he might be an emotionless sociopath because he feels nothing for his parents. She introduces Gerald to Father Clinton, the local priest, who reminds her about choir rehearsal. 

On the lake, Susan and Richard make love and then find a severed head floating in the water.

Richard discusses the incident with Gerald, and the conversation turns to Richard’s older wife Laura, whom Richard believes is having an affair with Susan and Lillian’s father. “What do you want me to do, killer her?” Richard asks honestly.

“Don’t worry about her,” Gerald replies, reinforcing our suspicions about him. “Just talk it over with the axe killer. I think he’d be happy to take care of her for you.”

In another part of town, a woman from Lillian’s church arrives home at night. After listening to a well-timed TV news report (“A series of brutal murders have been committed in the area by what appears to be a madman”), she searches for her dog, only to hear a persistent dripping sound that comes from all around the house. It turns out to be blood dripping from the ceiling into a bowl of water that sits on the dining room table for some reason, so of course the woman investigates by exploring the upstairs bedroom. She finds her poor dog with its throat slit (dogs having acid blood that drips through the floor and ceiling scant minutes after their deaths). She gets her shotgun and reaches for ammunition, only to have several fingers chopped off by an axe.

She is quickly murdered, and the filmmakers end the sequence with a shot of the bowl on the table, which is now overflowing with the dog’s blood.

The same night, Lillian invites Gerald out to the lake, where they sit on the dock and Lillian tells Gerald about the time she injured her cousin Charlie by pushing him on a swing too hard, causing him to fall and fracture his skull. She also recently found out that Charlie was released from a mental hospital two years ago. The scene simply ends, providing a textbook example of supplying the audience with information.

The filmmakers cut to the next day with more of the sheriff’s investigation of the axe murders, this time as he interviews Father Clinton due to the death of his congregant Mrs. Bixby. During the interview, the priest helpfully mentions that his piano player, Christopher Caplan, recently moved to town, adding another suspect to the film’s growing list.

In an oddly specific sequence, Lillian finds herself pushing Gerald on a swing, then flashing back to when she pushed her cousin Charlie off (possibly) the same swing. She calls him Charlie, but he brushes it off, saying he has called her by another name (though not, presumably, the name of a cousin he nearly killed in a swinging accident). They ride off on Gerald’s motorcycle, though not before she notices a scar on the back of his neck that he says was made by a motorcycle accident.

Later, Gerald and Lillian are both caught in the rain and return to his cabin, where he woos her in front of a whiteboard featuring some circuit diagrams that might be interpreted as slightly phallic in nature.

“I’ll make us up some hot coffee,” Gerald volunteers eloquently. Then he grills Lillian about her computer search for Charlie’s whereabouts. She says the search was inconclusive, but she thinks the murderer is Charlie because most of the victims were women who worked on a psychiatric ward (though the audience was led to believe they were a prostitute, a church organist, and a pig farmer). She also reveals that she discovered the doctor at the mental institution is Gerald’s stepfather, though she omits to tell him the computer told her Gerald murdered several women (and in fact this revelation is never mentioned again).

In order to raise the stakes even further, the filmmakers show that Richard’s older, wealthy, affair-prone wife Laura is now bankrupt. After drinking at the local bar with her boyfriend (Christopher Caplan from the church choir), she runs off the road driving home. Of course, she is stalked through the woods and killed by the axe maniac, raising the question was she a nurse in a psychiatric ward as well?

Richard drives over to Gerald’s cabin to tell him that Laura is missing (and broke). When he asks Gerald to go drinking, Gerald brushes him off due to a date with Lillian, prompting Richard to say angrily, “You know, you’re spending too much time with this girl and these stupid games that you play. You know, you’re gonna get in trouble and gonna have microchips for brains!”

In a complex series of events involving trips out of town and phone calls (and the amateurish performance of a sheriff’s deputy who stumbles over every other word), Lillian is stranded after choir practice at night, but she is picked up by a townsperson who volunteers to drive her home. Also, Father Clinton decides to walk through the woods. 

Alone at home (the home with 29 doors), Lillian picks up an axe. In a tense sequence, she is stalked through the house by someone with black gloves who turns out to be Gerald.

“Charlie, is that you?” Lillian asks.

“Charlie doesn’t exist,” Gerald says. “You invented him. You’re Charlie.” He grabs her and says furiously, “I finally figured out the truth. You gave me a clue when you borrowed my computer to check out names. A last name for somebody with the last name Nebbs.” He explains that Lillian was in a mental facility because “she fell from a swing and suffered psycho amnesia.” As she was treated in the facility, she developed another personality, Charlie, to deal with the trauma, and then she killed people related to her hospitalization. Then Gerald says, “We can start all over again. Without Charlie. Without dead people.”

Lillian isn’t convinced. She swings the axe, telling Gerald that he is Charlie. In the climax, she runs out of the house while the police arrive, chased by a screaming Gerald, who appears guilty due apparently to the fact he’s dressed in black with black gloves. Deputy Sam (the awkward actor) shoots Gerald.

“You’ll be all right,” the sheriff says. “The nightmare’s over. There’ll be no more murders in this town.”

A pulsing music score begins and Lillian looks at the camera.

The End

Edge of the Axe's greatest strength is, perhaps, its unfailing ability to introduce new murder suspects into the narrative at any point, and then to drop them unceremoniously from the narrative. The choir director Christopher Caplan appears in two scenes, having moved recently (and suspiciously) into town, but he is quickly murdered (and his body is replaced with the killer somehow). Richard frequently complains that he wants to murder his wife, but he disappears after yelling at Gerald because he spends too much time with Lillian playing with computers. Father Clinton acts suspicious and sinister for a brief period, then helps the police by identifying Christopher Caplan and walking away through the woods, disappearing from the narrative. Gerald, the main character, is one of the most plausible suspects, identified by the mysterious all-knowing computer system as the killer and sporting a mysterious scar on the back of his neck, but these complications are never explained. Like the best whodunnits, Mr. Larraz's thriller is addicted to introducing red herrings, and when the identity of the killer is finally revealed, it turns out to be Lillian, who is angry at health care professionals because she fell off a swing as a child.

Thus, the enduring lesson of Edge of the Axe is simple: Never fall off a swing, and if you do, don't make up an imaginary cousin to excuse your various and sundry axe murders. A lesson we can all truly take to heart.