The world of boutique home video labels exposes you to genres, styles and voices that you would never hear of otherwise, and for the horror community who are in a constant state of openness to discovery, there has never been a better time to be a fan. One of the latest names salvaged from the history books is José Ramón Larraz, who, in their Blood Hunger boxset, Arrow Video describe as one of the great lost voices of Horror. The number of times an overlooked voice has been described as such, they’d all, ironically, get lost in another mix of all those great lost voices. Lost amongst the lost, there’s something poetic there.
A much more interesting position is to describe him as one of the more socially mobile components of the Euro-Horror scene, with him working regularly in the UK and America – or at least Madrid doubling for small-town California. Many purveyors of Euro-horror stuck to their traditional over-sexed and highly stylised guns; Larraz, on the other hand, produced those whilst also diversifying for the American audiences by partaking in that most American of horror movements – the slasher. That slasher is 1988’s Edge of the Axe, out on a glorious remastered Arrow Video Blu-Ray.
Opening with a woman driving through the car wash, she is stopped as a black-gloved and white-masked (think Mephisto more than Halloween) assailant jumps her with an axe, making short work of her windscreen before doing the same to her. Edge of the Axe plays like a regional hangout film where one friend is married to an older woman for her money yet can’t help but play the field and his friend is in the early stages of a relationship, only most of their conversations happen through an incredibly early computer messenger service in which they type and the computer speaks aloud on their behalf. The latter two are Lilian (Christina Marie Lane) and Gerald (Barton Faulks), the protagonists. The stalk-kill sequences play out like intermissions every half an hour or so. While ferocious, the axe is wielded as if it was as light as air and the violence is presented with paint-like blood and no blow or strike penetrates – thus gore is at a bare minimum.
In America, the idea of regional film-making is returning as a cost-cutting measure away from the high prices of Los Angeles and New York. It was a cost-cutting method in the past too, but back then, away from the eyes of major industry films tended to stray from the beaten path in other ways too. Between the 1960s-80s, regional-horror was packed with weird creative & casting decisions. In Edge of the Axe, the cast is full of non-professionals but don’t think of the naturalist gold that certain directors have mined over the years. Think of productions that need roles filling but no money to fill them, so they used locals with no acting experience and not having the luxury of choice, their characters make the final edit. Most of the cast – whether professional actors (a few are interviewed in the extras) or non-professionals – do exactly what is required of them. Which is to say, no one is especially good yet no one is bad enough to draw attention to themselves; save for one character: the Sherriff.
Picture this scene. Uncle Dave owns the one car dealership in town; sons, fathers and grandfathers all bought their car from him, everyone knows and loves him, he is the fabric of small-town America, he is Uncle Dave to everyone. The only problem is Uncle Dave is getting close to retirement, he doesn’t work as much as he used and with him passing the management of the business down to his son, he has finally moved on with his life. With all this newfound spare time he needs something to pass the hours. As luck would have it, Spanish filmmaker José Ramón Larraz and he is making one of those slasher movies that he’s heard so much about from Gary down at the video shop. Looking for locals to fill out the cast, Uncle Dave tries out for a role and it is a pretty big one, too – the town Sherriff. Loving classic Westerns, this is a dream come true and the role he was born to play. The only problem is Uncle Dave has been Uncle Dave for so long, he doesn’t know how to be anything else so he turns a gruff no-nonsense Sherriff into an affable man about town with a smile for every person he meets.
To cut this story short, he is bad, really, really bad but endearingly so as his character is built upon one of my favourite horror tropes – the clueless cop. For the first hour, he is absolute in his reluctance to see any of the deaths as anything other than suicide. Woman with half her face eaten by rats, rope around her throat and locked away in the attic? Suicide. Another woman is found after being battered by an axe? Suicide. It’s only after the third or fourth “suspicious death” that he finally concedes that there might just be a masked killer.
Now, it might sound like I am singling out someone and pinning the films many problems on him and I am, to a small extent. However, on another much more important level, he is the most enjoyable thing about the Edge of the Axe. And I am not making such a grand statement on the premise of “so bad it is good”, it is fascinating how stark a contrast he is to the world Larraz has created.
Like any sub-genre, if you watch enough slashers they will inevitably start to form one indistinguishable mass of tropes. Whether you like kung fu movies, slashers or romantic comedies it is important to find the little things that help a movie stand out from the crowd. Personally, it takes more than gore for a slasher to hold any power, now whether that unique entity is characters like the Sherriff is not my place to say. If tonally inconsistent and badly judged performances don’t float your boat, you might also connect with the fact that this is one of the earliest computer-based horror movies. The music is also noteworthy, pivoting between crunchy synth and sounds that land somewhere between the Love Boat and soft-porn jazz. As bad as Edge of the Axe is there’s much to grasp beyond the surface for the committed slasher completist and let’s be fair, this release from Arrow Video isn’t really for anyone else.