“Stop it, Lillian! I’m not Charlie! You are!”
On September 15th, 1989, Overseas FilmGroup released Edge of the Axe: a gory, Spanish-American slasher about townspeople in a small community called Paddock County, enjoying their summer of yacht rock and speedboats, despite a looming dark shadow in the shape of a blank-masked maniac chopping folks up with shiny axe. The film is a smarter-than-average type of body-counter, especially considering that it came out after the death of the classic ’80s slasher, but it still manages to add a few wrinkles to the toe-tagged subgenre; it’s as if director Jose Ramon Larraz and his writers waited for the right moment, paid attention to all the things other slasher filmmakers did right and wrong, and finally struck out on their own.
A major part of what sets Edge of the Axe apart is the tradition in some “high-class” slashers of “the small town with a secret,” in which a past controversy’s cover-up leads to a violent reckoning in the present. Throughout the film we’re presented with the type of secrets that are whispered by others when they walk into a crowded, shadowy, hazy restaurant: people partaking in extramarital affairs like they were casually inhaling oxygen, or purposely veiling murders, sometimes dismissing them as accidents. They congregate at the local church to sing in choirs and more than likely pray away the sins they racked up the week prior. It’s a town that feels alive, even if the plot isn’t directly focused on them.
The four credited writers – Joaquin Amichatis, Javier Elorrieta, Jose Frade, and Pablo de Aldebaran – do a great job of concealing the identity of the ax-wielding psycho amidst the sinners and saints. Our first suspect is Gerald (Barton Faulks, who looks like Carlos Jacott), a computer-obsessed nerd who has a strange but kind relationship with a hermetic forest-dweller and is quietly wooing Lillian (Christina Marie Lane), daughter of a local bar owner. In several scenes, Lillian speaks confusedly about her cousin Charlie, our second suspect, and definite red herring, whom she is unsure is even alive or dead, having suffered injury after an accident they were both involved in as children. Her uncertainty comes from conflicting information allegedly given to her by her family after Charlie had been treated for head trauma and later institutionalized at a facility near Paddock County. But the twist comes in our third suspect, Lillian herself, whose criminal guilt ends up being the simplest possibility. In the film’s final act, it is revealed that Charlie has always been a complete figment of Lillian’s imagination, and after suffering “his” head injury herself, she was the one institutionalized all those years. Gerald, through the help of his supercomputer, keeps a detailed list of all the major crimes in the area, and it turns out Lillian is the one responsible for killing all the women listed that the film cares to show us. These are all women who worked in the hospital Lillian had been locked up in, who we can assume may have mistreated her, and women who had been unlucky enough to catch her father’s roving eye.
Lillian’s psychosis is assuredly wrapped up in her head injury. According to a study published in 2002 by Daryl Fujii and Iqbal Ahmed: “We propose that psychosis results from damage to the frontal and temporal areas and dysregulation of the dopaminergic system. Everyone is vulnerable to a psychotic disorder and psychosis will result when a threshold of damage to these areas are attained…Traumatic brain injury triggers pathophysiological processes that generally result in a psychosis after a delay of 1-5 years.”
At the time the audience is thrown into the goings-on in this small town, it’s been years since the supposed accident with Charlie. And if Lillian’s head injury and subsequent mental difficulties were mistreated or ignored, it’s no great surprise that she bought a one-way ticket to the deep end. The big question while watching: does Lillian know what she’s doing? And if she does, when did the wheels start clicking in her mind to set up Gerald as the killer? Was it the first moment they met? Was it when she accidentally saw the list of victims he had collected that she had actually claimed? Perfectly, Gerald is revealed to also have had an injury, giving Lillian the initial puzzle pieces to set him up. All the secrets come out, though, in the climax of the film set in Lillian’s room. The sequence is well-executed, as we see Gerald, appearing sweaty and deranged, trying to make sense of Lillian’s frightened, frantic psychotic state.
One of the biggest draws for Edge of the Axe is how Larraz stages the frenzied-yet-creepy ax killings throughout, even if they start off feeling disconnected from the main plot of the film. Gradually, the killings dovetail with the procedural part of the plot: it’s a delicate balance, but Larraz strikes the tone by using cruel, fast violence and solid bouts of suspense to amp up the carnage.
The opening murder in the film is quite a standout, propelled with just the right amount of atmosphere (despite taking place in broad daylight) and stylized violence. The killer’s costume doesn’t seem so striking at first: it’s a fierce, blank white mask that still gives off an aggressive look. Coupled with the utilitarian outfit – they just don’t want blood on their clothes – it manages to create an unsettling combination; the stark white mask bleeding into the scenes that have spooky lighting has a lot to do with it. The score, in the non-murder scenes, is sunny and delightful – airy aural pop to align with the Northern California visuals, but it’s in the murder scenes where the music starts to feel its pulse racing, each note a heartbeat ready to be punctured by another seizure of sudden violence.
Edge of the Axe would serve as the second-to-last feature from the Barcelonan filmmaker Jose Ramon Larraz, who has the notable 1974 film Vampyres amongst his many achievements (his last feature, Deadly Manor, a haunted house slasher, is also worthwhile). He also considered Edge of the Axe to be his worst film, but one can disagree when stacking it up against some of the outright filth that the slasher subgenre puts out in the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Edge of the Axe is widely available on physical and digital media and well worth the brisk 91-minute runtime. ★