AXE (1974)/KIDNAPPED COED (1975) Blu-ray
Director: Frederick R. Friedel
Severin Films

Two 1970s regional exploitation drive-in films, both made independently by Frederick R. Friedel and picked up by Harry Novak’s Boxoffice International Pictures, make the leap to the Blu-ray format in a deluxe double-feature package from Severin Films.

AXE is a short exploitation feature (barely running over an hour) that doesn't have time to explain things, but it's still able to pull off characterization. We are introduced to three criminals – Steele (Jack Canon, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE), Lomax (Ray Green) and Billy (Frederick R. Friedel). Steele is the acknowledged leader of the gang, with the graying, overweight Lomax as his sidekick. Both wear suits and look like they stepped right out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. The younger Billy (who is actually played by the director) looks like a casually attired "Mr. Kotter" and is the quiet, reluctant one. The three thugs break into the apartment of a homosexual man named Aubrey, and for reasons not given, leave him for dead after much humiliation, including assault with a baby doll and shoving a lit cigar down his throat.

Now refugees, they take off in their car in search of a hideaway. After humiliating a plump female cashier in a convenience store (in a "ketchup mistaken for blood" bit similar to that in The Three Stooges short, AN ACHE IN EVERY STAKE), they stumble upon a secluded farmhouse in the country. Inviting themselves in, the house is inhabited by a young woman named Lisa (Leslie Lee) and her invalid grandfather (Douglas Powers), who is basically a vegetable in an easy chair. Threatening them at gunpoint, Lisa has no choice but to let them stay there, but perhaps the trio picked the wrong house, despite how perfect the scenario seems. Lisa, who likes to hack the heads off of chickens with a hatchet, is evidently disturbed – suicidal and homicidal!

Filmed in Charlotte, North Carolina as LISA, LISA (and also boasting such alternate titles as CALIFORNIA AXE MURDERS), this very low budget feature with occasional gore (a "video nasty" in the U.K.) is a swift, satisfying mix of older films (THE DESPERATE HOURS, SUDDENLY), as well as the then-current LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which it's not nearly as disturbing as. As stated, the film is very short (hell, even the end credits go on for over three minutes to pad things out), and the audience is left to take a lot for granted, but the characters are well developed, considering the screen time they are allotted. In her only film role, Lee is good as the disturbed Lisa, and she easily exhibits this through blank facial expressions of hopelessness. As far as the hoods go, Canon is by far the most convincing as the ruthless Steele, and he absolutely should have been a bigger star. AXE (as well as KIDNAPPED COED) was shot by veteran cinematographer Austin McKinney, who also shot Boris Karloff’s quartet of Mexican horror movies, and was later a process photographer on James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR.

In KIDNAPPED COED, John "Jack" Canon (yes, the same heavy in AXE) stars as Eddie, a hood who kidnaps a teenage girl Sandra (Leslie Rivers) for ransom. He makes demands over the phone to the unseen father (voiced by the director), and then checks himself and his refugee into a fleabag hotel to wait for the cash. Shortly after they settle in the room, two brutes bust in and Sandra thinks they're there to help her. Eddie is tied to a chair at gunpoint and forced to watch them rape the girl. With his anger coming to a boiling point, he frees himself, grabs his gun and shoots them both in the privates. Eddie then flees with Sandra, and the rest of the film centers on the unlikely duo entering a very unfriendly southern town, meeting an assortment of strange characters (including a crazed pitchfork-happy farmer played by Charles Elledge, REDNECK MILLER) and forming a closer, intimate relationship.

Friedel's KIDNAPPED COED is appropriately co-featured with AXE here, and the opening title credits actually read “The Kidnap Lover” (the original title was apparently "The Kidnapper"). As with Friedel’s AXE, this one is leisurely paced (even with the brief 75-minute running time) but quite watchable for what it is. The director shot this in North Carolina as well, exhibiting some genuine talent on a shoestring budget. KIDNAPPED COED is another character-driven film with Canon being especially good in this type of role. At first he seems to be really bad, but when other characters are introduced, they make him seem nice and sympathetic in comparison (his desperate calls to his aging and rather nasty nursing home-bound mother show his human side). Rivers (who looks something like Alanis Morrisette, only with red hair) is convincing as the teenager who is quiet and mousy at first, but is totally changed by the end of the movie. Look for a younger but easily recognizable Larry Drake (of "L.A. Law" and DARKMAN fame) as a burly, longhaired nursing home attendant. KIDNAPPED COED is basically as good or better than anything similar you've see pawned off as "art" on the Independent Film Channel back in its heyday, and it even has touches of a David Lynch film at times.

Both films were previously available on DVD from Something Weird Video/Image Entertainment in editions long out of print (KIDNAPPED COED was paired with one of its original co-features, HITCH-HIKE TO HELL), and both have now been restored in 2k from their original negatives, presented here in 1080p HD in their proper 1.85:1 aspect ratios. There’s no hiding that these two productions were made on the extreme cheap, but the correct aspect ratios (the previous Something Weird DVDs were full frame) and the high definition treatment definitely help in bringing quite attractive, cinematic presentations. There is minor speckling and other blemishes, but colors are generally very strong with the grain structure, even when thicker, well under control and filmic. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio tracks have clear dialogue and music, so there’s nothing to complain about in terms of sound quality, given the film’s budgetary restraints. There are no subtitle options for either feature, although both have alternate German audio tracks.

“At Last… Total Terror! - The Incredible True Story of AXE & KIDNAPPED COED” is a terrific new 61-minute “making of” documentary which features interviews with Friedel, as well production manager Phil Smoot, makeup artist Worth Keeter and technical assistant Richard Helms. Friedel mentions being a fan of Orson Welles and like him, wanted to make a movie by the time he was 25, somehow raising the $25,000 (through friend Irwin Friedlander) before a script was even written (the second film had an initial $35,000 to shoot with). Some of the locations for both movies are revisited (with great stories behind the filmings), the involvement of J.G. “Pat” Patterson Jr. as a producer after he had made THE BODY SHOP is addressed, and the widow of actor Jack Canon (who died in 2004), Mary Canon, as well as friend Leon Rippy are also interviewed (Canon had struggled to get work in Hollywood but had a significant career as a novel writer, with KIDNAPPED COED being specifically written for him after the great job he did on AXE). Actor Ray Green (who became a motivational speaker and is now retired, doing occasional stand-up comedy) also tells some great anecdotes about working on AXE and the documentary basically ends by relaying how the late Harry Novak (who is seen here in archival interview footage) came to distribute the films for a wider, nation-wide release and the unfortunate conflict that resulted (it does end on a rather happy note, and this Blu-ray release is proof of that). Also pointed out here is that Leslie Lee declined to be interviewed and that the whereabouts of Leslie Ann Rivers are unknown. “Moose Magic” (38:35) is a featurette on George Newman Shaw and John Willhelm, the jazz composing duo who did the music for both AXE and KIDNAPPED COED, featuring home movie footage and many interviews with friends and family members (as well as Friedel) which concludes by recounting the tragic car accident that took their lives while both were in their early 20s. “Stephen Thrower on AXE and KIDNAPPED COED” (9:15) has the Nightmare USA author discussing and analyzing the characters in both of the films, as well as the editing techniques involved.

Both films have thorough audio commentaries with Friedel, Smoot, Keeter and Helms, all who were very young when they made them. We learn that AXE was shot in eight and half days (starting in early 1974) on 35mm short ends. Friedel says calls Canon’s casting “a lucky accident” and reveals that Novak was the one who called it AXE when he distributed the film several years after it was made (1977). The cast, technical aspects and locations are all covered here, and the participants always keep busy by sharing their recollections, never resorting to dead silence. For KIDNAPPED COED, which was shot at the end of 1974, it is mentioned that Novak also came up with that title when he distributed it in 1976. For this commentary, it is revealed that the film had more time and more locations than AXE, and there’s a wealth of behind-the-scenes information to be heard by the four participants.

Running nearly 90 minutes, BLOODY BROTHERS is the director’s mixing of scenes from both AXE and KIDNAPPED COED to create a new feature. For this version, a new introduction tells us that Steele and Eddie (the two parts played by Canon) were twin brothers separated at birth in 1940, with the combined events taking place at the same time in 1975. The film joggles back and forth to footage of the two films, with superimposed titles on the bottom of the screen indicating how many miles apart the incidents are taking place at. There’s one scene (culled from videotape) from the KIDNAPPED COED footage not in the final release print, and the incidents from that film also conclude differently (as suggested by Thrower). Friedel is here to introduce BLOODY BROTHERS, and there’s also a commentary by Thrower (which will be a wise option here if you just watched both AXE and KIDNAPPED COED). Thrower relays a lot of production notes, as well as info on low budget independent filmmaking in the Carolinas during the 1970s. More light is shed on the director here, like that AXE was influenced by Polanski’s REPULSION, that he was romantically involved with Leslie Lee at the time (making it difficult to film her murder scenes) and his general love and admiration of classic international cinema (one shot in KIDNAPPED COED was even influenced by a similar one in A MAN AND A WOMAN). Also included is an AXE trailer, as well as trailers for it under LISA, LISA and THE VIRGIN SLAUGHTER, a TV spot for AXE and radio spots (under both LISA, LISA and AXE). KIDNAPPED COED’s trailer is included (under KIDNAP LOVER) as well as two TV spots. A bonus CD includes the soundtracks for both films. (George R. Reis)