Arrow Video: Edge of the Axe – Special Edition Blu-Ray Reviewed

Arrow Video has a wonderful trend of finding obscure, rare, lesser-seen slasher flicks that have been out-of-print for decades and resurrecting them on lavish special-edition blu-rays. Thanks to them, films like The Mutilator, Blood Rage, The Prey, and The Slayer have gone from incredibly scarce and expensive VHS-exclusives to the recipients of stunning 2k and 4k restorations with loads of extras. Now, the 1988 slasher Edge of the Axe joins that list; possibly the most obscure slasher they have yet unearthed, but one that I am very glad we once again have access to. I'm a lover of '80s horror films, and like to think I have a very solid knowledge of obscure slashers; three of the four films mentioned above I had either seen or owned on VHS long before Arrow put out their blu-rays. I had never even heard of Edge of the Axe, let alone seen it, so naturally it was an immediate must-see for me as soon as Arrow announced the disc. While I can't say it's one of the best lesser-known '80s slashers that I've come across, it is a very fun movie with some definite strong points, and one that fans of the above films should definitely get a kick out of.

The Film:

Edge of the Axe is a Spanish/American co-production directed by Spanish cult auteur José Ramón Larraz (Vampyres, Symptoms, Black Candles), but filmed mostly in English, set in America (Northern California, to be precise), and clearly meant to cash in on the post-Friday the 13th slasher boom. It comes very late in that boom – despite having been released in the US halfway through 1989, it feels much more like a mid-80s slasher – and thus probably didn't have much of a chance to gain traction upon its home video release, but it's a fun (if unspectacular) genre entry that fans should get a kick out of. It tries to interject a bit more of a whodunnit mystery into the usual nasty slasher proceedings, with spotty but sometimes pretty suspenseful and entertaining results, making it a bit of something different, even when it doesn't always work. The premise is simple but effective: in a small town in Northern California, someone is secretly a masked killer, but no one knows who. The sheriff and a handful of college kids and twentysomethings are trying to figure it out, but can any of them solve the mystery before they meet... THE EDGE OF THE AXE? It's the kind of slasher that's best enjoyed with a few genre-loving friends and ideally more than a few drinks, so you can have fun with the movie's cheesier aspects (particularly the recurring theme of computers and video games, which are wonderfully dated now), and speculate about who is the killer, and who is the next to be killed. During my viewing of this blu-ray, which was in exactly that kind of situation, the phrase “I think this person is about to meet... THE EDGE OF THE AXE” was uttered on multiple occasions, and it certainly added a lot of enjoyment to what is otherwise just a pretty OK middle-of-the-road slasher.

This is a very uneven movie, beginning with its structure. It has a large cast of characters, forming several distinct groups who don't really interact with each other much, or sometimes at all, leading to the film having a very fractured feel. The first act especially just kind of floats around without much of a fixed structure, as various groups – principally the college kids and the sheriff – go about their business while the killer lurks in the shadows with an axe (both the edge and the rest of it. But mostly the edge is what we care about here). It's all a little aimless, and isn't helped by how none of the characters are particularly fleshed-out or interesting; the college kids are disposable (well-played, but shallowly written), and the cop is one of the worst horror movie cops ever, as he refuses to believe that there's a serial killer on the loose because dealing with it would apparently take too much work (seriously – he's not like the Jaws mayor with PR reasons to want a coverup, he's just lazy). After a great opening sequence, the first act is admittedly pretty rough.

Once it really picks up steam and the mystery kicks in, though, Edge of the Axe get quite fun. It handles the whodunnit aspect of the mystery unexpectedly well, keeping the viewer in genuine suspense about who the killer is, and pulling off some solid misdirects. A few moments legitimately took me by surprise, which I did not expect from a slasher that is otherwise pretty pedestrian in its production. The extras reveal that the killer is actually played by several different people of different sizes and body types, to keep the viewer off-balance about who they might be, and not give any clues that exist outside the script. It's effective, even if it seems like a bit of a cheat: the reveal is honestly pretty surprising, but in no small part because the actor who plays the killer is obviously not the actor who plays the character the killer turns out to be. I can't say that the mystery makes a lot of sense – we're talking about a low-budget Jason or Michael Meyers knockoff, not an Agatha Christy villain – but it is a lot of fun in the moment, and sets the movie apart from the pack. The killer also boasts a very cool, effective look, with a white blank-faced mask which is very creepy and effective. Derivative of Michael Meyers? Probably. A creepy signature look that could have been well-used in a franchise (or a better movie)? Definitely.

Unsurprisingly, coming from a director best known for high-end exploitation movies, Larraz feels most at home, and Edge of the Axe shines the best, in its slasher sequences. It is then that the film's atmosphere kicks into high gear, and we get some very moody, effective, well-crafted stalker sequences that escalate into some nasty kills. Which is also where you can really tell that this isn't an American film: American slashers usually were more restrained, if only at the behest of the MPAA. There are some solid gore effects to be found here, but most of the kills are of a different variety: rather than cutting away to swap elaborate gore prosthetics and props in for the actors, Edge of the Axe opts for unbroken single shots in which the killer brutally hacks at their victim with a pretty real-looking prop axe, while blood pumps hidden either in the axe or the actors' costumes let the blood flow as the chopping continues. The technique seems simple, but is well-executed and very effective; the film may not have much Tom Savini-esque gore (though there is some), but the blunt, direct, and unbroken kills feel very brutal and pretty realistic, and certainly different than what we're used to.

Effectively gruesome, creepy, and atmospheric slasher scenes and some decent plot twists make Edge of the Axe worth a look, and set it apart a little bit from its contemporaries, but it is absolutely a mixed bag. The plot and characters are pretty weak, the first act just floats around without building a ton of momentum, and not much in the film feels tremendously inspired outside of some of the actual horror scenes. It's one that slasher enthusiasts will have a good time with, ideally in a movie-party kind of setting with like-minded horror fans, but casual viewers probably don't need to be in too much of a hurry to see. Among the pantheon of obscure, long-out-of-print '80s slasher flicks resurrected on blu-ray by Arrow Video, it's strictly in the middle of the pack: I've seen worse movies get the Arrow treatment, but I've also seen much better. I preferred it to Blood Rage, for instance, but it's certainly no The Slayer.

Score for the film:

The Transfer:

Lovingly restored by Arrow in a new 2k restoration from the original camera negative, Edge of the Axe looks absurdly good on this blu-ray; better than it seems like any low-budget slasher made for the VHS market could (and maybe even should) ever look. Detail is incredibly clear, the transfer has a very prominent grain structure that preserves the 35mm look, and except for a few small blips, there is no damage to the negative to speak of. It truly is unbelievable that Arrow can make a film this obscure and long-lost look this good.

The audio doesn't fare quite as well. Arrow did the best they could with the original mono audio track, the music and sound effects are quite robust, and it all sounds perfectly clear, but the recording of the dialogue just wasn't that technically great to begin with. The extras on the disc reveal that the English actors were mostly recorded on-location with a boom mic, while the Spanish actors were English-dubbed in post, and this difference really shows: the dubbed actors sound too clear for the scenes they are in, and the actors who were recorded on set sometimes sound a bit muffled or far from the mic. At the end of the day, you can still hear all of the dialogue, and the track sounds as good as it possibly could, so it is hardly a bad audio track, and certainly not flawed due to any fault of Arrow's. It's just... an OK low-budget audio mix reproduced faithfully. At least the film looks great though.

Score for the transfer:

The Extras:

Since this is a pretty ridiculously obscure film, it shouldn't be too big a shock that the extras are somewhat modest in comparison to other Arrow blu-ray special editions. But that's only in comparison to other Arrow blu-ray special editions; compared to other, smaller boutique labels who I might have expected to pick up a film of this level of obscurity instead (like Code Red, who released Larraz's Black Candles with a new HD restoration but no extras at all) the special features on here are a treasure trove. There is a decent amount to be found, and it's all really interesting. We get about half an hour's worth of interviews, and two audio commentaries. The interviews are with the two lead male actors – the twentysomething friends who are more or less the film's main characters – and the special effects artist, who (interestingly enough) is the same guy who designed the apes from the beginning of 2001. All three interviews are full of interesting facts about the films, and give a good sense of the personalities of these American actors who flew to Spain to make a slasher flick set in California. The first commentary is with the film's lead actor, Barton Faulks, and is again full of really interesting details and anecdotes (he still remembers the making of the film very well, despite it being over 30 years ago), but what makes it really interesting the dynamic between him and the moderator: shortly after making Edge of the Axe, Faulks left film acting and became a high school drama teacher, and the commentary is moderated by one of his former high school students who now works in film himself. Hearing the star of the movie riffing about it with a former pupil, who talks gleefully about how his high school classmates passed around a bootleg copy of Edge of the Axe and couldn't believe their teacher was in it, is delightful. Definitely one of the more fun commentary tracks I've heard lately due to that dynamic alone. The second commentary is by the team from The Hysteria Continues podcast. They provide a fun and informative fan commentary, and their affection for slasher flicks is contagious. But that said, it's hard for them to compete with a commentary featuring a geeky genre fan who was also a student of the movie's star. While it may not be the most extras of any Arrow blu-ray, all of them are very high-quality in terms of the information you get, and they are all worth a look or listen. They certainly will add to your appreciation of what is generally a lesser slasher.

Score for the extras:

As a film, Edge of the Axe is recommended mostly just to serious slasher connoisseurs who want to sample all the obscure, off-the-beaten-path craziness that the genre has to offer. It's not the best slasher, nor is it the worst; it's just pretty average with some redeeming qualities. But fans will have fun with it, especially if watched in the right context (ie, with friends and drinks), and it's certainly worth a look. For those who aren't big fans of slasher flicks, though, I'm not sure that there's as much to recommend. If you're going to watch it, though, this Arrow blu-ray is definitely the way to go: between the genuinely stunning transfer and the solid (if not overwhelming) list of extras, this is not only undoubtedly the definitive release of the film, but a much better release than anyone could have ever expected a movie like Edge of the Axe to get. It's pretty amazing work that Arrow is doing, restoring long-lost and under-seen films like this and making them available again. While it may not be the best film that they've given that treatment to, slasher fans can be happy that it has been rescued from its ultra-rare VHS-only fate, and in the coolest way possible.

Overall score for the Arrow disc:

- Christopher S. Jordan

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