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“AXE/KIDNAPPED COED” (Blu-ray Review)

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Here’s a sterling example of how a film’s history can be as fascinating, or more so, than the movie itself. Severin Films’ restorations of Frederick R. Friedel’s drive-in features AXE and KIDNAPPED COED are noteworthy enough, but the supplemental wealth on the Blu-ray places this one among the past year’s very best disc releases.

Produced virtually back to back in North Carolina in 1974, AXE and KIDNAPPED COED were made by fledgling auteur Friedel with little experience and a lot of ambition. Originally shot, and briefly released, as LISA, LISA, the former follows a trio of violent criminals (played by Jack Canon, Ray Green and Friedel himself) as they commit assorted brutalities before taking young Lisa (Leslie Lee) hostage in the remote farmhouse where she lives with her invalid grandfather (Douglas Powers). Lisa doesn’t say much, but when the crooks turn their depraved attentions to her, she responds by wielding a couple of bladed weapons against them.

There’s not a stable mind anywhere among AXE’s lead characters, but Friedel gives us little to no insight into their pathologies. They are what they are, which gives the movie a compelling strangeness—as pointed out in a brief video segment by Stephen Thrower, who helped popularize Friedel in his book NIGHTMARE USA. He also notes how the writer/director’s lack of training feeds into its unique documentary veneer, and notes its undeserving status in Britain as a “video nasty” (which was perhaps partially due to its misleading retitling there as CALIFORNIA AXE MASSACRE). Veteran B-movie DP Austin McKinney (who mentored James Cameron during a stint at New World Pictures) contributes a great deal to AXE’s gritty immediacy, as do the contrastingly passive and aggressive turns by Lee and Canon and Green, respectively.

AXEKIDNAPPEDCOEDBLUREVFriedel was impressed enough with Canon’s performance that he wrote KIDNAPPED COED (previously THE KIDNAP LOVER, the moniker restored on this edition) for the actor. Here, he’s Eddie, a lowlife who abducts young heiress Sandra (Leslie Ann Rivers) and takes her on a road trip where an odd bond grows between them, even as the situations they get themselves into go from bad to worse. Made with a higher budget—albeit still one with just five figures—and a longer schedule than AXE, COED is a more expansive and polished film, making fine use of its rural locations (many found on the fly); a scene of Eddie’s car parked on a Southern beach put this reviewer in mind of the opening of Jeremy Saulnier’s BLUE RUIN. Friedel also delves a little deeper into his lead characters here, as well as some of the incidental folks. Late in the story, Eddie and Sandra happen upon an old man and his mute granddaughter who echo the duo in AXE, and the grandpa delivers one line about the girl that gives us more insight into her mental state than we ever learn about Lisa.

The two movies were issued separately on DVD in the early 2000s by Something Weird Video (COED paired with HITCH HIKE TO HELL) in fullscreen, accompanied by extensive if tangential extras. Severin’s Blu-ray now stands as the definitive showcase, however, starting with the 1.78:1 hi-def transfers. The films have been remastered from the original negatives, and while the AXE materials are in slightly lesser shape than COED’s, both look absolutely splendid, with stable, razor-sharp images and levels of color and detail that foster a new appreciation for both Friedel’s visual sense and McKinney’s cinematography.

These restorations were sourced for the disc’s presentation of one of its most significant bonuses: the combo feature BLOODY BROTHERS. Friedel and his team were cheated out of both the profits and the negatives of AXE and COED by distributor Harry Novak, so in the early 2000s, the filmmaker sought to restore his copyright by intercutting highlights of the two together into one new hour-and-a-half saga that posits Canon’s antiheroes as twins. Their parallel exploits are given subtitles informing us of the decreasing number of miles between them, though their stories, of course, never actually cross paths. Friedel also took advantage of the opportunity to include a previously deleted scene of Eddie and Sandra on the beach, though only rough-looking fullscreen video of it was available (ironic, considering Friedel loves it due to its magic-hour light quality).

Severin provides audio commentaries for all three movies, bringing together Friedel and jack-of-all-trades crewpeople Phil Smoot and Worth Keeter (who went on to become directors themselves) for AXE and COED. They’re joined on the former by production assistant Richard W. Helms, and both tracks are well worth a listen as they reminisce about the productions and catch each other up on what they and others involved have been up to since. There’s plenty of fun trivia (the grandpa in COED was once a Life magazine “Santa Claus of the Year,” and Larry Drake appears briefly in that film as a hospital orderly), deserved praise for McKinney during AXE and Canon during COED and revealing personal moments—including one where Helms, a now-retired forensic psychologist (and award-winning mystery writer), is asked to psychoanalyze Lisa! This reviewer also appreciated the group pointing out something I’ve found amusing: The weapon of choice in AXE is actually a hatchet, while the one in HATCHET is actually an axe!

BLOODY BROTHERS sports a commentary by Thrower, who devotes most of his time to an appreciation of Friedel’s talents and achievements, even making a case for comparing him to Stanley Kubrick. He also covers assorted production details, some of which are repeated elsewhere but others of which are unique; he reveals that it was the father of Friedel’s girlfriend who put up the money for AXE, and also that the writer/director became involved with Lee during and after the shoot. Not mentioned is how that first girlfriend, who helped get the movie made, felt about Friedel hooking up with his lead actress…

Even after everything that can be gleaned from the commentaries, there’s still plenty more to learn from the hour-long “At Last…Total Terror! The Amazing True Story of the Making of AXE and KIDNAPPED COED.” Not only does this documentary bring together the creators, their friends and relatives and revisit a few of the key locations, it also offers observations on Charlotte, NC in the ’70s (when it was a rather seedy place with barely any film industry), a most entertaining history of AXE producer/THE BODY SHOP director J.G. “Pat” Patterson Jr. and lots of anecdotes: Green once did an interview with Elvis Presley that’s now part of the Smithsonian’s collection, a hilarious story about filming the blind guy in COED, etc. The late Canon’s career takes on bittersweet dimensions here via the recollections of his widow, while there’s a note of triumph as we watch Friedel finally excavate the AXE and COED negatives from the bowels of the deceased Novak’s storage facility. Pretty much the only potential interviewee not present is Lee (who declined to participate), while it’s a shame that McKinney wasn’t around to take part, given his colorful temperament and language recalled by the others.

After all that, perhaps the most dramatic material of all is to be found in “Moose Magic,” a 38-minute featurette on composers George Newman Shaw and John Willhelm. The two were bright lights on the Southern music scene when they were commissioned to create the scores for AXE and COED, only for their careers and their lives to be cut short soon thereafter by a horrific late-night accident in which an 18-wheeler collided with their car. (Perhaps the most horrific part of this whole disc are the allegations that the trucking company covered up their driver’s culpability in the crash, and attempted to pin the blame on Shaw and Willhelm.) Through interviews with those who knew the duo and an abundance of vintage photos and video, a full portrait of two beloved and extremely talented young men is evoked, and “Moose Magic” (named after the pair’s band) is a true labor of love.

As is this Blu-ray (which comes packaged with a CD of Shaw and Willhelm’s AXE and COED soundtracks and other music, and also includes trailers and TV/radio spots) as a whole. Severin’s David Gregory and co. have done a standout job of not only resurrecting and polishing up Friedel’s features, but providing a full, rich chronicle of how they came to be and why they never previously got their due. Friedel recalls wanting to equal his hero Orson Welles by making his first film by age 25, and a little over 40 years later, they now have a disc showcase worthy of CITIZEN KANE.

OVERALL RATING: 4_skull

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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