Monday, April 3, 2017

Ax 'Em (1992), by Michael Mfume

Y'know, it's been awhile since I've reviewed a movie which has...floored me. Sure, there was Glen or Glenda, but that was a long while ago. I need some flesh back on my bones! Some blood back in my veins! I need something overwhelming, something which leaves me struggling for comprehension and comprehensibility. Oh, yes, I know what I want. I know what I need. Yes, it's time...time for AX 'EM!!

Ax 'Em is generally regarded as one of the worst movies ever released on home video, and it is admittedly tough to contend with as far as sheer production values. I have seen few movies, in all those which I've seen, with poorer visuals, cinematography, and sound mixing. And it is tough to watch a singular movie which features extensive scenes of people telling jokes, bickering, and urinating, especially if it also contains those aforementioned technical failings. But there is something charming about Ax 'Em--there has to be, as I returned (eagerly) after an abortive and hate-filled first viewing. Ax 'Em is, as they say, like a fine pair of shoes. It will be angular and cramped at first, but you eventually find that it will carry you well over the marshy terrain of the Scottish highlands, should you ever be presented with a situation wherein that would be a good thing. That is to say it's pretty awesome.

The movie's sole authentic DVD release (which only happened nine years after the movie was made), drops us immediately, sans menu, into the movie's opening title cards, which explain that years ago a man went berserk and killed his family and himself. We will see this incident much, much later in the film in a pretty hilarious dramatization. Anyway, one of the kids, Harry, was "not ever found," and we meet someone whom we can presume to be Harry as an adult. The kid has made some of himself, namely by becoming a booger-faced machete-wielding zombie. (He's never explicitly referred to as a zombie, but most reviews I've seen seem to think he's one, to explain not only the booger-face but his immortality. C'mon, he could just be a leper afflicted with the Curse of Thorn!) Harry kills an old man, and we swiftly learn that said old man's grandson and his college friends plan on going down to visit the old man and spend some time at his house to relax in the woods. Another flashback tells us that some of these kids were childhood friends of Harry's, and that he, being "mentally Ill" blamed them for the murders. Why he didn't kill them then and there when confronting them about it, and why they apparently never passed this incident on to the authorities, must remain a mystery.

Anyway, shortly after arriving, the kids hardly notice the old man's conspicuous absence as they drink beer, play Game Boy, and cheat on their partners with each other. Much of this is filler and, aside from some non-linear flashbacks edited in to tell us the backstory in a surprisingly patient way, we don't really get to the horror aspects of the film until about 40 minutes in (of 70). From there it's just a matter of Harry hunting down the impressively large cast and killing all but three or four them. That's it! Director Mfume--known to his friends as "Mfumay" by the way--thanks his grandma, and the credits roll.

Most of what makes Ax 'Em memorable is the now-oft-aforementioned fact that it looks and sounds like shit. The acting is solid--I can tell that at least a few of the cast have gotten some kind of acting training, and everyone has enough energy that even those without talent still have something to bring to the table. The music, while usually ripped from public domain sources, is bearable, albeit weirdly placed. Ax 'Em is genuinely a shoddily put-together film: most of the dialogue can only be picked out with repeat viewings, which will make the plot borderline incomprehensible. Not only that, but it is pretty hard to see what's going on. But unlike a lot of films with these problems, Ax 'Em gains strength from them, becoming something of an experience in visual poetry, with some lines or images snapping out suddenly from a void of random nonsense. Lines like "You better lay off my beer, you big six-foot-nine motherfucker!" Images like one of the characters bobbing his glasses up and down.

Okay, I have to open that last one up. This scene has haunted me since I first saw this film, nearly ten years ago. There's a scene where three of the characters are bickering and two of them break off to leave the third, a dude with glasses, behind. At this point the killer catches up with him, and music starts playing that sounds like it belongs at a funeral. The bespectacled guy screams and we get a close-up shot of him wiggling his glasses up and down, before jumping to a shot of his dead body. I have never been able to determine why they decided to have this guy bob his glasses up and down. I assume it's supposed to be like Laurel and Hardy's hats jumping off their heads, or someone's monocle popping out--a slapsticky representation of the surprise of confronting something scary. Then why the fuck are they playing funeral music? These murders can't be simultaneous whacky and tragic!

Unless you want to get a dark humor effect, which is what they totally ended up with. This scene is hilarious: not merely because of the contrasting tone, but because I'm still not entirely sure that they were going for slapstick. Maybe the actor just felt like hyperactively adjusting his glasses, which I'm told is common behavior in those about to be killed by zombies.

I hope you can tell I'm in a good mood. This movie has brought me to it. Everything is wrong. Everything is awful. The title is awful. Only one person is killed with an ax; everyone else dies by machete, gunfire, or rotary telephone. Also, the film was originally called The Weekend It Lives, which adds to the notion that Harry is a zombie (hence "It") while also being more grammatically and contextually confusing. I cannot, for the life of me, determine why this was released, much less made, but I want more of it and any film distributor who wouldn't release this film is naught but a craven coward. I've praised the decision to make and release these films in the past, but for someone outside of the director's friend group to release this shows not only insanity but courage. It was a risk to try to find an audience for this film, but a risk well-played, because they found me. Except York Entertainment, which is responsible for the Ax 'Em DVD, no longer exists. Sorry, York--I should've gotten into the game before it was too late. Now the world will never again enjoy your releases of such films as An American Vampire Story or Laserhawk.

To wrap things up, then: sometimes I can't help but wonder if we trash-lovers are really just creeps who like watching people's home videos. Hell, I've bought tapes that really have been just people's home movies before, from the antique shops and garage sales who choose to sell such things, but I do so for a very specific: I watch these movies with the hope that they will turn out to be horror films. (And hey, if I find a snuff film or two in the mix, I get to be part of Internet history! Because that's what one should value in such a case.) This is simply because I'm sure movies like Ax 'Em, Psyched by the 4D Witch, and The Tony Blair Witch Project began their lives as home movies before plot suddenly intervened. A shitty excuse for a plot usually, but something in there that separates it from what would otherwise merely be clips of families seeing what the new camera can do. These films are separate from movies like Bad Magic or Weasels Rip My Flesh, which are made with the quality of home videos, but clearly had scripts of some kind. This is a weird sort of candidness crossed with the provision of genre tropes in a way that's uniquely magical; movie, but not movie. Home video, but not home video. These movies are trapped in a bizarre sort of quantum lock that returns to the old trash adage, that movies which reveal the hearts of their creator at their embarrassing worst are worth treasuring. To be honest, I don't know if Ax 'Em really says anything about Michael Mfume, but it said something for him. There was a reason why this movie was made--it surely couldn't have been for money. I guess I don't really care about that purpose. Everyone who made it looks like they had a great time, and I'm grateful they decided to let us in on that.

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