AXE
Color, 1974, 67m.
Directed by Frederick R. Friedel
Starring Leslie Lee, Jack Canon, Ray Green, Frederick R. Friedel, Douglas Powers

KIDNAPPED COED
Color, 1976, 76m.
Directed by Frederick R. Friedel
Starring Jack Canon, Leslie Rivers, Gladys Lavitan, Larry Lambeth, Jim Blankinship
Severin (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Image (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

AxeAxeAmong the dozens of T&A-packed cheapies churned out by exploitation guru Harry Novak's Boxoffice International Pictures, some truly rewarding genre gems managed to slip through and startle audiences with their level of quality and invention. Two fine examples of BIP's output can be found in this double feature, one of the most impressive digital tributes to drive-in's glory days and also a representation of the entire directorial output of Frederick R. Friedel. The two-shot filmmaker was profiled in depth in the exceptional regional horror tome Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents, whose author, Stephen Thrower, appears on this disc as well and has served as a vocal champion for Friedel's work.

First up is Axe, a moody slice of North Carolina hybrid of gothic horror and crime film originally released on DVD via Image Entertainment in a full-frame transfer as a Something Weird double feature with another Novak-acquired horror gem, The Child. Originally shot under the title Lisa, Lisa, it features some surprisingly meditative, artsy touches (including an oddly beautiful and unsettling opening shot over the opening credits) as it charts the descent into terror experienced by three criminal enforcers: Steele (Canon), Lomax (Green), and Billy (Friedel). The latter two do the dirtiest work, first seen tormenting and taking out a target and then terrorizing a convenience store clerk with a perverse variation on William Tell. Finally they end up at the remote country home of Lisa (Lee), who tends to a mute, paralyzed man (Powers) she refers to as her grandfather, though the jury's out about the real nature of their relationship. When one of the men tries to force himself on Lisa that night, she resorts to a handy straight razor and the title weapon to give the visitors far more than they bargained for.

There's a real Axehaunting power to this short and sweet little number, which features Axemore than its share of ambiguity (including much of its finale) and a keen visual sense. The basic structure owes a far weird nods to Performance with its look at criminals going about their business before going way out of their element in a crazy house, but Friedel makes this one all his own with Lee in particular giving a chilling but lyrical central performance.

Canon teamed up with Friedel again two years later for a somewhat less grisly crime thriller ultimately known under the misleadingly salacious title of Kidnapped Coed. Yes, there is a kidnapping, and it does involve a young woman, in this case redheaded college student Sandra (Rivers). Otherwise it's a far cry from the sleazy roughie you'd expect from the title as Friedel again focuses just as much on atmosphere and mood as cheap thrills, even throwing in some tenderness and redemption into the mix. The kidnapper here is Eddie Matlock (Canon), but he's really the most sympathetic guy as his attempts to collect a ransom but the pair in contact with a string of goons and perverts, including two who decide to have his way with Sandra before Eddie plugs a few bullets in them. This one was released as a different Something Weird double bill from Image paired up with Hitchhiker to Hell (replicating the same double feature released back in the VHS days from BFV) and it's worth noting that the sloppy retitling of the film (originally called The Kidnapper) resulted in a hilarious gaffe at the beginning.

For anyone who read Thrower's book and wanted to know more about how these two Carolina cult items came to be, the Severin disc (available as separate editions on Blu-ray and DVD) has plenty of involvement from Friedel including audio commentaries for both films with him, Axeproduction manager Philip Smoot, Axeand makeup artist Worth Keeter, though the latter two also performed an assortment of other duties right down to moving boxes and props around. The 61-minute "At Last... Total Terror! The Amazing True Story of the Making of Axe and Kidnapped Coed" fills in the rest of the gaps with a broader overview of the production from the same participants, and between the three extras you get a vivid portrait of how Friedel decided to make a feature film no matter what at the age of 25 (the same age his idol Orson Welles made Citizen Kane), had to move intended locations around a bit for Axe, and got completely screwed by Novak (in what is sadly not a unique story). The featurette also covers the whereabouts (sometimes unknown) of the others in front of and behind the camera, working up to a surprisingly potent, bittersweet final ten minutes covering some of the tragedies that struck afterwards and the eventual resurgence in fan interest in both films.

Partially to address the distribution fiasco he encountered, Friedel eventually came up with the idea of cutting both films together into a single feature using a pretty nifty gimmick: repurposing all of it into a single story about twin brothers separated at birth who embark on fateful crime sprees on the same day, which was easy to accomplish since Canon played leading roles in both films. Obviously some of the more languid moments ended up being shortened, but the end result, Bloody Brothers, flows surprisingly well as it intercuts between the two films with handy text additions laying out the time frame and locations. For what essentially amounts to a third feature film, Thrower also offers a solo commentary track in which he lays out his appreciation for the films, the significant contribution he made Axeto tie the narratives together at the end, and places the projects in context as part of the wave of '70s regional filmmaking. Axe

Thrower also appears for a 9-minute video appraisal of the film, essentially compressing his perceptive comments from his book into a nice, succinct critical overview. Also included are the original Axe trailer, alternate ones under the titles Lisa, Lisa and Virgin Slaughter, a Kidnapped Coed trailer under the alternate title Kidnap Lover, and TV and radio spots for both films. Definitely not to be overlooked is the 38-minute "Moose Magic - The George Newman Shaw & John Willhelm Story," a very thorough look at the lives of the two late composers of the two features; complete with loads of performance footage and recollections from many family members and fellow musicians, it's a fascinating and ultimately touching tribute to a pair of talents struck down far too soon (and under maddeningly corrupt circumstances). Also included with the set is a soundtrack CD containing the scores for both films (with mostly clean tracks but a handful marred by some brief sound effects) and a batch of bonus tracks, some of them pretty out there. As for the main features, both sport gorgeous new HD transfers from the original negatives and look fresher than either the DVDs or the scarce, battered prints that turn up from time to time. Colors look superb and much healthier than before, and the elements are in fine shape with just some occasional specks and debris popping up for a frame or two. The DTS-HD MA mono audio sounds solid as well.

Reviewed on December 16, 2015.