The Video Nasties #29 – The Living Dead (1975, Jorge Grau)

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‘You’re all the same the lot of you, with your

long hair and faggot clothes.’

In 1968, George Romero released Night of the Living Dead, the first modern zombie film and one of the most influential horror films of all time. Oddly though, it wasn’t until his follow-up Dawn of the Dead that we started to see all the (mostly Italian) copycat films emerge. Nowadays of course, you can’t swing an intestine without hitting a low budget zombie flick, but back in 1974 they were few and far between.

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Enter Spanish filmmaker Jorge Grau and his masterful gut-munching epic, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (shortened for release on VHS to the more pithy The Living Dead). His film takes a more ecological view of a zombie outbreak, suggesting that it’s a new piece of agricultural technology for killing parasites that causes the dead to rise, making the film almost as much a ‘nature-strikes-back’ film in the vein of Frogs or Food of the Gods as it is a zombie flick.

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We begin with Italian genre stalwart Ray Lovelock playing George, the world’s least likely antique shop owner, heading to Windermere to see some friends. There he meets the rather highly strung Edna, who reverses her car over his motorbike. In what is perhaps the least credible moment in the film, George is informed that the nearest spare wheel is in Glasgow, which is almost 200 miles away. You’d think maybe that Manchester, which is half the distance away, would have spare wheels, but I’m no mechanic guys. We’re just gonna have to trust that Jorge Grau did extensive research on the British auto-repair industry before filming.

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So far nothing much has happened, but it’s been entertaining. The actors are good, even down to the dubbing and the film looks terrific. George and Edna carry on in her car. Despite insisting on driving, he puts her at ease by saying the immortal words, ‘Look darlin’, you don’t have to worry. I’m not gonna jump you or anything.’ Well, thank goodness for that, he’s a gentleman at least. They meet a farmer who is using the aforementioned ultrasonic technology. It’s strange, despite it having a one mile radius, the user still has to walk around with a colander dangling from a stick, waving it around over the insects to kill them. But I’m not about to let science spoil the fun, because right here is our introduction to Guthrie, the film’s first zombie.

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And what an introduction it is! Grau uses subjective camerawork, really creepy heavy breathing and the sinister isolation of the English countryside to create a sequence of genuine unease. When he finally emerges, Guthrie looks for all the world like a genuine corpse. The zombies in this film are, to my mind at least, probably the greatest in any film. Not only are they believable as actual dead people, but the design is just phenomenal too. The zombie with the nostril plugs, the one with the head bandage and autopsy scar, the one with the gnarled hands – every zombie here is memorable, something that cannot be said for, say, Tom Savini’s work on Dawn of the Dead. Of course, that is the advantage of focussing on just a handful of zombies, rather than the hundreds featured in Romero’s later work. The effects here are handled by Giannetto De Rossi, who we will be seeing a lot more of later. Will there be more zombies involved? You bet!

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At just about the halfway point, George and Edna visit a church and suddenly the film explodes into life and never really lets up from hereon in. There’s a sustained suspense sequence in the church basement, and the first of the outrageous gore set pieces that are sprinkled sparingly throughout. There’s an odd supernatural element introduced that seems at odds with the ecological explanation given earlier, wherein the zombies can give life to the dead by dabbing the blood of the living onto their eyelids. It’s a strange touch, but Grau has worked so hard to create a gothic atmosphere that it works.

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It sometimes feels almost like a Hammer picture, with it’s remote churches, moody English scenery and thick fog. But Hammer films never had a nurse having her breast torn off and eaten, or a nerve shredding shot as good as that of the zombies advancing on the hospital elevator really fucking quickly. Despite occasional funny moments, like George escaping by throwing a towel (No! Not a towel!) into a policeman’s face, The Living Dead maintains it’s grim atmosphere right up until the bitter, ironic conclusion.

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I’ll be honest, I may be slightly biased here because I once went on holiday to the Peak District in England and unintentionally stayed in the village where this movie was filmed, but it’s still an exceptional horror film, and one of the best films on the list.

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The Video Nasties #28 – Late Night Trains (1975, Aldo Lado)

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‘You’re such a silly girl, you’re asking to be beaten up.

We just want to have some fun.’

The pitch, I imagine, went something like this – ‘It’s like Last House on the Left…but on a train!’ And back in 1970s Italy, sometimes that was all it took. So here we have Aldo Lado’s Late Night Trains, a virtual remake of a film that was itself a remake of a film that was inspired by a medieval ballad. I hope you’re keeping up.

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Two young girls are heading home to Italy for Christmas. When their train is stopped, they board a nearly deserted train, along with a couple of thugs and a respectable older woman harbouring dark desires. There, the two girls are subjected to a series of assaults, until one is murdered and the other leaps from the train to her death. With crushing inevitability, the three end up staying at the house of the dead girls’ parents, who mete out an underwhelming revenge.

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The problem with this film is that except for the two leads, everyone is an asshole. And I mean everyone. Everyone. From the drunken Santa in the opening credits, to the pair of rapists, to the passenger who enters the compartment, rapes one of the girls and then leaves. It’s relentlessly downbeat, but unlike the rage that seemed to galvanise Last House, this seems more like a misanthropic, pessimistic shrug of the shoulders. It’s almost enough to make you yearn for Ada and her fucking chicken van from Last House’s ‘comic relief’ scenes. And whereas Last House seemed genuinely appalled by the degradation of the girls, this film positively revels in it.

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Despite very little nudity, there’s a perverse focus on leering close ups of crying teens begging their tormentors to stop. It culminates in one of the most extreme images you’re gonna encounter on your Nasty journey – the rape of Irene Miracle with a switchblade. The one brief shot alone is enough to make you understand why this film was added to the DPP list, although astonishingly it was never successfully prosecuted. Maybe the VHS image was too dark to see what was going on?

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After such brutality, it’s especially disappointing to see the lacklustre revenge. Okay, one of the thugs gets stabbed in the balls, but the other just gets shot. It’s lacking the ‘anything goes’ intensity of Craven’s film. The fate of Macha Meril’s character, who is the true villain of the piece, is left up in the air as a final ‘fuck you’ to the audience.

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If it sounds like I’m being harsh, then I am. But that’s not to say there’s not a lot to like about Late Night Trains. The first half is actually pretty good. I’m a big fan of low budget filmmakers grabbing guerrilla style footage, and Lado here shoots in Munich at Christmas time. I love watching the folk in the background gawking slack jawed at the camera. I wonder if any of them ever saw the film and what they thought. It’s not exactly one to show the grandkids…

Director Lado also shows what a capable director he is throughout, particularly once the girls board the second train. This sequence is a masterclass of suspense filmmaking, the editing, lighting and performances creating some of the most oppressive tension of any of the Nasties. Meanwhile, Ennio Moricone’s score plays with diagetic and non-diagetic sound to create a truly haunting soundtrack, based almost entirely around a simple five note piano/harmonica riff.

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If you don’t believe me, then listen to this spectacular nonsense from the VHS cover – Voted the ‘Best Late Night Horror Film’ 1978. Ummm, by who exactly? Nice try, but you’re fooling no-one.

So it’s not a bad film at all, despite it’s reputation. It’s just a bit of a pity that it seems to take such pleasure in the debasement of the youngsters, while short changing us with the unsatisfactory deaths of their abusers. But perhaps the greatest punishment of all is reserved for the viewer, who has to suffer through 70s Greek sensation Demis Ruossos’ unique vocal stylings as he mangles an otherwise pretty Morricone ballad, not once but twice. Having said that, of course I have it on my iPod. Don’t you?

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The Video Nasties #27 – Foxy Brown (1974, Jack Hill)

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‘That’s my sister baby,

And she’s a whole lotta woman.’

The Video Nasties aren’t exactly known for their strong female characters. They’re also not renowned for their progressive portrayal of people of colour. If you’re looking for an example of this, why not cast your mind back to the last film reviewed, The Executioner where every woman was either a saint or a whore and every black man a spook or worse. So it’s a nice change to watch a proper blaxploitation movie from one of the masters of the genre, Jack Hill and starring the iconic Pam Grier.

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Foxy Brown is the unrelated follow up movie to Coffy, and while it lacks that films reckless forward momentum for the most part, it’s still one of the most purely enjoyable films that we’re going to cover.

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The credits set the tone by having Pam dance in a variety of figure hugging outfits over Willie Hutch’s superbly funky theme tune and immediately you know if you’re in or out. Me, I’m in, all the way and I’m pretty sure you are too. It’s a simple tale of revenge, with Pam going undercover as a prostitute to infiltrate the drug gang that murdered her boyfriend. There’s no scene to rival the topless party catfight from Coffy, but we do get Starsky and Hutch’s Huggy Bear as Pam’s brother and a scene where Pam humiliates a judge by stripping him and throwing him out into a hotel corridor with the classic line,

‘You pink-ass corrupt honky judge, take your little wet noodle outta here and if you see a man anywhere send him in because I DO need a man.’

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Pam Grier is on fire in this movie, effortlessly tough and sexy and dominating every scene she’s in. In one particularly wince inducing moment she manages to pick up a razor blade with her tongue while tied half-naked to a bed, which I’d like to see Meryl Streep try to do. On second thoughts, maybe not.

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If Foxy Brown is a little bit slower than Coffy, it certainly picks up the pace in the third act. There’s a brawl in a lesbian bar that has to be seen to be disbelieved, and this is certainly the only Nasty to end with an airplane chase, even if the plane never leaves the ground.

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As for its inclusion on the Section 3 list, well…I don’t really know. Foxy does find herself shot up with heroin and rape is implied, though we’re hardly in I Spit On Your Grave or Wrong Way territory. The whole movie feels like a comic book, with crazy unbelievable violence to match. I can’t imagine too many people would be tempted to hop in a plane and attack someone with the propellor after watching this film, but what do I know? There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from a severed dick, so maybe that was enough. It was a different time back then.

Perhaps the least nasty Nasty, Foxy Brown is worth a look for anyone who wants to see Pam Grier hiding a gun in her afro or just anyone that wants to have a good time. Enjoy it, because things are about to get real dark…

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The Video Nasties #26 – The Executioner (1974, Duke Mitchell)

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‘A small army of guts, balls and trust,

invading Hollywood.’

Duke Mitchell hates The Godfather.

That’s fine, we all have movies we hate for whatever reason. I hate Transformers: Age of Extinction and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and I’’m sure you have a few too. But unlike you or I, Duke Mitchell hated The Godfather so much that he made a movie about it.

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The Executioner seems to exist as a passion project for Mitchell, who was a lounge singer that apparently lived the kind of life that was romanticised in Coppola’s epic. Towards the end of The Executioner he delivers a heartfelt speech to his onscreen father urging him to leave the mobster business behind, telling him how Hollywood has made books and movies based on his life and using The Godfather as an example of how their culture has been diluted. I would dearly love to believe that this film is a true life exposé of what really happened in those heady days of gangsters, but considering Mitchell casts himself as an invincible Terminator-like love machine, it can be hard to take seriously.

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The film opens with a bang, with Mitchell and his burly co-star electrocuting a man in a wheelchair by attaching an electrical cable to his leg and dropping it in a urinal, before blasting their way out of an office building that seems to be staffed entirely by pimps in frilly pink shirts. It sounds amazing and…it is. He makes one guy get on his knees and cross himself before putting a bullet in his head and then does my favourite thing ever – he points a gun at the camera and pulls the trigger and his credit appears onscreen. It doesn’t get much better than that, and sadly the film doesn’t.

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There is a plot but I couldn’t tell you it, and I’ve seen the film twice. Mitchell leaves Sicily (‘I’m stuck here with a six year old kid and a dead wife,’ he complains) to go to LA, where he gets involved with various shenanigans and ends up seemingly killing the entire Mafia single-handedly for some reason before heading back home after his pointless crusade. But you don’t need a plot to enjoy watching Mitchell live out his crazy mobster fantasies, whether it be crucifying a pimp or fingering a woman under the table at a wedding. Yeah, it’s fair to say he’s not exactly the most likeable character in the world, with the film coming second only to Fight For Your Life in terms of sheer racism on the Nasties list.

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But what’s a 70s gangster film doing hanging around with Last House on the Left and Faces of Death on the periphery of the Nasties list? Well, the violence is mostly restricted to some juicy squibs, though there is a meathook through the eye and a nude woman found hanging. It’s not any more violent than The Godfather though, and is representative of people’s bias against low budget independent cinema vs Hollywood movies. You’ll notice that the extremely violent The Godfather is conspicuous by its absence from the Nasties…

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If you liked The Godfather but wished it had more scenes of characters shooting pornos, then The Executioner is definitely the film for you. Even if not, it’s a surprisingly well put together movie with some good ideas, and it’s always a joy to watch a film that is so clearly a labour of love for its maker. Mitchell wrote, produced, starred and directed and yes, even supplied the saccharine ballads on the soundtrack. I don’t remember hearing Francis Ford Coppola singing the theme to The Godfather, so by my scoring that’s one nil to Duke Mitchell.

Maybe we all need more guts, balls and trust in our lives?

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The Video Nasties #25 – Enter the Devil (1974, Mario Gariazzo)

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‘I suppose that’s your excuse for 

submitting your body to whips, belts

and other masochistic tomfoolery!’

You know what film I just don’t like? The Exorcist. I simply can’t fathom why that bloated, tedious bore of a movie is so highly regarded. Priests are such dull lead characters, and they’re always grappling with their faith like that is somehow an interesting thing to happen. Then at the end, it’s always just a priest holding up a crucifix and shouting in Latin, which does not make for compelling cinema. And just what is the devil’s endgame supposed to be? The Exorcist always struck me as such smallfry – like, what would happen if they didn’t exorcise little Regan? Would she just sit in bed forever and do absolutely nothing? She’s only a threat if you go into her room, so just put up a Do Not Disturb sign and be done with it. What I’m saying is, demonic possession movies are mostly garbage.

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Oh hi Enter The Devil, I didn’t see you there. How long have you been listening? Well, that is awkward, because Enter The Devil is an Italian Exorcist clone that starts off like it’s going to be an absolute fucking masterpiece and then halfway through becomes a straight up remake of that movie and also, incidentally, one of only two Nasties that made me genuinely fall asleep. Maybe it was the work of the devil? Or maybe it was just boring…

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Enter the Devil has an embarrassment of incredible alternate titles. In some countries it’s known as The Sexorcist – The Sexorcist, guys, The Sexorcist! – and it also revels in the glorious title of The Eerie Midnight Horror Show. I don’t know why you would choose to release the movie under the title Enter the Devil when you had those options, but someone did, and I imagine plenty Bruce Lee fans ended up confused and disappointed when they went to see this one expecting the follow-up to Enter the Dragon.

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‘This film is based on a true story’ lies the opening credits, the true story being that an Italian producer saw The Exorcist and said ‘Let’s make that film!’ Initially though, it seems that no one told director Mario Gariazzo, as the first half of the film is full of highly unusual and genuinely frightening imagery.

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A statue found in a deconsecrated church is brought to the home of Danila, who’s either an art or theology student, I couldn’t quite tell. After witnessing her mother being whipped with roses at a party – man, those 70s Italian parties! – Danila sneaks off to paint, where the statue comes to life in the best scene of the film. Even though Gariazzo bungles the reveal somewhat – it would have been much scarier to have seen it move in the background behind Danila – it’s still a great scene with some terrific effects disguising Ivan Rassimov, who in a career full of playing scumbags finally gets to play the biggest one of all, Satan himself. Satan tears Danila’s dress off and the two fuck in front of a burning cross and I can’t believe my luck – what looked like a boring Exorcist clone might actually be a weird supernatural Satanic sex horror movie!

Amazingly, it doesn’t drop the ball. There’s a really scary scene where Danila is being followed up the stairs by an invisible presence, and she’s so frightened that when she gets into her flat she starts masturbating. Oh, those Italians! After this, Danila goes to visit a rural church where she finds a crucified Satan in a cavern, surrounded by nude devil women.

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By this point I was practically having a religious moment myself, caught up in a strange kind of ecstasy that comes from seeing so much mind-melting erotic and horrific imagery, from seeing a film that manages to live up to all of its fabulous titles.

And then everything turns to shit.

Suddenly she’s possessed and tied to a bed and there’s a priest and then there’s another, older priest and then there are some nuns and then there’s some blasphemy and then there’s some pea soup vomiting and then the priest dies to save her and then The End. It’s The Exorcist in half an hour, and it’s such a waste because if the film that we had been watching – so full of original, provocative moments – had just continued like that, then this would be regarded as some kind of minor classic. As it is, why not just watch the first half then stop the movie and go to bed and dream up a more convincing conclusion to the story? And there better not be any damn priests in it!

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The Video Nasties #24 – The Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1974, Carlos Aured)

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‘The life of an ex-convict is very difficult.’

The first of two Paul Naschy movies we’ll be covering, this is one of his rare non-supernatural movies. If anything, it’s a Spanish version of the Italian giallo films, a psycho-sexual murder mystery that has all the sex and violence of its Italian counterparts, although somewhat lacking in the style.

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Naschy, Spain’s premier ex-bodybuilder/werewolf-wannabe, plays Gilles, a down on his luck drifter looking for a job in rural France. We know it’s France because the diner has a big sign on the wall that says ‘FRANCE’. He finds one as the caretaker for three sisters, each of whom seems nuttier than the last. One of my favourite clichés of a Naschy movie is that there’s always a bunch of babes fighting over who gets to bed him, and Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll is no exception. Not only does Naschy have the three attractive sisters trying to jump his bones, there’s also a gorgeous nurse, although she seems less interested so he tries to rape her instead. Ladies and gentlemen, this is our hero!

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It turns out that Gilles is a convicted rapist, the revelation of which makes it hard to root for him, although one of the sisters still professes her love for Gilles, proving that love truly is blind.

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Anyway, just as Naschy gets the job, beautiful girls with blue eyes and blonde hair start getting murdered and having their eyes removed. Could it be our Paul? Or one of the three nutters? What about the mysterious nurse, or the doctor with the suspiciously blonde haired daughter who died many years ago? And just why are there so many stunning blue-eyed blonde girls in this village, and where is it and how do I get there?

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The first half of the movie is mostly Paul lumbering around shirtless and bedding the women. We don’t even see the first murder, it’s just told to us by the police inspector! At almost the halfway point we finally get the first kill, and it’s a doozy, made all the more bizarre by the choice to soundtrack it to children’ nursery rhyme Frére Jacques, a bold choice that actually pays off, unlike the similar score for Abducted.

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Let’s talk about the music for a minute and then never speak of it again. There are precisely three pieces of music in the film – Frére Jacques, a cool guitar/mellotron piece that plays a couple of times, and then a ludicrous jaunty theme that sounds more suited to a spy comedy. This tune plays over and over and over again on a seemingly endless loop throughout the entire movie, regardless of the tone of the scene. You’ll hate it, then come round to loving it, then hate it again. It’s a baffling choice but one that somehow works for this quirky little movie.

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The killer is pretty easy to guess if you’ve ever seen a murder-mystery before, although before we get there there’s a couple of pretty crazy twists that I never saw coming. Or maybe I just couldn’t tear my eyes off Naschy’s hairy wrists and missed all the signposts. Regardless, the final revelations are highly satisfactory and with the exception of a needless pig slaughter that puts a dampener on things, this is recommended for fans of kooky Euro-horror and topless Spanish bodybuilders.

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The Video Nasties #23 – Axe (1974, Frederick R Friedel)

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‘I don’t have any parents…it’s only me

and my grandfather.’

Films like Axe are the reason I wanted to write this blog. Despite some critical rehabilitation through writers like Stephen Thrower, so many Nasties are still unfairly maligned and dismissed as trash, and not just by the mainstream. Even in the world of horror journalism, films like this and, say, Mardi Gras Massacre are treated with, at best, a weary disdain or at worst outright contempt. But Axe is different. It’s closer in tone to early Polanski than HG Lewis. What I’m saying is this – if you’re here for the gore and laughs, then jog on, buster. However, if you like thoughtful and moody horror that asks many questions and then refuses to answer them, then come on in. Lisa’s home, and she’s made you some soup.

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It opens with a beautiful shot of a farmhouse against a reddening sky, while theme music that sounds like a cat walking up and down a keyboard plays. Unexpectedly, we then spend the next twenty minutes or so following a trio of obnoxious 70s gangsters.

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These rascals murder a gay man and his friend because – well, I’m not sure actually – and then humiliate a store clerk for no reason other than they’re a bunch of big jerks. By the time they reach the farmhouse, we’re half an hour in, which means it’s already the halfway point of the movie! Yes, Axe runs just over an hour, and that’s including two minutes of opening credits and four minutes of closing credits. But you know what? A lot of films, especially the ones on this list, could be improved by being chopped down to an hour. Who says these things have to run ninety minutes? Come on guys, get working on that sixty minute fan edit of Don’t Look In The Basement. We’ll make it watchable yet!

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By now the viewer is either frustrated or enraptured by the strange psychological goings-on. We meet the inhabitants of the house, Lisa and her ‘grandfather’. Grandfather is paralyzed and Lisa cares for him, feeding and washing him. However, his eyes seem to tell a different story, particularly when the murders begin. I’d like to believe that Grandfather was just some poor schmuck who happened to wander along and Lisa, who clearly has some deep rooted psychological trauma, has ‘adopted’ him as a relative and made sure that he can never leave. It’s a remarkable performance for a man who can only act with his eyes.

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Lisa too is a fascinating yet cold character, and she has a look about her that is truly haunting. Just try and take your eyes off her in the scene where the bearded gangster (who looks like artist Bob Ross) is pushing the chest upstairs, and Lisa is lurking in the background like a phantom.

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Of course, this being a Nasty, Lisa is assaulted by the thugs on two separate occasions, and this is where things start to get bloody. She slashes one of them on the back of the neck with a razor, which almost seems funny until she continues sawing away viciously at the gaping wound, blood gushing onto the bed. I love how after she chops his body up with an axe, she gets back into bed, blood-soaked sheets and all. It’s just that kind of film.

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The next guy she actually kills with an axe, making good on the film’s title at last, before the final poor sap is shot down by the police. Anyone who saw this under its alternative title California Axe Massacre would no doubt be somewhat confused by the lack of both axes and massacres. I suppose it might be set in California, and there is an axe used once, so I guess two out of three ain’t bad. Sort of.

Thrill seekers will be disappointed, but fans of hazy art house horror, rife with surreal imagery and long stretches without dialogue, will find plenty to get their teeth into here.

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