Saturday 23 January 2016

Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013)

Director: Gary Jones
Stars: Amber Connor, Joe Estevez, Tom Downey, Tim Lovelace and Dan Haggerty
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Like many of the stars who pick a couple of films from their careers for me to review as part of my Make It a Double project, Dan Haggerty picked one quickly: this one. Given that he’s hardly in it, perhaps it was a fresh memory. After all, he picked his two at the Wild Western Festival in Glendale in October 2014 when this was his most recent feature, having been released in June 2013. Like those others, he took a little bit of time to think up his second pick, going back to his most famous role of James ‘Grizzly’ Adams, but in a less well known title that he felt was particularly worthwhile, the 1982 TV movie, The Capture of Grizzly Adams. It’s oddly synchronistic that he would pick Axe Giant as it was made by a company founded by a couple of men who had been introduced by Gunnar Hansen, the last actor whose Make It a Double picks that I reviewed for this project because, like Haggerty, he also died before I got round to watching them. Hopefully that isn’t a continuing trend and I can share future reviews with the actors who set them up.

The idea behind this one is to take one of the great American tall tales from the nineteenth century and mix it up for the modern day. Those two founders, Gary Jones and Jeff Miller, thought of Paul Bunyan and how legend had the Great Lakes form from his footsteps and the Grand Canyon from the dragging of his axe, and spun that idea into a slasher movie. With Jason Ancona, they turned it into a script which Jones directed. I liked this idea and it made this slasher more American than most, which is a good thing in my book because, even though most slasher flicks are American, I still think of the genre as Italian because nothing I’ve seen has compared to Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood or Twitch of the Death Nerve, which had arguably started the whole thing. I liked this film too, at least for the first half to two thirds. Up until that point, it had walked a fine line just this side of cliché, but then it got sloppy and ended cheaply. That’s a shame because a little more effort to wrap things up properly would have made a big difference.
Haggerty appears in the opening story which unfolds in the Minnesota of 1894. He’s in charge of a crew of lumberjacks who call him Foreman Bill. After a long day of working in the snow, they return to camp to carve off a chunk of the huge beast that the cook has on an ambitious spit over a fire. Bill wanders off to presumably relieve himself in the woods before dinner, prompting a memorable description of him as ‘a great big bear of a man with the itty bitty bowels of a squirrel.’ I love that line and wish I’d have another opportunity to meet Haggerty to ask him about it. When I first met him, I gave him a signed copy of my debut book and mentioned that I’d reviewed one of his films in it. He asked which one and I said that he didn’t look the same without pink ribbons in his hair. Remembering Pink Angels as an odd anomaly in his filmography, he jokingly asked security to kick me out of the building before kindly signing that chapter in my own copy. He did make some odd movies though, and his death here is both odd and memorable.

He’s killed by a routine looking maniac in a lumberjack shirt and a latex mask, after returning to find the camp the scene of a massacre. Given how many slasher movies have been set in camps, I’d wonder why nobody’s made Lumberjack Camp Massacre yet but then there wouldn’t be any quality boobs. Of course, anyone remotely familiar with the Paul Bunyan legends has probably figured out what’s going on by now but the rest of the world has to wait until the explanation halfway through, from the token mountain man after the fit has already hit the shan. That provides a neat opportunity for a little more exposition in 1894 and thus a little more screen time for Haggerty and his lumberjack crew, but it’s still not much. I’ve found a lot of Make It a Double choices fascinating for a lot of reasons, but one is the odd discovery that actors sometimes choose films that they’re hardly in, this following in the footsteps of Gunnar Hansen’s choices and Dee Wallace’s Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder.
Given that we don’t spend the movie in 1894, we quickly move forward to a familiar framework. Sgt Hoke is a drill sergeant of a police officer who speaks with the precise tones of a RoboCop and Ms K is a smiling social worker and counsellor. They meet for the first time mere seconds before they’re about to take on a set of five varied juveniles who have fallen afoul of the law. He calls them STUMPs, an acronym for Stupid Teenagers Under My Protection. Their job is to drive them out to the inevitable cabin in the woods and try to transform those STUMPs into trees, upstanding members of the community. Of course, both are blatant stereotypes, almost the epitome of the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ epithets that the media is currently so fond of. He’s a cigar smoking, gun-toting, vitriol hurling outdoorsman who takes no crap from nobody and she’s a lily livered Social Justice Warrior with a liberal arts degree who lives in an office. Of course, neither remains quite that stereotypical because there is some substance here, if not a heck of a lot.

The five juvies are also roughly what you might expect, even if their presence here doesn’t actually make much sense. There’s a thin nerdy kid with glasses called Martin who hacked into the IRS and stole twelve million dollars. Well, eleven and a half. The skeletal white trash girl in a skimpy top is Trish, whose sassy attitude led to three counts of assault on a police officer after she punched a cop who looked at her ass. Zack is an upper middle class drug dealer whose friends needed things. Rosa is the token black chick in distressed jeans and a bitchy attitude; she went down for contempt of court. And Claire, or CB, is the odd one out, a normal girl who was merely ‘a little buzzed’ after a party when she hit a drunk driver who had run a red light in front of her after crashing into three other cars on the way. She’s the one that everyone else gets to sympathise with because justice is a bitch who cares nothing about perspective. She’s also the one with a back story that comes in useful later in the film after things have gone pear shaped.
‘You never know who you might run into in the deep dark woods,’ Sgt Hoke quips to Claire’s father, after he drops her off. Well, we do because he’s in the title of the movie and, sure enough, there’s a giant Paul Bunyan breaking the neck of a fully grown bear just to show us how massive he is. He does look pretty cool as a giant, even if he’s clumsily added into scenes with people in them. He’s much more effective in his cave, because he’s just a big guy there with latex muscles. Things go roughly as we expect. The kids don’t like camping outdoors in gender separated tents while Sgt Hoke stays indoors. Trish surreptitiously sneaks into the guys’ tent so she can take her top off and get caught by Ms K. Just half a day of hiking in the woods is enough for some of them to want to quit and sneak away, even if it means they’ll go to jail, forcing us to start rooting for Sgt Hoke. And, of course, one of them triggers the rest of the story through a surreptitious action that he’s told not to do by the authority figures present.

Originality really isn’t the point here, outside of that initial idea of updating tall tales to a contemporary framework. Then again, how many slasher movies have you seen that have even a trace of originality. I thought as much. Slasher movies tend to be rated on the number of boobs shown and the quality of the death scenes. On those counts, this one does poorly on the former but rather well on the latter, because we only get one pair of boobs and those not for long but as much imagination in the deaths as is possible given that Paul Bunyan really only has one weapon. The effects work is surprisingly good, given how bad the greenscreen work is throughout, and it’s the deaths where they’re put to the best and most frequent use. I was especially impressed with Haggerty’s death scene, where the younger Bunyan forces his head backwards into a circular saw that’s used for cutting trees in half. The scenery is also good throughout; it isn’t Minnesota, but forests in California and Ohio work just as well.
And the acting is surprisingly capable. I wouldn’t call anyone out for Academy Awards, but each of those juveniles is given a little more depth than the script warranted by the actors who brought them life. Tom Downey is easily the best actor of those who have actual screen time; he sells Sgt Hoke very well and it’s telling that such an abrasive character can become sympathetic in his hands. He’s made a lot of movies that look like cheap genre fare that would screen on the Syfy Channel, as indeed this did. I own a few of them and, on the basis of this performance, may well shift them a little further up my priority list for his participation. The other notable presence is Joe Estevez, who wanders into the film as a ‘harmless local’ with a screw loose. He lives on the mountain, knows the truth and gets to tell it like he’s sitting around a campfire at Halloween. He’s Clint Howard meets Walter Huston from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a performance he delivers with wide eyes and relish. It’s overblown, of course, but it’s fun.

And, of course, that’s what Jones and Miller were going for. For the most part they succeed, even if Bruce Campbell’s memorable quote overplays it a little. ‘Cheesier than a Roquefort sandwich,’ he quipped, ‘but I enjoyed the hell out of it.’ He’s presumably being generous because he has history with Jones, who had started out doing effects work for a whole slew of Bruce Campbell movies, beginning with Stryker’s War, which Campbell co-wrote, and Evil Dead II but moving on to more prominent fare such as Moontrap and Army of Darkness. In fact, most of the crew members have long strings of credits behind them of movies we’ve heard of and have often seen. This may well be a Roquefort sandwich, but it’s a tasty one for most of its running time. With the exception of the cheap and unworthy ending, it bodes rather well for Kinetic Filmworks LLC. I love trying to figure out why people picked the films they did for Make It a Double and I think that, beyond this being the most recent film Haggerty made, it was also a fun experience for him.

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