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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Axe Giant: The Wrath of a Poorly Made Movie


It’s time again for monster movies in October. To be honest, I watch monster and horror movies all year, but in October I try to write a little bit about them.


Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013) directed by Gary Jones, written by Jeff Miller and Gary Jones is all that the title promises – but not much more. But what a title it is!  It’s an interesting premise – a combination of the giant monsters of the 1950s and the slasher flicks of the 1980’s.  It’s too bad that Jones doesn’t seem to know how to tell his story. 

I’m willing to overlook a lot – particularly in a low budget film.  You know upfront that the special effects are probably not going to be very convincing (about half of them in this film are passable, the other half are laughably bad), you know that that actors are going to be unknowns (though Axe Giant does boast Dan Haggerty of Grizzly Adams fame AND Joe Esteves (Martin Sheen’s younger and much more talented brother, and star of one of my favorite bad movies Soultaker) But low budget doesn’t have to mean terrible.  You just need a director who knows how to make the weaknesses and limitations of the production work to the film’s advantage.

For example: If you have inexperienced actors who aren’t able to invest their characters with an emotional depth that makes them likable for the audience don’t linger over their thin and one-dimensional back-stories, particularly in a horror film.  You’ll want to move as quickly to the action and terror as possible. But Jones spends the first 40 minutes of the film here.

The set up is fairly predictable for a horror flick – a group of sulky teenagers is taken into the woods as part of a first-time offenders rehabilitation boot camp, led by a manly and gruff drill sergeant and  a female social worker who just wants to see the kids learn to make good choices.  There was a great opportunity here for some humor, and Jones tried. But the one-liners and clichés fall flat, one after another.

It’s about an hour into the movie (a movie that’s only an hour and a half long, by the way…) that we finally get to the point of the story. In exposition delivered by a scenery chewing backwoodsman (played by Estevez) we are told that the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan is real – though not exactly the friendly frontiersman of the American Tall Tales.  Instead he is a hideously deformed man-child, who is twice as tall (though his height varies greatly throughout the film), and lives three times as long as a normal human being and who is permanently stunted in his mental and emotional development. 

The rest of the movie plays out like a slasher film – the teens are killed off one by one, though the token black kid isn’t the first die. There’s lots of gore and blood, as you would expect in a slasher film, but most of it is done (and done poorly) in cgi.  Here’s another place that the limitations of the film could have been exploited.  Cgi is expensive to do it right, but fake blood is cheap and much more convincing than cgi done poorly.

And we see too much of the murdering giant.  If your special effects budget is small – don’t show the creature.  (Spielberg scared people far more by NOT showing the shark for most of the movie.)  And do it at night – let the darkness hide the seams of the rubber suit and the shadows heighten the audience’s fear of the unknown.  Instead, Jones gives us scene after scene of the mutant giant (and by the way – how does he get size appropriate clothes and tools?) lumbering around in full daylight and poorly done compositing.

It would also be good to know why (if you’re going to explain the why) the monster is on the rampage.  Axe Giant gives us two motivations for Paul’s wrath, but doesn’t develop either one very well.  He is either killing the teens because they’ve desecrated the grave of his beloved Babe, the Big Blue Ox (horribly rendered in cgi) or because one of the girls is the “spittin’ image” of the girl that he loved in the 1890s. The end of the movie tries to convert the murdering giant into a bit of a King Kong character (“it was beauty that killed the beast…”) but is muddled and unconvincing. 

Axe Giant has an interesting premise, and the potential to have been a clever, if low budget, horror movie.  But that isn’t the movie that Gary Jones has delivered.  


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