Movie Review: The Axeman of Henderson County (Featuring Hacksaw Jim Duggan)

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The Axeman of Henderson County is an indie slasher-film inspired by true events. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know anything about the film before it was placed in my hands for a review, so my behind-the-scenes knowledge of the film’s production is fairly sparse. Like with most indie films, the trick to reviewing Axeman is to appreciate what it is, and not spend too much time thinking about what it isn’t: A big-budget horror film. Keeping that in mind, there are some key points to consider about Axeman:

Lets start with the acting. It’s a little hit and miss, which is typical of indie productions. Some actors are good, some are passable, and some have some issues with their delivery. Special guest star “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan in particular is a real treat, and shows that his time in the WWE provided him with a better theatrical backing that just yelling “HOOOOO!” on a nightly basis. None of the actors really have the opportunity to sink their teeth into their characters and make them more than one-dimensional caricatures, however, which lessens the impact of the overall acting product. Without establishing who the characters are outside of the murders, we never really get a sense of the characters personalities. They just don’t feel like real people.

The filmmakers could learn a thing or two from John Carpenter regarding how to utilize a slasher-film villain. The typical rule with horror movies is “less is more,” because whatever we concoct in our own minds is usually more effective than whatever is shown onscreen. While I will say that the titular Axeman has an interesting look (his mask in particular is appropriately creepy and perverse), showing fully lit, full-body shots from the film’s onset removes a great deal of mystery from the character. With some better use of shadows and misdirection, the Axeman could be a very effective addition to the slasher-film prototype.

The action scenes make it hard to sell the Axeman as well, as the spotty choreography can sometimes make him appear clumsier than he should. A slow, lumbering slasher is believable, but a slasher that can’t seem to remember if he’s grabbing someone or swinging his ax at them is less so. Coupled with the low-budget effects, the Axeman is somewhat handicapped as a slasher villain. We don’t really get into the Axeman’s head either, which makes the murders less engrossing and really just seem like random acts of violence. The audience needs context, something to latch on to, in order to really invest in the characters shown onscreen.

The same can be said for establishing the world around the killer. While most people would argue that “show, don’t tell” is the best approach to filmmaking, Axeman could really benefit from some world-building. The audience is thrown right into the narrative with little respect for the setting. Considering that this is inspired by real-events, this is a glaring omission. While some background is established further into the film, it’s too little too late. Establishing the setting before people start getting killed is an easy fix that could help raise the stakes of the narrative high-points. Furthermore, we don’t have any subtext for the murders. We don’t know the characters getting killed or why it’s happening, which makes establishing an emotional connection nearly impossible. Without giving the victims some character, or establishing why the Axeman might be targeting them, it’s nearly impossible to feel anything about what’s happening onscreen.

The number-one rule of editing a film is that, if it’s done right, you don’t even notice the editing. Axman’s editing is somewhat of a hit-or-miss affair, with some scenes turning out better than others. Unfortunately, when the editing is off it is very hard to get lost in the narrative, as shoddy editing tends to remind us that we are watching a movie. Again, it’s hit-and-miss, so when it works it works, but it also makes the times that the editing is off all the more obvious. With a little extra post-production work, a lot of these issues could be ironed out.

A number of sound-related concerns are prevalent throughout the film, especially during portions filmed outside. Given the film’s budget, this is to be expected as booking off a city street or a studio for quiet on the set is likely an insurmountable cost. That being said, there is some shaky sound work throughout the film which, like the editing, has the unfortunate effect of pulling the audience out of the narrative. Ambient noises pop in and out of scenes depending of the shot, a glaring inconsistency that shocks the audience out of the moment.

The best thing about Axeman is undoubtedly it’s shot composition. Whoever is behind the camera clearly has a great eye for the work, as the camera shots are consistently good throughout the picture. From the excellent opening tracking shots that establish the setting to the multi-angle shoots during dialogue scenes, the cinematography is surprisingly strong and comparable to most higher-budget films. Definitely a high-point for the film as a whole.

The Axeman of Henderson County Suffers a great deal from the typical shortcomings of low-budget indie films, especially in editing and sound editing. These issues can be overcome with a strong narrative and characters, but without some post-production work (including reshoots), it’s hard to argue in Axerman’s favor in that regard. What we have here is a strong rough-draft to start working from. All of the key elements are there, they just need to be refined just a little bit more. Axeman is a solid opening-effort that is just a few key points away from being a good entry in the slasher-flick genre.