Edge of the Axe

Color, 1988, 99 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Helmut Berger, Chris Mitchum, Brigitte Lahaie, Caroline Munro, Stéphane Audran, Telly Savalas, Christiane Jean, Gerard Zalcberg, Anton Diffring, Tilda Thamar, Howard Vernon
Severin Films (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0 4K/HD), Media Blasters (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

It may be impossible for a movie Facelessto truly have everything, but Jess Franco sure gave it his best shot with Faceless. FacelessFrench producer and distributor René Chateau was reportedly so pleased with Franco's ability to wring a solid film from pennies with Dark Mission starring Chris Mitchum and Brigitte Lahaie (Chateau's girlfriend at the time) that he hired the director and stars for this relatively opulent production. Franco's most star-studded feature since the glory days with producer Harry Alan Towers at the turn of the '70s, this film (released in France as Les prédateurs de la nuit) returns to the concept of the filmmaker's first big horror hit, The Awful Dr. Orlof, even featuring that film's star, Howard Vernon (as Dr. Orloff), in an extended cameo. Once again we have a doctor resorting to murder and gruesome face transplants to salvage the savaged beauty of a loved one, but here you get so much more along the way: outrageous splatter a la Bloody Moon, a scuzzy private eye element straight out of Franco's Al Periera films, glitzy French discotheques, insanely catchy pop songs, French cinema legend Stéphane Audran getting jabbed in the eyeball by cult legend Brigitte Lahaie, ultra-'80s exaggerated gay comedy, a Lina Romay cameo, Caroline Munro as a cokehead model sweating it out in a padded cell, and so much more. If any film could qualify as Eurocult heaven, this would be it.

Renowned surgeon Dr. Frank Flamand (Visconti muse Berger) has his night ruined when a disgruntled former patient confronts him in a parking lot with a Facelessbadly aimed dose of acid in her hand. Unfortunately the attack ends up disfiguring Frank's sister, Ingrid (Jean), so of course Facelesshe pours all of his effort into turning his sanitarium into a secret haven for abducting women to restore the damage. Soon after American model Barbara Hallen (Munro) slips away from a very expensive photo shoot to score some coke from her new dealer, Nathalie (Lahaie), who turns out to be Frank's assistant with a kidnapping plan in store. Barbara's disappearance just before Christmas alarms her father (Savalas) who hires detective Sam Morgan (Mitchum) to get to the bottom of the mystery, but he can't keep up with the pace of the doctor and his crew who keep snatching more women for perilous facial surgeries. Among the helpers are the depraved Gordon (Zalcberg, who played Udo Kier's infamous alter ego in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne),who helps dispatch of any inconveniences with a chainsaw or power drill, and Nazi scientist Dr. Moser (Circus of Horrors' Diffring). With Flamand's methods becoming more desperate and vicious, how many more victims will end up on his operating table?

Touted in horror magazines as Franco's big return to the international horror scene, Faceless unfortunately came along just as the theatrical market for this type of film was completely collapsing. FacelessThat said, despite the loaded cast and exploitation elements this is a very strange film with a highly unorthodox, subversive ending more akin to something by Lucio Fulci. In fact, one can only wonder how it would have been received if Franco had gone even further and left off the last two minutes! Along the way it's an experience crammed with Facelesseccentricities, chief among them the omnipresent theme song "Faceless" by Vincent Thoma (which ranks up there with "California Dreaming" in Chungking Express for the most incessant number of plays in movie history) and a fun appearance by Florence Guérin (The Black Cat, Too Beautiful to Die) as a greatly exaggerated celebrity version of herself. Interestingly, the top-billed Berger is probably the least interesting presence in the film as he's constantly upstaged by the magnetic Lahaie and a scarily committed Diffring, while the teaming of Mitchum and Savalas is so bizarre you just have to love it.

Initially given a modest theatrical release in a handful of territories like France, Canada, and Spain, Faceless didn't really reach any U.S. viewers until it wound up getting widely pirated from the 1990 English-language Japanese VHS. An English VCD came along a while later from Hong Kong, and eventually Media Blasters imprint Shriek Show finally delivered a legit U.S. release in 2004 on DVD. That one looked pretty good for the time and featured both the English and French tracks, though English is really the way to go since that's how it was shot (even with Audran and Lahaie being dubbed later due to their accents). Unfortunately that disc featured one of the biggest blunders of the era with Savalas' final dialogue suddenly switching only to non-subtitled French on the English track, making the ending completely incoherent. (Those lines were easily accessible in English, making it even more of a head scratcher.) Luckily that disc was loaded with substantial extras starting with a fantastic French-language (but English subtitled) commentary with Franco and Romay that's as Facelesslively and candid as you'd hope. Get ready for tons of cinephile references (everything from Ken Annakin to The Door with Seven Locks), stories of working with the actors and producer, Facelessanecdotes about the moment that made composer Romano Musumarra pass out, and occasional bits of gossip like an affair during production between two of the stars. Also included is a partial selected scenes commentary by Mitchum (27m16s) recalling his time with Franco, Mitchum, and especially his outrageous comedic fight scene with the memorably named Marcel Philippot. Some of the same ground gets covered in video interviews with Franco (21m8s) and Mitchum (32m2s), the latter showing amazing recall of the experience including some funny shenanigans involving his hotel room. Also included is are interview with Munro (30m27s) focusing more on her overall career, photo gallery, the English trailer, and bonus trailers for Flesh for the Beast, The Virgin of Nuremberg, and Bronx Warriors.

After that Faceless pretty much fell off the map for a long time, even with the craze for Franco releases on Blu-ray growing every year. Eventually our prayers were answered in 2022 with Severin Films' UHD and Blu-ray set (also available in The Brigitte Lahaie Bundle, The Global Mogul Bundle, and The Biggest Bundle) featuring a sparkling new 4K restoration from the original camera negative. Not surprisingly, it's a massive leap over any presentation we've had before with far more detail and more vibrant, convincing colors than before. The modest film grain is thankfully left intact, and both the English and French options are included with optional English subtitles. The Franco-Romay and Mitchum commentaries, Franco interview, and Mitchum interview are ported over from the DVD, but you get a welcome batch of new goodies as well. Produced by Le Chat Qui Fume, "The Female Predator" (16m7s) is an interview with Lahaie recalling some tension between FacelessFranco and the hands-on Chateau, the latter's dejection at the time after a professional split with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Berger's desire to do an erotic scene with her on the film, and the differences between Franco and Rollin. "Facial Recognition" (20m27s) with the always erudite Kim Newman is a deep Facelessdive into the history of plastic surgery and face-swapping thrillers and horror films going back to The Raven and weaving through the golden era of Euro horror including the legendary Eyes without a Face, the clear model for most of what was to come (including Faceless). A new Munro interview, "Parisian Encounters" (25m55s), covers her initial approach by Franco for the role (and having never seen one of this films at that point), her own encounters with people similar to her character, an extremely positive working experience with Lahaie, the warning about underpants she got before filming started, and her thoughts on the film coming back into circulation. Of course it wouldn't be a complete Franco release without the essential Stephen Thrower, who provides useful context in "Predators of The Night" (26m8s) about Franco's bumpy career at the time (including Dark Mission and coming off a wave of Spanish sex films), his belated return to horror, his aversion to shooting special effects, the presence of camp in the margins throughout, the Nazi narrative element, and the merits of Diffring's performance. After that comes a fun vintage EPK (8m34s) featuring some great behind-the-scenes footage along with interview soundbites with Mitchum, Berger, and Savalas, followed by Therese II: The Mission (3m31s), an amusing little parody action trailer with Lahaie (as a nun) commissioned by Chateau to play before Faceless' French theatrical run. The French and English trailers are also included.

Severin Blu-ray

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Media Blasters DVD

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Reviewed on June 9, 2022