Friday, July 12, 2013

Cinemasochism: AXE GIANT: THE WRATH OF PAUL BUNYAN (2013)

We’re a pretty loyal bunch here at Video Junkie. If you made a movie we liked, chances are we’re going to be checking out your other stuff. Hell, if you made a movie that we didn’t like but still had one cool scene in it, we’re probably still checking out you next flick.  Yes, we’re loyalists (or fanboys, if you want to be cruel) and that usually means we end up on the wrong end of an abusive cinematic relationship.  A filmmaker letting you down comes with the territory, but it really hurts the most when the filmmaker is one who should know better.  Ladies and gentlemen, may I now add director Gary Jones to the list of directors now suffering from Argentoitis (aka John Carpenter Syndrome).  

A native of Michigan, Gary Jones got started in filmmaking on the FX end by providing stuff for the Sam Raimi crew on THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT (1985) and EVIL DEAD II (1987).  He was also the FX supervisor on MOONTRAP (1989), a little sci-fi flick that we dig the hell out of.  Jones really came into his own though when he made his directorial debut with MOSQUITO (1995).  Five years later he delivered the equally entertaining SPIDERS (2000).  With both films, we felt he showed a considerable knack for getting the most out of the B-movie scenarios.  In addition, Jones showed he knew how to sling the blood-n-latex with the best of them.  A little enthusiasm in your filmmaking will get you a long way in these parts.  Well, all that came crashing down like the Goliath when toppled by David with the release of AXE GIANT: THE WRATH OF PAUL BUNYAN.

I only became aware of AXE GIANT just last month when I saw that it was scheduled to be released in select theaters.  I’m sure those first-rate theaters were pissed as it did an abysmal $775 over its first three days at two locations. With an average ticket price of just under $8 in the US, that means almost 100 people went to see this film in the theater.  If you are out there, I want to hear from you.  If you aren’t locked up in an insane asylum, that is. Anyway, after watching the trailer, I joked about how I was shocked that such a terrible looking production wasn’t airing on the SyFy Channel.  It was then that my friend Bill pointed out that it was debuting June 13, five days before its DVD release.  You can’t make that stuff up.  Surprisingly, the cinemasochist in me would let this pass me by.  But what is that?  On the official poster I see something…a small credit…directed by…Gary Jones!?!  Oh man, maybe there is hope for this one yet.  Yes, I willingly held out hope even though the only notable cast members were Dan Haggerty and Joe Estevez.  I’m as naïve as the guy who thinks his boss at WalMart was listening when he laid out his concerns about employee pay.

AXE GIANT kicks things into high gear with a prologue set in snow covered Minnesota in 1894 (check out the guy sporting glasses with nose pads on them; totally authentic to the period!). The workers at a logging camp supervised by Foreman Bill (Haggerty) are getting ready to chow down on a rather hefty looking carcass roasting on the spit.  When Bill returns from going to the bathroom (“You got another log jam to take care of boss?”), he finds the entire camp slain in bloody pieces.  The culprit was local slow kid Gunnar Wolfgang Bunyan (Chris Hahn), who soon slices Bill in half on a huge saw.  Before you get too excited, this is all done with some terrible looking CGI.  Flash forward to the present day as Sgt. Hoke (Thomas Downey) and psychologist Samantha Kawalzinkowski (Kristina Kopf; Gee Whiz trivia: Kopf means “head” in German) are taking a group of five first time law breakers into the woods for a weekend of survival and psychology.  If these minor criminals pass, the State will kindly take their offenses off their records.  And what a motley crew we have here: Jesse (Jesse Kove), drug dealer; Trish (Jill Evyn), assaulting a police officer; Marty (Cliff Williams), stealing $12 million online; Rosa (Victoria Ramos), refusing to testify; and CB (Amber Connor), the innocent Sheriff’s daughter who got a drunk driving charge. Oh jeez, this is gonna be rough.

The Sergeant and his S.T.u.M.P.s (Stupid Teenagers under My Protection) soon head to the mountains for a long weekend of roughing it. Around the campfire that evening, the group bemoans their current conditions and it seems everyone is a good kid at heart.  For example, sure CB had a little bit to drink, but the person who caused her accident was totally drunk and had previous DUIs.  “It’s the system that’s messed up” they whine.  It’s then that the kids meet Meeks (Joe Estevez), the local crazy.  He rambles something about “we all got things we want to hide” before splitting.  You sure he wasn’t talking about Charlie Sheen?  Anyway, the next day the kids are out for their first hike. Jesse and Marty discover this big ox skull and Jesse decides to keep one of the horns as a souvenir. Bad move as this enrages the 20-foot, axe-toting giant roaming the woods.  Trish is the first to go as she is split in half vertically by the beast.  Sgt. Hoke fares no better as he is split in half horizontally.  Again, don’t get too excited.

The survivors make it to the cabin to hold up for safety. An attempt to hotwire their van goes nowhere as the giant drags the vehicle off. That night they get a visit from Meeks, who goes into the mother of all expositions.  He tells them that when they took the horn, they disturbed the final resting place of Babe the Blue Ox.  What?  Like from the folklore story?  Yep, it appears they are suffering the wrath of Paul Bunyan.  In a flashback, Meeks reveals that the loggers back in the late 1890s had killed Babe for food and that is why the camp was slain. Bunyan was rounded up by the locals and sealed in a cave, but he escaped after he started to grow and grow and grow.  Seems he was some kind of mutant, growing to two times the size of a normal man and living three times as long. Ah, I knew those Germans who immigrated to Minnesota were a special type.  And that is how the legend of Paul Bunyan was born (I guess the folklore storytellers thought Gunnar Bunyan didn’t have that ring to it).  Jesse figures he can end all this by giving Bunyan his horn back and throws it into the woods.  Bad move again as Bunyan sends it sailing back and it bursts through Jesse’s chest.  Somehow this doesn’t kill him instantly and he is dragged back to Bunyan’s cave screaming and fighting.  Meanwhile, CB’s dad Sheriff Tanner (Tim Lovelace) is driving up to the cabin to check on his daughter.  Gee, I wonder who will save the day.

So this all sounds like pretty good material for a B-movie right?  Well, it isn’t.  As Tom so accurately said to me in an email, “It's like TICKS, except without the fun, the latex and the fun.”  Yup, whatever fun this scenario might have provided (and the potential for entertainment is definitely there) is pretty much squashed due to a combination of bad acting and terrible scripting.  First off, the acting is awful on nearly all fronts.  As much as I hate to single out a specific person, take a look at the Sgt. Hoke character.  This is a role ripe for comedy, the perfect vessel for someone to do a wicked R. Lee Ermey/FULL METAL JACKET (1987) impersonation.  Instead, we get a flat variation that never comes off as the hard ass he is written to be.  Even if he had gone all out, the screenplay by Jones, Jeffrey Miller and Jason Ancona never gives anyone a real chance to develop real characters.  As slight scenario like this can still work (as with the aforementioned example of TICKS), but the filmmakers don’t seem particularly invested in anything they wrote.  A perfect example is when Meeks mentions to CB that she is the spitting image of his great Aunt, who Bunyan had a crush on. You’d think this would work into a great KING KONG-esque ending, but doesn’t (unless you count Bunyan stopping to moan her name after he is gunned down and falls off a bridge).


The real kick to the gut though are the film’s horrible special effects.  A terrible movie can at least redeem itself with some well done special effects.  Sadly, Jones opts to fill his film with some of the worst computer special effects I’ve seen in a long, long time.  This is doubly painful as FX are supposed to be his specialty.  Check out the scene where Rosa’s body is flung into a tree.  It is so ill conceived and executed that I thought I was watching something from a high school AV class.  Yes, it is that bad.

Girl falling or attacking ghost?
(note his eyes not even on her)


I’ll give the team credit for the miniature cabin they built.  And I’ll also give Robert Kurtzman and his FX team recognition for the design of Bunyan himself as the giant monster is pretty cool looking at times (I’m still wondering why he was modest enough to stitch himself a pair of pants though), but when composited in with the other stuff it mostly looks terrible.  Likewise for the green screen stuff done on shots as ordinary as a guy ringing a triangle to signal for dinner.  You couldn’t capture that stuff when you did your location shooting?  The worst, however, is using CGI for 90% of the gore.  Just look at these offending shots.





That is the cardinal sin when it comes to gore.  It may play well for the SyFy “haha, this sucks” crowd, but I take my giant-monster-with-axe movies seriously.  The end credits promise (threaten?) that “Bunyan will return” in the future. If he does, I won’t be there as I’ll be too busy mourning as I add Gary Jones to the long list of “coulda been a contender” casualties.

Moments of Clarity:

3 Reactions:

  1. When you use CGI for 90% of your gore, you've not created a horror film. You've made a video game.

    ReplyDelete
  2. So true (and, damn, I wish I'd thought of that line!).

    ReplyDelete
  3. A 1990's video game! Seriously, those screens don't look nearly as bad in a little pic as they do on your living room TV. I blame the SyFy Channel for lowering the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

    ReplyDelete

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