With films like Halloween, Jaws, Dawn of the Dead, and The Exorcist, the 70s gave us a decade of art-house horror masquerading as genre fodder. The 80s marked a cultural shift in horror cinema driven by filmmakers who fully embraced the shlock and camp inherent in the subject matter they were dealing with. This era, arguably among the most culturally resonant in horror, was largely due to filmmakers like Wes Craven and Sam Raimi, who helped redefine a series of tropes and mainstays that had been developing in exploitation cinema contemporaneously with prestige horror. In combining the two sensibilities, they and others like them came to create a hybrid, a yin-and-yang of highbrow and lowbrow. The results were grubby, lurid films with a sense of irony just shy of self-parody tied together by bloody-good effects and memorably monstrous characterizations.
Pickaxe, a supernatural serial killer knock-off in the tradition of Friday the 13th, is the latest to attempt to mine quality scares from the exaggeratedly hackneyed. A progression of inordinately h***y teenagers and townsfolk are picked off by a dead killer, Alex Black, who is resurrected when two randy campers find his cursed amulet and inexplicably summon him back from the dead. This is, of course, after they proceed to have sex in the woods in a scene that felt straight out of a Cinemax soft-core porn.
“A progression of inordinately h***y teenagers and townsfolk are picked off by a dead killer…”
In the case of many of the tentpoles of this horror subgenre, the film’s focus is directed towards grisly set pieces, iconic kills, and, despite their campiness, genuine scares. Unfortunately, the gore effects in Pickaxe are under-realized technically and uninspired conceptually. At one point, an angry skin-headed pimp who resides in the woods for some reason gets in a direct confrontation with the lumbering rag-clad killer, enraged that he has killed “his best bitch.” He then walks up to Alex, who casually puts his hands on his head and snaps his neck. I laughed out loud. Again, it is hard to say whether that was the intent—to ostensibly spoof horror films—or if this was an earnest attempt to add a character to the rogues’ gallery of cinematic psycho killers. Either way, it was not working.
Without a doubt, this class of film can benefit greatly from the passing of time. What is corny and rough around the edges upon its release can, a generation later, be elevated to the level of cult curiosity, the more outlandish it is. It becomes a bold, if not bizarre, artifact of the style of an era. In the case of Pickaxe, it is hard to tell whether the film is imitating this effect to make an intentionally shlocky product or if this is an example of a bona fide modern-day exploitation film that fifteen years down the line might feel inspired or at least entertaining. In either case, Pickaxe ticks off the requisite markers of this style like a checklist: oversized performances boarding on the comical, check. Characters so broad and obnoxious you are rooting for their gory demise, check. Tons of gratuitous nudity and awkward sexual dynamics, check.
Honestly, Pickaxe is not my kind of film. Then again, it wasn’t made for me. I am not particularly partial to midnight movies or so-bad-it’s-good cinematic experiences. Whether intentionally or not, Pickaxe definitely falls into those categories.
"…the lumbering rag-clad killer, enraged that he has killed 'his best bitch.'"