This is a story about two long-dead ’70s films that were resurrected as cult favorites and two long-dead musicians who were cult favorites in the ’70s – and who now find themselves back in the spotlight in a small way because of their music for those films.
And they’re all connected to Charlotte.
Back in 1974 and 1976, writer-director Frederick R. Friedel shot two violent movies around this region. “Lisa Lisa” and “The Kidnap Lover” were typical low-budget, grindhouse fare, stuff that became a staple at drive-ins. The films had a few things in common, notably star Jack Canon as the main criminals and multifaceted scores by George Newman Shaw and John Willhelm.
Then tragedies small and large struck.
Friedel improved exponentially as writer-director between the two but never made another film for 24 years. (After “My Next Funeral” in 2000, he quit completely.) And Shaw and Willhelm, neither of whom were out of their mid-20s, died en route to a recording session when a truck plowed into their Volkswagen one April night 40 years ago.
Now Severin Films has packaged Friedel’s first two features on Blu-Ray and DVD as “Axe” and “Kidnapped Coed.” Alongside the usual audio commentary and analysis you get a 40-minute documentary titled “Moose Magic,” about Shaw and Willhelm. (That was the name of their band.) It goes a way toward convincing us this guitarist/keyboardist and drummer left a big hole in Charlotte’s music scene.
Severin describes itself as “the foremost studio dedicated to rescuing, restoring and releasing the most controversial and provocative features from around the world.” I’m not sure these movies qualify, but they’re probably no less worthy than Severin’s “Nightmare Castle,” “Cannibal Terror” or “She Killed in Ecstasy.”
“Axe” requires the most forbearance. Friedel shot with one camera and played a sad-sack sidekick to Canon, never changing his hangdog expression. There’s hardly any plot: Three sadistic killers, on the run from a double murder, hide in a farmhouse where a nearly comatose girl lives with her silent grandfather and many objects with sharp edges. Rookie mistakes (or things too expensive to fix) include muffled sound, lighting that doesn’t match within the same scene, quick-cut editing that doesn’t build suspense and a slew of one-dimensional performances.
By “Coed,” Friedel had acquired a cinematic sense of humor. Canon’s character kidnaps a rich man’s daughter, holes up with her in a grungy hotel and then faces a series of semi-comical frustrations while trying to get the dough. He’s double-crossed by other kidnappers, briefly frustrated by birdwatchers, gets chased by a deranged farmer with a pitchfork and – incredibly – sees the young woman fall in love with him, all before a surprising twist ending. And Canon’s character gets a backstory that earns him empathy.
Sadly, Friedel cut these two movies together into one longer feature after releasing the second one, packaging the new version as “Bloody Brothers.” (That’s in this two-disc set, too.) Canon’s characters were supposed to be twins separated at birth, whose unrelated criminal actions brought them closer and closer geographically; Friedel put in titles that told the distance between the villains, though he didn’t explain how the Atlantic Ocean might be 3 miles from a farmhouse surrounded by thick deciduous woods.
The three movies have such a brief running time that they can fit on one disc, along with the extras. The second disc has been devoted to the soundtracks, which range from goofy country-western parodies to spooky synthesizer riffs. That disc also lets us hear Moose Magic in action, sounding at its best like a modern free jazz ensemble and at its least effective like an Emerson, Lake & Palmer knockoff. (Shaw and Willhelm became fixtures at the Double Door Inn soon after it opened in 1973, often working with bassist Amochip Dabney and/or keyboard player Carl Fuerstman.)
We don’t see enough video of Shaw and Willhelm to judge what they might have become 40 years on; their friends, now gray and grown stout, remember them as giddy roommates and bandmates who were going to make the world their own. Like the films they scored, these two men remain frozen in time, and Severin does us a favor by refusing to let us forget.