"You Axed For It!": An Encomium
by Josh Olson
You have to understand that back in the pre-video days, you didn't
have any control over when you saw a film. It was either on TV, or at
a local rep house. The TLA in Philadelphia was originally founded by
Andre Gregory (of My Dinner with Andre fame) as an experimental
theater, the Theater of the Living Arts. By the time I had become a
teenage movie junkie, the TLA had morphed into one of the best rep houses
in America. It was one of the first theaters to have midnight shows
of Pink Flamingos and Rocky Horror, and needless to
say, it was one of several of my homes away from home. If I really concentrate,
I can still conjure up its distinct smell, a combination of popcorn,
patchouli oil, marijuana and sweat.
I'd heard tales of JX Williams' You Axed For It! through the
movie freak grapevine, but it was the sort of film that was far too
disturbing and graphic for Dr. Shock's groovy horror movie show on channel
17, so my only hope was that some day, it would pop up at the TLA.
Detail from the TLA Calendar of an ultra-rare
double-bill screening of Williams' You Axed For It! (1978)
and Black Messiah (1975). See below for full calendar.
Well, it did. For one day only, when I was in ninth grade, You
Axed For It! arrived at the TLA as part of a drive-in double-feature.
I honestly don't remember what the second feature was, but this was
an event, man. And, unfortunately, there was no way my parents were
going to let me go that night, so I did what any conscientious cinemaniac
would do -- I skipped out of school at lunch and headed down to South
Street. I knew I'd never get a chance to see it again, so I sat through
two showings of it to burn it into my brain.
And burn it did. The film was a slapdash affair -- it looked as if
it had been edited with scissors, and the acting was mostly atrocious.
But, my God, John Backlen made one hell of an impression. The most apt
description I can come up with is this: imagine an insane Timothy Carey.
Yeah. He's that much.
There was also a scene with a cheerleader that I cannot deny was on
my mind when I was writing A History of Violence, although
Maria Bello made a far more fetching cheerleader than whoever the poor
girl was in Axed. A career in acting or modeling was not in
I'm sure the film seems cliched now, but it's important to note that
back then the tropes of the slasher film were still being created, and
I guarantee you, I'm not the only resident of Hollywood who's seen Williams'
But back to Backlen. I'll tell you how good he was. I work in motion
pictures. I know it's all fake. I've met actors who've played some of
the worst maniacs in film history and they're as pleasant and as normal
as anyone else. I fully grasp the concept that Anthony Hopkins isn't
really a cannibal.
Many years ago, I'm driving on the freeway, and a filthy old car zooms
up out of nowhere and slams right in front of me, nearly killing both
of us. In a fit of rage, I pulled up alongside the son of a bitch to
flip him the bird, and my hand froze in mid-gesture. Behind the wheel
was John Backlen himself. Tell me he was a lovely man who had a beautiful
wife and three well-adjusted kids, and I'll humor you. But to this day,
there is no doubt in my mind that John Backlen was just a mask being
worn by Bob the fiendish, pipe-smoking caretaker, and I feel lucky to
have escaped that encounter with my life.
Josh Olson is an American screenwriter and director. In 2006, he
was nominated for the British Academy Award, the Writer's Guild Award,
the USC Scriptor award, the and the Academy Award for his screenplay
to A History of Violence. He lives in Los Angeles and is a
"huge" JX Williams