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"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.

You Axed for It

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 her future.

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' grimy classic.

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 fan.