Cult movies are born in the same way people fall in love. So many choices, yet we become emotionally fixated on The One, tell every one of our friends and family members and, whether they agree or not, we declare, “This is it, the one you all must know! Has anyone else here ever watched ‘So I Married An Axe Murderer’?”
There are a lot of noteworthy things about “So I Married An Axe Murderer,” the 1993 Mike Myers vehicle the “Saturday Night Live” breakout sensation made in between parts one and two of “Wayne’s World” and four long years before his career-defining creation of Austin Powers. “Axe Murderer” is one of two feature films ever directed by Thomas Schlamme, who helmed dozens and dozens of TV but has only made this and the 1989 Holly Hunter drama, “Miss Firecracker.” It’s also the only film in which Myers plays a normal person, a fairly straight forward everyman (if you think Wayne Campbell was a normal, everyday person, then you’ve never seen “Wayne’s World.”). “Axe Murderer” is a film very much of its time but also delves into pop culture nostalgia as hungrily as any recent work. Like many cult films, it has lots about it that’s wonderful, even if it doesn’t quite work overall.
Myers stars as Charlie Mackenzie, a San Franciscan who falls for Harriet (played by a luminous Nancy Travis), a butcher who works at Meats of the World and sometimes dresses as a milk maid outside the store to attract customers (at least, I think that’s why she was dressed that way). Charlie’s best friend is an undercover cop, played Anthony LaPaglia, who is better and funnier in this than most of the 90’s comedies that touted him as “the next De Niro.” While Charlie and Harriet begin dating immediately after meeting cute (and romping around the butcher shop in an odd musical montage), Harriet seems to be hiding dark secrets. Front page stories in the Weekly World News report a serial killer at loose who sounds an awful lot like Harriet. Charlie’s fears of commitment and settling down become a very real fear for his life.
The subplot involving Charlie’s parents is the one everyone remembers and, indeed, it’s the best thing about the movie. Myers plays Stuart, Charlie’s outspoken father, a ferociously crusty Scotsman who keeps a Scottish Wall of Fame on his wall (among those in framed portraits are Alexander Graham Bell, Sheena Easton and Sean Connery). Charlie’s mother is played by Irish Oscar winner Brenda Fricker, who at least is better utilized here than in “Home Alone 2” the year before, where she played the bizarre bird lady of Times Square. Whenever the focus is on the Scottish parents (whose scenes have little to do with the rest of the movie), everything clicks and Myers is brilliant in the role.
On the other hand, Myers appears restless playing Charlie, a “normal person,” and visibly tries to make the role as quirky as possible. He’s truly in his element as Charlie’s father (witness La Paglia visibly breaking character, cracking up and looking off camera during Myers’ uproarious monolog about Col. Sanders). Travis is well paired with Myers, though Amanda Plummer is misused in a key supporting role as Harriet’s roommate. Far better are Steven Wright, Michael Richards, Alan Arkin, Charles Grodin and the late, great Phil Hartman in showcase cameo roles. Hartman, in particular, is a riot as a no-nonsense Alcatraz tour guide .
“Axe Murderer” generously serves up San Francisco locations (the Tanner house is even visible in one shot). It was slightly ahead of its time in portraying the coffee house culture and poetry scene, before it largely became swallowed up by the Starbucks franchise mid-decade. “Friends” arguably did more to popularize the poetry n’ caffeine scene that had progressed from the “Beatnik Bars” and “Juice Huts” from the pre-Flower Power hipsters. Yet, Myer’s delivery of delightfully bad poetry performance art made this film a reference point in the era of Def Poetry Jam and Slam Poetry.
In addition to referencing 60’s pop tunes and other highlights from Myers’ own youth (such as verbal nods to “Night Gallery,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Barney Miller” and Alicia Bridges’ “I Like the Nightlife”), “Axe Murderer” declares its utterly 90’s identity with tunes by Spin Doctors, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and an appearance by Suzanne Somers’ Thigh Master. Most importantly, Myers is clearly trying out material he’d use later on: in addition to dual roles and British mod culture tunes, we get more than one instance where he asks Harriet about the nature of “Ee-vil.” Clearly, the International Man of Mystery was already brewing.
The central love story is sweet and involving enough, with a montage set to The LA’S “There She Goes” (which is also covered on the soundtrack by The Boo Radleys and become the film’s theme song) works nicely. What doesn’t is the climax, which is so overdone, I kept waiting for the reveal that we were watching a bad dream sequence. The tone of the closing fifteen minutes is different from the rest of the film, as a comical stalk n’ slash chase sequence is lamely staged, coming across like subpar “Death Becomes Her.”
It appears “So I Married An Axe Murderer” went through re-shoots, which would explain the tonal shifts and subplots that go nowhere. Note the opening credits, presented in a title design that suggests a horror movie send-up (the rousing tune playing over the credits downplays this). While it seems like “Axe Murderer” is working towards sending up tabloid journalism, as it name checks World Weekly News” (“the eighth highest circulating paper in the world”) and “A Current Affair,” nothing comes of this. Likewise, there’s no real payoff for the Arkin scenes, the hilarious bits with Wright flying a plane have no follow-up and the final wrap-up feels rushed and oddly doesn’t include a final appearance from our favorite Scottish couple. Aside from a fun opening scene, the one-take shot of a coffee cup making its way to Myers, Schlamme’s direction has no style. It’s not a good looking movie, either. A scene of Myers and Travis standing in front of the Golden Gate bridge should be swoon-inducing but the color palette is a faded brown (how 90’s grunge!).
Myers’ film was badly marketed, sporting a what-the-heck-is-it movie poster, a dreadfully smug trailer and a release date that had it competing with no less than Scottish Wall of Famer Sean Connery’s “Rising Sun” and Harrison Ford’s “The Fugitive.” “So I Married An Axe Murderer” was instantly DOA in theaters but, over the years, has found a dedicated cult following.
Both by design and unintentionally, it’s an odd duck of a movie. Sometimes the film’s strangeness is a gift but not always. Yet, few recent comedies are this quotable and take the kind of offbeat risks that “Axe Murderer” basks in. As cult movie with bits that stand tall on an unsound narrative structure, it rewards the curious in small doses. Hang in there during the nonsense involving the axe murderer on the loose but pay close attention when Stuart explains his theory of Colonel Sanders being a member of a Colorado-based conspiracy cult. When this leans in on the glories of being outspokenly Scottish, we get glimpses of Comedy Heaven.