"You're so strange...what goes on in that mind of yours? "
Hypnotically creepy, one of the best made-for-TV movies of the 1970s--and that's saying something from that golden age of the form--has finally arrived on DVD. CBS DVD, Cinedigm, and Flatiron Film Company have released The Legend of Lizzie Borden, the 1975 ABC made-for-TV splatter shocker directed by Paul Wendkos, written by William Bast, brilliantly edited by John A. Martinelli, and featuring Fionnula Flanagan, Ed Flanders, Katherine Helmond, Don Porter, Fritz Weaver, Bonnie Bartlett, John Beal, Helen Craig, Alan Hewitt, Gail Kobe, Hayden Rorke, Robert Symonds, with star Elizabeth Montgomery giving the performance of her career as the willful, sneering, drugged-out...and possibly homicidal Lizzie Borden. A remarkable achievement in the MTV format, The Legend of Lizzie Borden holds up even better after 39 years--it's must-viewing for fans of the star and the horror/suspense genre. No extras for this fairly good full screen transfer (...and no, this isn't the legendary "European cut" that featured Montgomery's full nudity...but rather, just a little).
According to The Legend of Lizzie Borden, on a sweltering August 4th, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Adelaide Churchill (Amzie Strickland) notices Irish housekeeper Bridget Sullivan (Fionnula Flanagan) running from her employer's home, frantically seeking help. As Churchill approaches the neighboring Borden home, 32-year-old spinster Lizzie Borden (Elizabeth Montgomery) rather distantly invites her in with a sedate, "Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come in...someone has killed Father." To Mrs. Churchill's shock, she spies the mutilated corpse of wealthy Fall River businessman Andrew Borden (Fritz Weaver) laying on the downstairs couch, a victim of multiple hatchet wounds to the face and head. As Mrs. Churchill and visiting friend Alice Russell (Gail Kobe) try to cool down the spaced-out Lizzie, Bridget later discovers the hacked-up body of Lizzie's hated step-mother, Abby Borden (Helen Craig), in an upstairs bedroom. Lizzie's sister, Emma (Katherine Helmond), who was away for the week, returns, and is sickened by the sight of the corpses, which she has to identify. However, her first words to Lizzie indicate where her real fears lie: "Lizzie...did you kill Father?" The murders startle the nation, particularly when the prime suspect is jailed pending the sensationalized trial: the strange, odd-acting Lizzie Borden herself. Defended by the former governor of her state, George Robinson (Don Porter), and prosecuted by sharp, increasingly disdainful Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders) Lizzie stands trial, as she dreamily remembers the events as they actually happened on that horrific day...or, perhaps...as she would have liked them to have happened that day.
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I'm certainly no expert on the Borden case, but having read a little bit about it, The Legend of Lizzie Borden sticks reasonably close to most of the facts of this still-unsolved crime. Some events and characters are eliminated or shuffled around, but that's to be expected with any biopic. Its central explanation for how Lizzie committed the murders is that she did them completely nude (she subsequently washed off the blood), thus eliminating any evidence on her clothes (from what I've read, though, it doesn't sound like she or her clothes were checked for bloodstains by the cops, anyway)--a proposition ripe for TV exploitation when the beautiful Montgomery is the one doing all the hatchet hacking (and yes, there apparently really was a "European cut" that did include full frontal nudity of Montgomery when The Legend of Lizzie Borden was released in theaters there...and no, we're not getting that version on this disc--more about the movie's runtime below). In the end, though, it doesn't matter at all if The Legend of Lizzie Borden is reasonably accurate to the historical record or complete fantasy--it's a frequently dazzling work of art that conveys multiple "realities" that are far more "true" than the dry facts of this particular case. An intricate puzzle of exposition that's expertly fractured and re-arranged to give a startlingly subjective impression of the crime and its (maybe) perpetrator, by the end of The Legend of Lizzie Borden, we're not sure of anything, of what's real or imaginary, and particularly: the guilt or innocence of Lizzie...or for that matter, the state of her mind. Aside from what we see outside of Lizzie's perspective, are her flashbacks of memory actual recollections of the crimes she committed? Are they morphine-induced hallucinations (we learn that from the day of the crime until the end of her trial she's been given hefty daily injections)? Or are they the wishful fantasies of an angry, possibly psychotic--but innocent in the end--daydreamer? Scripted by William Bast (Hammerhead, The Valley of the Gwangi, The Betsy), The Legend of Lizzie Borden refuses to reassure us on any of these scores; we're left uneasily on our own to sort out if what we're seeing is true or not. Completely unreliable--and therefore, quite unnerving--The Legend of Lizzie Borden turns out to be far more "true" to the nature of this heinous, bizarre crime than a "straight" factual imagining could ever be.
This is true not just for the script, but for the stylized production, as well. Shot on what looks to be a typically small made-for-TV budget back then (probably no more than half-a-million), most of the action takes place in the dingy, cramped Borden house set or a courtroom mock-up, with just a few brief respites to the backlot. Cinematographer Robert B. Hauser (plenty of TV as well as big movies like The Odd Couple, A Man Called Horse, and Le Mans) uses lots of wide, distorting lenses and off-kilter camera angles to further compliment the dirty, grungy look of the Borden house, resulting in a dark, jaundiced look, with creepy shadows in every corner of most shots (when we get to the murder reenactments, Hauser goes hand-held--certainly not the norm at the time for network offerings--with disquieting, shaky results). The score by Billy Goldenberg, with scary shock cues alternating with a period-sounding Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-like plink, is highlighted by an eerie "La la la la la" chorus, putting the viewer "off" from the opening scene (an impressive, instantly worrying crane shot of the town tower clock, ominously chiming the time of the murders). Director Paul Wendkos, an undervalued veteran of both big and little screen outings (everything from the original Gidget and The Mephisto Waltz to excellent MTVs like The Strangers in 7A and Susan Blakely's Secrets) keeps the pace deliberately lethargic and drowsy, creating a half-asleep inevitability to the sequences that makes you think you're watching someone's dream (or nightmare) inexorably unfold. Punctuating this trance-like state is John A. Martinelli's flat-out brilliant editing scheme, with its split-second shock cuts rupturing the already jumbled authenticity of the narrative, culminating in the murder reenactments where the action is slowed down and surrealistically repeated (that axe swinging over and over again), giving us a palpable sensory experience of sickening homicidal rage. It's entirely appropriate that a highly unusual solo "Edited by" credit is given to Martinelli immediately at the movie's final freeze-frame, on a split screen with Montgomery's face, before the other credits roll.
If The Legend of Lizzie Borden was only that--a stylized piece of surreal terror--it would be a noteworthy entry in the made-for-TV horror genre (I'd love to compare it to another M.I.A. MTV horror outing I remember with fondness: Spielberg's Something Evil). However, there's substance beneath The Legend of Lizzie Borden's flash. ABC may have been correct in exploiting in their promotions the then-rather remarkable shots of Montgomery stalking around in the nude (as glorious as that prospect is...only a brief side shot can be deduced: your mind is doing the rest here), but there's far more going on beneath the surface...and all of it most unpleasant. Scripter Bast postulates that Lizzie Borden was "special" ("psychologically disturbed" seems to be the final diagnosis) in a seriously screwed-up family on the brink of shattering apart. A manipulator (Lizzie's step-mother knows her game) and petty thief with an angry streak a mile wide, Bast's Lizzie has been shaped by an unnatural, destructive relationship with her father. As a child, she puts her favorite ring on her widowed father's wedding ring finger, and kisses him full-on--a memory that's immediately followed by another flashback where Lizzie, in a nightgown/wedding gown, sensuously kisses her dead father's cold lips. Later, she sees her father, in this flashback an embalmer, resisting the urge to look at a naked corpse...before he begins to fondle it, as the camera pans away to young Lizzie's shocked face (how that got by Standards and Practices I'll never know). Sex and death are further linked in Lizzie's mind when her father tries to calm Lizzie's fears about her mother's death, when he forces her to touch a dead body, remarking on how enjoyably cool the skin is...before the embalming tube comes loose, spraying a screaming Lizzie with blood (do you know how wild all this was to a 9-year-old kid back in '75?). The Legend of Lizzie Borden's all-but-open insinuations of perversion in the Borden house run throughout the movie, with Montgomery and Fritz Weaver exchanging heavy glances as they trade loaded lines: "Would you like to take a nap before before dinner?" she suggestively asks her prone father, as he smiles knowingly at her, before a flashback where he exclaimed, "We were always so close...especially close," to her pointed return stare. This quietly corrosive undertone of sexual deviancy runs throughout the movie, further wedding the narrative to the horror elements' framework.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, The Legend of Lizzie Borden weaves an unmistakable feminist gender politics thread throughout it storyline that bears potent fruit. From small little asides like Lizzie flirting with the judge and the men in the jury box, to larger issues like male ownership, where Lizzie's father angrily declares he owns everything in his house, including Lizzie's pet pigeons...which he slaughters with a hatchet to her horror, the notion that Lizzie's obvious attempts to game her trial through "cheap, feminist sentimentality" as prosecutor Flanders sneers, is counterbalanced by the understanding that whatever Lizzie's own psychological problems may be, the controlling patriarchal society of 1890s Fall River ain't helping her head by a long shot. In an unexpected scene between Flanders and the up-to-now unimportant character of his wife, Bonnie Bartlett, Flanders rages against Lizzie's obvious tricks of feminine seduction to save her hide...as he impatiently snaps at his wife for the undercooked dinner she's prepared him. Bartlett, her head down, replies that "you men" have no one to blame but yourselves if powerless women like Lizzie--whose murderous deeds she doesn't condone but whose motives she sympathizes with--fall back on the only thing left to them: a male-imposed notion of femininity. Bartlett tries to elaborate by telling her husband he has no idea how heavy are the copious amounts of petticoats and woolen garments that women are required to wear...before we cut to a shot of Flanders looking exceedingly uncomfortable. It's a great scene, particularly when you extrapolate out from it, and start thinking about Lizzie's fury at the notion she might be cut out of her father's will (and thus be rendered powerless, with no job, husband, or independent source of income), or her murder scenes, where Lizzie is fully stripped--and liberated--letting down her hair (that, uh...seminal Victorian symbol of feminine sexuality) just for Daddy's kill. It's yet another fascinating subtext for what could have been just an enjoyably flashy suspenser.
Last but certainly not least is the talented cast--particularly Elizabeth Montgomery's turn here, which is nothing short of breathtaking. The supporting cast, made up of old pros and veterans from countless TV and movie outings, are uniformly fine, with Ed Flanders, Fritz Weaver, and Fionnula Flanagan stand-outs (Weaver was seemingly born to play these kind of twisted, weirdo authoritarian figures). It's Montgomery's performance, though, that won't leave you. Always looking off somewhere else, her dead eyes reacting as if she's hearing some faint, far-away murmurings in her head, Montgomery, in an instant, can go from these dream-like reveries into flashes of truculent peevishness, or snappish impatience, or inappropriately-timed giggles (when she sees her step-mother's hideously mutilated corpse), to psychotic anger--all with truly frightening gravity. Her strange, sometimes trance-like line readings, putting mountains of implied meanings into the simplest sentences, are miles away from the performance that most people know her from--Bewitched's Samantha Stevens--the role that eventually bored her to tears and drove her into parts like Lizzie Borden out of artistic self-survival. Montgomery, a consummate television actress, knew that the tube--at least back then--was all about the close-up and the eyes, and she gauges her performance accordingly, staying relatively immobile during the first part of the movie, with her eyes--the same eyes with the same enigmatic stare of her equally complicated actor/father, Robert--glazing over with an odd, detached look, before a hard glint of wickedness inevitably comes over them. As the movie moves toward the "revelation" of the murder scenes, explaining what (might have) happened, director Wendkos accentuates Montgomery's sensuous body in a most deliciously aberrant way, as we're encouraged to get turned on by her undressing, followed by her nude kills (for the slowpokes in the audience, he has her slowly caress the hatchet's phallic handle). Lizzie has shaken off the heavy garments she's been forced to wear in the sweltering heat, as she mercilessly descends on her perceived oppressors, the camera slowing her movements down greatly as she swings and swings, her body heaving in a gauzy, dreamy, grotesque parody of sexual fulfillment, as she spatters her body and face with blood. Wendkos' final shot is perfectly realized: Lizzie, immobilized again in expensive finery--perhaps Father's riches didn't free her after all?--stands stock-still after her sister asks her one last time, "Did you kill Father?", while Wendkos' camera slowly revolves around the silent Lizzie, as Montgomery stares inscrutably at Helmond. Lizzie has come full circle--a full (sexual) revolution, if you will...with absolutely no psychological resolution, or even cathartic relief. She is unsolved...like her murders.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.