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Blood and Lace 

Part One of Bad Blood Month

     "What you call death may be only the temporary absence of life."

--  Dear Old [and Kooky] Mrs. Deere   

 

     

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This guy was even more confused by the plot than I was! And he's the killer!

 

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Sights &
Sounds:
Blood 
and Lace 
(1971)
 Director:
  Philip S. Gilbert
 Screenplay:
  Gil Lasky
 Producer:
  Ed Carlin
  Gil Lasky
 American
 International

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Blood and Lace

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Well, now doesn't this opening sequence look kinda familiar... 

Our macabre tale of orphans, rape, frozen corpses, incest, grisly blunt trauma murders and other assorted carnage begins at night as a POV shot quietly enters a quieter house. We cut away to two people, a man and a woman, sleeping in a bed inside the house. Switching back to the POV vantage point, we silently stalk through the house and into the kitchen, where we rummage through a drawer and find a claw hammer. Then, with the tool in frame, the hammer leads us into the bedroom, where the woman awakens just in time to take a several blows to the skull -- clawed end first! And after the unseen attacker turns the poor woman's face into hamburger -- pretty graphically I might add, considering the fact that this movie got away with a PG rating -- the attacker also deals several blows to the man, who slumps off the bed, but the attack quickly refocuses on the woman.

After the frenzied assault finally abates, the murderer, who we never see, drops the hammer onto the floor, strikes a match, and sets the house on fire. And as the fire rages out of control, and the unknown killer flees, we spy the man, still kicking, trying to crawl away. Suddenly, a woman screams -- that we, first, assume is the bloodied victim, but it's really Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson -- and more on her in a sec), who's screaming as she wakes up in a hospital room, safe and relatively sound. You see, the grisly murder victim was her mother, and since her death several days ago, Ellie has been plagued with the same reoccurring nightmare of hammers, blood and fire...

Scott Ashlin, a/k/a El Santo, over at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting talks in his review of Dementia 13 about digging up movie fossils in his quest to discover the origins of the slasher movie. I find myself equally curious about this genre -- a genre I can't call a guilty pleasure because, really, there is no guilt involved. I love the good ones, and the bad ones generally make me smile as I revel in the ineptitude. And as I dug around in the strata well below the likes of Halloween and Black Christmas I stumbled upon Blood and Lace; another archeological find to be added to the slasher fossil record.

Often, people like to point out or complain that the late 1970's- early '80s slasher boom stole the majority of their ideas from the Italians but there is also a ton of evidence for a just as heavy domestic influence; whodunits that are high on the body count and, like their Italian counterparts, don't make a whole lot of sense in the end when the smoke finally settles over all the bodies. I'd say it's even money that at some point John Carpenter probably saw this movie as the opening stalk-n-kill is eerily similar to the beginning of Halloween, where the young Mike Myers, via the steady cam, murders his older sister. And that in no way, shape, or form should be construed as a knock. He might have been influenced by it, but Carpenter one-up'd it, big time. That is one fantastic scene.

Anyways, getting back to Blood and Lace, despite her older appearance, Ellie is still a minor who has become a ward of the county due to her mother's death. After Mr. Mullins (Milton Selzer) makes arrangements for her to stay at the Jameson Deere Youth Home -- run by Jameson's widow, Edna (Gloria Grahame -- yet another in a long line of great performers whose careers ended in bottom-feeder flicks like this one...) -- the plot expositions itself a little bit when Ellie says she knew Deere. In fact, seems she new a lot of men (-- including Mullins! --) that her mother brought home as, well, "clients." And judging by her attitude, Ellie had no love for her whoring mother and, not wanting to go the orphanage, she insists on striking out on her own to find her father. The only problem with that is no one knows for sure who her father really is since her mom slept with almost every guy in town; a fact that is constantly browbeaten into Ellie by the more vindictive residents of wherever the hell they are. But all of this is moot, according to Mullins, due to her age; and until she turns 21 (-- which appears to have happened several years ago), the girl will be staying at the Deere Home. 

Undaunted, Ellie tries to run away but is rounded up by Detective Caruthers (Vic Tayback), who turns her back over to Mullins. Caruthers is also in charge of the murder investigation, and he has a few questions for the delinquent daughter: seems Ellie was in the house that night, but claims she saw a man with a hammer leave the house while she escaped the fire. (And is anyone else creeped out by Caruthers' lecherous, off the cuff advances on this minor? Bad touch! Bad touch!) Later, we get our first inkling that something isn't quite right at the Deere Youth Home -- and definite proof that something's definitely not quite right with Mullins and Caruthers as the two men butt heads over the girl. And when Mullins suggests he's a little too touchy-feely-interested with his charge, Caruthers counters and accuses the lawyer of turning a blind-eye on the orphanage's problems for sexual favors from the owner.

Speaking of which, we cut to the orphanage where one of the cleanest cut orphans ever committed to screen (-- he looks just like Robbie Benson for heaven's sake --) packs up and tries to run away. But he's ferreted out and quickly pursued by Mrs. Deere's hired thug, Tom Birch (Len Lesser), and his trusty meat cleaver! And when the runaway tries to hide behind a tree, Birch spots him -- and then throws the cleaver at him(!), managing to lop the kid's hand off(!!!). (Is this standard procedure?) In shock, the kid stumbles off into the woods to die. When Birch can't find him, he gathers up the discarded suitcase, tosses the dismembered hand inside it(!?!), and heads back to the orphanage, where he's confronted by an irate Edna Deere. Now, her main concern is not for the runaway's well being but the lack of a warm body; meaning the county will no longer pay them for the missing boy. But Birch pacifies her, saying they're getting a new girl that will compensate for the loss. This reminder also reminds Deere that they'll need the right head count for Mullins or their government check will be short (-- so I assume they're not getting paid with government cheese); so they've got to get the infirmary ready for inspection. To do this, we encounter an even more morbid and sinister twist when Birch and Deere head to the basement and enter a walk-in freezer, where three corpses are held in cold storage. Apparently, Mr. Benson wasn't the first runaway casualty -- he was just the only one where they couldn't find the body! And these corpsicles must be moved to the infirmary before Mullins gets there with Ellie, so he can be fooled into the right headcount; and then back to the freezer they go before they thaw out.

Are you #%@* kidding me?!?

Wow! And we're barely twenty minutes into the film -- and I haven't even talked about the disfigured mystery man that's lurking about (-- is this the man who was sleeping with Ellie's mom? Or is this the killer who's now after Ellie?); or the fact that Deere is a few beers short of a six-pack because she doesn't believe the kid-popsicles -- or her late husband, for that matter -- are really dead, and she keeps them frozen until "science catches up" to bring them back to life (-- which doesn't stop her from asking her frozen husband for advice until this miracle happens); and the apparent fact that Shirley Jones, Robert Reed and Florence Henderson must have died because all the Brady and Partridge kids appear to be imprisoned at this Orphanage of the Damned. And with everything we've seen so far, I'm still stupefied by the fact that this thing got a PG rating; and it goes way beyond the graphic nature of the murders on screen and the abuse of the popsicle corpses. This thing is like a kiddie version of an Ilsa movie. It's that sick; and all we really need is some gratuitous nudity and we've got a bona fide atrocity picture on our hands. (And we actually do kind of sorta get some nakeditity; it's just not that gratuitous).

You also, at this point, may be startled by the plethora of familiar faces in this movie. Gloria Grahame, a former femme fatale, tempted to woo Jimmy Stewart away from Donna Reed in It's A Wonderful Life. And Lesser and Tayback are veteran TV actors, who help anchor the film. Then, there's our leading lady ... Now, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but, the first time I saw this movie Ellie's character was looking really familiar to me but I couldn't quite place the actress. And when the closing credits scrolled up it finally hit me! That was Melody Patterson -- Wrangler Jane from the old F-Troop TV show; one of the greatest programs ever made for the old boob-tube IMHO. (You wanna hear me sing the theme song?)

Now. Then. Later?

My Wrangler Jane. *sigh* You have to understand, whenever anyone would trot out the old joke and give you the choice of Ginger or Mary Ann, I would always answer Wrangler Jane. Damn, but I had the biggest crush on her ... Considering when F-Troop was made, I figured Ms. Patterson was in her 30's when she made this movie. I was wrong. She was only 22. Meaning she was only 16 when she made F-Troop, keeping her age a secret after she got the part. This was only one of a handful of films she appeared in after the series spoof folded after two seasons -- the only other one I can think of is Cycle Savages, where she poses plum-nakers for some hippy artist. After which, she married James MacArthur -- Dano from Hawaii 5-0 -- and retired to work mainly on the stage.

Speaking of TV westerns, producer Gil Lasky, who made a quantum leap from working on Bonanza and The Virginian to this, had already hit the public with one of these off-kilter tales when he teamed up with Jack Hill a few years earlier for the totally delightful- and yet completely skewed Spider-Baby. Co-writer Ed Carlin would go on to give us Victor Buono as the devil doing nasty things in a haunted house in The Evil. Together, these two teamed up with director Phil Gilbert and American International for Blood and Lace, which basically boils down to a Brother's Grimm Fairy Tale. You could also make some inference to Charles Dickens' Oliver, and Dickens might have dreamt up a story like this after consuming some bad pork, but I still think it's more in tune with a fairy tale: helpless children trapped in a nightmare situation [...the orphans], wicked step-mothers and witches [...Mrs. Deere], monsters [...the killer -- all three of them. Whoops, Did I just give something away?] and several characters meeting very violent ends -- only in this one, they all definitely don't live happily ever after; and turns out Prince Charming is one real schmuck of a turd-burger. But, as always, we're getting ahead of ourselves...

When Ellie finally arrives at the orphanage we find out that Mrs. Deere was well aware of her husband's affair with Ellie's mother. So, even though their feelings about her are mutual, Deere still plans to take it out on Ellie. Sending her on to meet the other kids, the adults, well, tend to business -- a little nookie negotiation for some more government cheese, I guess. Meanwhile, as she explores the converted mansion, Ellie stumbles into the infirmary. Not understanding why none of the patients will answer her, she goes for a closer look. But Birch catches her, and as he lays down the house rules Ellie soon realizes that the Deere Youth Home is less of an orphanage and more of a concentration camp: where food is strictly rationed, and you have to work on the house's upkeep to earn your allotment (-- and slackers get no fruit cup). With that, Ellie spends her first few days cleaning for the vengeful Deere, avoiding the statutory rape attempts from Birch, and falling for some lunkhead of a dope named Walter (Ronald Taft), another orphan. As their relationship blossoms during long walks where they talk nihilistically about the lemons life gave them, Ellie confides that she can make lemon-aid if she could only find her father; but Walter warns her not choke on the pits.

Then the insidious secret (-- which one, exactly? The movie's got about seven layers of mysteries and can't quite decide on which one is the main focus --) of Deere's Home begins to unravel when Ellie asks about the three kids in the infirmary and is told no one's been sick for over a month. Exploring further, Ellie also finds another orphan, who looks like Alanis Morrisette, tied up in the attic. Seems she's been hung up there for days without food or water as punishment for trying to run away, and when Ellie is caught trying to help her she is threatened with the same punishment if she tries it again ... Also poking around this ersatz Stalag, Detective Carruthers is [allegedly] looking for the missing boy -- but I think he's there just to ogle at Ellie some more. And while interviewing Birch, he grows belligerent when the handyman cracks wise about taking a shot at her. Moving on, he checks in with Ellie, who confides to him about the missing kid and ties it into what she saw in the infirmary. He promises to look into it.

Later, things come to a premature boil when Birch promises to help Ellie escape. All she needs to do is take his tools down into the basement, where they can talk in private, but Ellie has problems touching his hammer (-- and I don't mean biblically, so get your head out of the gutter --) because she's still plagued by her nightmares (-- not to mention the fact that the killer has been lurking in her room while she sleeps but always disappears as she wakes up, making her think it was just part of her dream). She does make it down to the basement but, naturally, it was all a ruse to get her alone. And as Birch assaults her, the creep gets in several gropes and cups a feel (-- and this is PG? In 1971!?), but Ellie manages to hold him off until Deere catches them. Not surprisingly, the girl is blamed for the incident and Ellie's punishment is to clean the garage. After she's gone, Deere tries to fire Birch; but he knows too much and is willing to go to the Sheriff. In fact, he now demands half the government money, making them equal partners.

Elsewhere, in the garage, Ellie finds the suitcase of the dead runaway and sneaks it into her room, planning to use it for her own escape. Walter tries to talk her out of it but Ellie is determined to find a better life once she gets out and finds her father. When Walter reminds her she doesn't even know who that is, Ellie clings to the only clue she has to his identity: seems mom held a grudge against the daughter, too, claiming the first man she ever slept with resulted in a pregnancy that ruined her life, and then spent the rest of it reminding the end result of that encounter that she was an accident that no one wanted. And after another frightening night with the disfigured killer lurking about, Ellie turns to Walter for comfort but finds him having sex with another orphan in the garage. (What a creep!) Well, that's the last straw for Ellie, who decides to run away that very night. But when Walter rats her out, Deere locks her in her room. And having had enough of the little trouble-maker, the old lady tells Birch that Ellie should probably join her friends in the freezer. 

Still determined to get out, Ellie tries to pack up her things but finds the severed hand in the suitcase. While horrified by what she finds, Birch uses the distraction to sneaks in, gag her, and then drags her off to the basement and locks her in the freezer. Inside, the girl opens one of the bags and screams at the corpse inside -- which would have been quite a shock if it hadn't been spoiled over an hour ago ... Unknown to Birch, however, another orphan, Pete (-- a very young Dennis Christopher in his first role), saw the whole thing. But when he tries to rally the others to help they don't believe him. Meanwhile, Mullins shows up. Apparently, Caruthers told him about the other runaways and, with his job on the line, demands to search the house from top to bottom. On the verge of being busted, Deere tells Birch to help him -- and to start at the bottom, near the freezer. E'yup, the gullible Mullins never new what hit him as he takes a meat cleaver in the back. But, when Edna opens the freezer, so they can drag the body inside, the other, disfigured killer pops up wielding a hammer -- who was last seen holding a vigil over the girl trapped in the attic. Birch takes up the cleaver, and as they start dueling, during the confusion, Ellie escapes and tries to warn the other orphans that Deere and Birch killed the others, and that they're currently trying to kill her, and they all need to get the hell out of Dodge. After Ellie runs off, Pete encourages the others to get moving but they all just sit there. When Pete says "Let's go!" Walter replies apathetically "Go where?" 

All together now: "It's a hard-knock life for us. It's a hard-knock life for us..."

Back in the basement, the killer whacks Birch in the head with the hammer and then runs after Ellie. With him gone, Deere drags Birch, who is still alive, into the freezer. As he begs her not to leave him in there, Deere laughs that he won't be lonely; all his friends are already here. But when she tries to leave, Alanis, the orphan from the attic, closes the freezer, muting Deere's screams as the door slams shut and locks tight.

Now wait a second? How'd she get loose? Wait. The killer let her go? 

That's right. And hang on; the film's got not one, not two, but three big twists coming yet:

When the disfigured killer finally runs Ellie down -- but not before she stumbles upon the decomposing remains of the first runaway -- our first twist hits us hard as Ellie starts begging her attacker for mercy, crying she never meant to hurt him ... We then flashback to her mother's murder and it's revealed that Ellie was the one swinging the hammer and playing with matches. (That's one.)

Suddenly, the killer stops and pulls at his head, tearing off a mask, revealing Caruthers underneath the latex. He had pieced together that it was Ellie all along with the help of some handy twelfth-hour revelations that would have made Jessica Fletcher proud. So, he knew all along and just used Ellie's stories of a man escaping the fire to scare her into running away from the orphanage so he could catch Deere and Birch in the act and bust them. (That's two.)

Okay, now: this is where the movie takes the third and last twist and uses it like the hammer they've been using the whole movie to bludgeon us over the head. For it seems Caruthers has no intentions of arresting Ellie for the murder of her mother and the other man (-- whoever that was). He's had his eye on Ellie for a long time, and thinks she's fine stock for a wife. (Okay, this is getting weird.) He gives her a choice: life in prison, or marry him. *THUD*

Sorry. That was my jaw hitting the floor. Tell him to kiss your grits!

Ellie doesn't like the sound of prison and agrees to his blackmail-fueled marriage proposal. After all, her mom always said there's someone for everyone. Maybe this creep is for her. Caruthers then has the gall to mention that he was her mother's first client. *THUD*

That was my jaw again.

In fact, he was the first person to have sex with her.

Omigod ... this film has reached a whole new substrata of vileness.

Yup, that's right: Caruthers is Ellie's father. Upon this revelation, when Ellie starts to laugh, maniacally, Caruthers doesn't get it -- yet. And her dissonant laughter takes us to...

The End

Wow. We honestly should have seen some of this coming. I figured that disfigured character was really Caruthers, but the revelation came in the exact opposite way than you'd usually expect. We never get a good look at the man's face at the beginning before it got Black-n-Deker'd, so I figured that was Caruthers. I was wrong. Which is why I also wrongly figured he would lull Ellie into sense of trust and then pull of his face mask, revealing the scarred visage underneath, and then try to kill her after she confessed to attacking him and killing her mom. But then the disfigured guy couldn't have been the murderer, right? He was getting his head caved in before he got burned. Which would explain why he was after Ellie; for revenge. But then we still don't know who killed Ellie's mom, even though all evidence really points back to her. But we're so used to the concept of a final girl, it's quite a shock when we find out the final girl was the killer all along.

That's the thing with this movie, though. The normal rules of the slasher film don't apply at all; which is easy to explain because, technically, the slasher film hadn't been invented yet. Films like Blood and Lace had a heavy influence on those that followed, though: the graphic violence, all those psychological hiccups, and especially the twists at the end. So, technically, this isn't a slasher movie but what we called it before, in every sense: an old-school fairy tale gone horribly, horribly wrong; all kinds of morbid, murky and vile that bridges the gap between "old school horror shocks" and the graphic whodunit bloodbaths that were destined to follow.

Man, this film is so blasť in it's browbeating cynicism and wretched, sleazy characters (-- there are no good guys here --) that you really feel the need for a shower after it's over. It's plagued with bad sound and murky visuals -- due to poor lighting, with one too many filters used during the laughable day for night shots -- but I still loved every stinky minute of it. Especially that ending. You'd expect that even in a fractured fairy tale like this, Ellie would find her father -- the good parent, and live happily ever after. But the film gets us twice. Burning us first by revealing that Ellie is a killer, and then blowing it completely up in our face when it reveals who the "good" parent really is. Ugh.

It's a weird, strange, and a total bugaboo of a movie. I'd hesitate to call it great but I'd recommend it to any genre fan who wants to see the slasher film work through some growing pains with a movie that is so rightfully dubbed, and should be celebrated as, the sickest PG-rated movie ever made.

Enjoy.

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Originally Posted: 08/06/04 :: Rehashed:  06/15/10

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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