|In a font that you can almost read....almost...|
Just a few weeks ago I sat mesmerized in my car at the Riverside Drive-In as "Blood and Lace" unspooled across the giant screen, and as each scene happened it got progressively more insane. I went into "Blood and Lace" entirely unaware of what it was about, so I was a blank slate. "Blood and Lace" wrote all over me in crazy, schizophrenic lettering that made no goddamn sense. If you want to experience that for yourself, stop reading this right now and go watch the movie. Meanwhile, I've got to vent.
Released in 1971 by American International, "Blood and Lace" features a wacky cast of vaguely identifiable actors, the most recognizable being Gloria Grahame (her most famous role being that of Violet Bick in "It's A Wonderful Life"). Vic Tayback is here too, several years from becoming Mel Sharples in 1974. The lead is Melody Patterson, who had been seen on television in the series "F Troop". Out of nowhere is also a young Dennis Christopher ("Breaking Away", "Fade to Black", and a zillion other things), and there are several other character actors who worked a lot on TV.
"Blood and Lace" takes us into a cheap, artificial world reminiscent of a Harry Novak picture, populated by characters you think you understand until you realize that all of them are out of their friggin minds, especially the ones you initially think are the most normal. It opens with a murder sequence that is not entirely unlike the opening of John Carpenter's "Halloween", an extended point-of-view shot of a prowler lurking around a dark house, entering a door, removing a hammer out of a drawer, and then wandering through the house to the bedroom of a sleeping couple. The killer hammers the woman in the face until she's dead, and hits the man a few times, too. Before the man is finished off, the killer sets the room on fire, and we see the bludgeoned man roll out of bed and try to escape.
The murdered woman was Edna Masters, a small town prostitute, and the man was her latest customer. Edna's teenage daughter Ellie (Melody Patterson) is placed in the care of a social worker named Mr. Mullins, who has her temporarily placed in a hospital--a nurse runs in after Ellie wakes up screaming from a nightmare and seems more annoyed than concerned, turning angrily to Mullins and saying "You've got to get this girl OUT of here." This was really my first indicator that this movie is not playing with a full deck--a nurse is angry at a teenage girl whose mother was just viciously murdered with a hammer to the head? Ellie tells Mullins she wants to be on her own and seek out the father she never knew, but all she really knows about her father is that he was the first man who ever made love to her mother. Mullins tells her that since her father is unknown, legally she's an orphan and must be treated as such.After she tries to run away, Mullins reports her to the sheriff, Calvin Carruthers (Vic Tayback), and Carruthers chases her down and returns her to the hospital. Carruthers knows who she is, and his interest in her is already apparent--Ellie is taken aback when Calvin tells her he recognizes her from when she was a child and attended the theater he worked in. He is now the sheriff, and intends to keep an eye on Ellie while handling the investigation of the death of Ellie's mother. Ellie claims she saw a man run out of her mother's bedroom the night of the murder, but she claims she didn't see the hammer in real life, only in her dreams. Calvin warns her that the man who killed her mother might be after her.
But Calvin's intentions for Ellie are not entirely innocent. He meets Mullins for a drink in a bar to discuss Ellie, and Mullins tells him he intends to take Ellie to a private home for children run by a woman named Mrs. Deere. Calvin admits to Mullins that he is interested in Ellie as a potential wife because he considers her good "breeding stock", despite the fact that he is much older than she is.
Once Ellie gets to the Deere Youth Home is when things really go off the deep end. Mrs. Deere is a villain of the lowest caliber, an icy witch queen who hates children more than Miss Hannigan did--and does all the things Miss Hannigan probably did in scenes that were cut from "Annie" for being too batshit crazy. Mrs. Deere's world is seemingly on the brink of falling apart--her husband has been dead for a year, leaving her to run the orphanage with only the help of her skeezy handyman Tom Krege (Len Lesser). Oh, and it doesn't help Mrs. Deere that she is certifiably crazy. She subjects the children to Draconian rules, and when the rules are broken she tortures and abuses them. If they try to run away, she and Krege hunt them down and kill them, but not wanting to lose the income they bring, their bodies are kept in a large walk-in freezer in the basement. Mrs. Deere is hoping she can keep convincing Mullins that the kids are still alive and just "sick" when he visits, and she distracts him with sexual favors. But Krege suddenly blackmails her for more money, and Ellie arrives and starts snooping around to uncover her secrets, and Calvin shows up at the orphanage threatening to conduct a police search of the entire premises. In one of the movie's strangest scenes, she confides to her dead husband about how how her crazy world is falling apart, keeping his dead body in the freezer along with the others. Mrs. Deere reveals to Ellie (who still doesn't see the big picture) that modern medicine can work wonders with transplants these days, and that one day people who have died will be restored, so this is her grand plan. There's a great scene where she puts one of the dead frozen kids into an infirmary bed and talks to her while she's doing it: "Lucky I got you to the freezer in time, you could have bled to death!"
The fact that these crazy events occur at all is part of the strange fascination of the movie, and all movies like it. The orphanage is appropriately isolated, to remove the more obvious question of "Why don't the kids just run away?", but an even better question is "Why don't they fight back?" None of the "kids" in the orphanage seem to be under the age of 15, and most of them actually look like they're in their mid to late 20s. The movie itself suggests that the "kids" are wards of the state until they're 21, as if they're prisoners in the orphanage, but they're way too old to be as helpless as the movie portrays them. The psychotic personality of the movie is never more apparent than in one of my favorite sequences: Mrs. Deere cruelly torments a girl she's been keeping locked in the attic as punishment for an attempted escape. As the girl languishes from thirst and begs for water, Mrs. Deere drinks a glass right in front of her and tells her how good it is. Then the scene immediately cuts to Ellie having an idyllic, sunlit walk through a field with the resident stud of the orphanage, while romantic music swells on the soundtrack.
Gloria Grahame and Len Lesser are both great as Deere and Krege. They're two capable actors playing these bizarre roles, and they really play well off one another. Grahame has several scenes where she talks in a babytalk voice to the kids while she's actually tormenting them, and there's a great moment when she reveals to Ellie how jealous she is of anybody who is youthful and beautiful. Obviously her appearance in this kind of film was in the tradition of older movie queens who found work in horror films late in their careers, like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Veronica Lake, Shelly Winters, and most of all Geraldine Page, whose performance in "What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?" seems to be the one from which Grahame drew the most inspiration. Her final scene is also one of the ones you'll take away from "Blood and Lace" even if you hate it: after seeming to have all her problems solved when Krege winds up mortally wounded and Ellie takes off running, Mrs. Deere drags Krege's body into the freezer where she tells the dying man "We just have to chill your blood to stop the bleeding." But before she can leave the freezer, the thirsty girl appears in the doorway with revenge in her eyes, and slams the door shut on her, locking her inside. Just as the door closes, Gloria Grahame does this crazy thing where she grimaces in horror, screams like a daffy old bird, and jumps up and down. This was surely more acting range than was required from her when she played Bedford Falls' town hussy, Violet Bick.
The cheap atmosphere in "Blood and Lace" has a lot to do with the music and audio mix, too. Although released in 1971, the soundtrack uses hokey old-fashioned library music similar to "Night of the Living Dead" to an alarming degree. Another thing that I can't go without mentioning is the fact that Ellie's first scene, where she wakes up screaming in the hospital, is entirely and awkwardly dubbed, and Ellie's voice is dubbed by none other than famed voice actress June Foray--yes, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel. That voice comes out of Ellie her first scene in the movie. The cinematography in the movie is another matter. I found it to be extremely exciting and effective, despite the fact that there wasn't much talent in the special effects department--the opening hammer murder should have been extremely shocking, but is instead unrealistic and laughable. Nonetheless, that lengthy point-of-view opening, the one that reminds me so much of "Halloween", is well constructed, and it's easy to see how Carpenter may have been inspired by this and determined to do it better by editing his scene so that it appeared to one long unbroken take, something "Blood and Lace" has no ambition or inspiration to do. As if a Michael Myers reference wasn't enough, a shadowy figure joins the plot as a disfigured man brandishing a hammer stalks Ellie at the Deere Youth Home, and the character bears a strong resemblance to future horror icon Fred Krueger. The bleakness of the sets is what reminds me of Harry Novak, with not much appearing to have been created just for the film, and there's a certain lurid appeal in watching a cheaply produced movie like this. The lighting is interesting as well, especially the way all the scenes inside the freezer are bathed in a monochromatic blue.
I haven't revealed the final plot twists in "Blood and Lace", and it's not because I don't want to talk about them. I think I would even be forgiven for doing so, because knowing them doesn't diminish the enjoyment of "Blood and Lace" in the least. Most of them you will see coming, and maybe some of them you will not. But I don't feel right talking about them, simply because the final moments of this movie revealed something so strange I could hardly comprehend it as a plot point, something so far from left field that it truly stunned me, the final blow in a movie during which nothing really seemed to make sense at all and where every single character turned out to be totally nutso. In fact, "Blood and Lace" reminds me a lot of "Don't Look In The Basement" in the way it's full of insane characters who don't seem to have a firm grasp on reality, and their attempts to keep for themselves a little haven where they can act out their obsessions without being disturbed by the outside world.