Monday, October 22, 2012

Lizzie Borden Took An Axe

I was rarely scared of movies as a kid, mostly because there was so much real life stuff for me to be afraid of: teenagers, little dogs (there was a one-legged chihuahua that lived my grandparents that absolutely terrified me), the future, grades, nuclear war, getting in trouble, sudden death, the explosion of the sun, you know, plausible real-life situations.

So yeah, ghosts, devils, Frankensteins, vampires, whatever you had, for the most part I could handle it. But put a psuedo-scientific sheen on it, and it became terrifyingly real. Like In Search Of, a popular TV show in the '70s/early '80s in which Leonard Nimoy, Spock himself, would present stories about the Bermuda Triangle or poltergeists or voodoo curses with just enough "This might maybe possibly could happen" to keep me tossing fitfully in my Star Wars sheets later that night.

However, every once in a while a movie would legitimately scare the crap out of me. Three of them I still remember. SSSSSSS, about a guy turning into a snake was one. We've discussed Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Now it's time for The Legend of Lizzie Borden, a movie that scared me when I was way too old to be scared of movies.

According to a quick internet search, The Legend of Lizzie Borden was a made for TV movie back in 1975 starring Bewtiched's Elizabeth Montgomery that actually won a couple of Emmys, probably for outstanding achievements in the field of creepiness. I caught it years later in the '80s.

At the time I had figured out how to get in pay channels on my parent's TV. It wasn't perfect, and it was jumpy and in black and white, but it worked, so would stay up late on weekends after searching the TV guide for nudity, violence, and the wild card, "adult situations."

The Legend of Lizzie Borden hit all three, and it was on regular TV so I wouldn't have to assume my usual position of kneeling in front of the television, ready to switch back to non-cable at the slightest sound from the house.

The movie covers the trial of the infamous murder case, while Lizzie has flashbacks or daydreams to the earlier events. I don't remember exactly how old I was but by this point I had seen all sorts of murders and killings in movies and had rarely been bothered or upset. Probably because it all seemed so far removed. I mean, what were the chances I was going ever going to be having sex in a deserted summer camp? Or have sex while I was supposed to be babysitting? Yes, it seemed almost impossible that I would ever have sex at all.

But Lizzie's flashbacks - holy crap. According to the movie Lizzie's dad kept an embalming room down in the basement, where at one point it looks like he's feeling up one of the corpses. There's also a strong current of incest down there, which, just to be even creepier, results in Lizzie accidentally pulling out one of the corpse tubes, resulting in blood splattering all over the place.*

Then there are the murders. According to the movie Lizzie took her clothes off before killing to avoid bloodstains. So my brain would go from "Wow! Lady from Bewitched is naked!** Holy crap, this is awesome!" to "Oh shit! She totally just chopped up her stepmother while smiling!" resulting in all sorts of disturbing feelings that the right medications and an army of psychiatric professionals have only recently gotten to the bottom of.

But what might have creeped me out even more is the overall tone, where Lizzie remains emotionless throughout her trial, even though her parents have been all hacked up. Naturally, the viewing audience knew she did it, and to see a completely remorseless killer who wasn't a Jason or a Terminator or something really freaked me out. It ends with her back at her hacked up parents' house after being declared innocent, and her sister asks her if she really did it. Lizzie doesn't say anything  (BECAUSE SHE TOTALLY DID IT! WE JUST SAW HER GET NAKED AND AXE THEM ALL UP LIKE A DWARVES ALBUM COVER!), and then the creepy slow ragtime piano starts up.

That creepy slow ragtime piano riff would be stuck in my head for years, by the way, as a sort of sign when something creepy happened.

I recently found a copy of The Legend of Lizzie Borden and yeah, it still holds up. Like Dark Night of the Scarecrow, I was initially amazed that this sort of thing could be shown on regular old TV where anyone could stumble upon it, and was thinking there was no way something like that could air today, but then I remembered all the hours of CSI shows all full of semen stains and decapitations and stuff.

The movie is still creepy, still unsettling, and like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween, effective enough that you'll think you remember much more blood and gore than is actually in the movie.

Of course, after I bought a bootleg copy of it, I found that it's freely available on Youtube, so don't take my word for it - sit at your computer and creep yourself out. Just don't blame me if that slow ragtime piano riff keeps rattling around in your head.

* This scene would affect me almost as much as the scene in Return of the Living Dead when the old lady corpse is talking about how it hurts to be dead.

** True, it was TV nudity, but when you're 13 or 14 years old, that's more than enough. Hell, the bra mannequins in Sears were like walking though the red light district in Amsterdam.

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