Monday, September 26, 2016

Blood and Lace (1971) - Part 1 of 3

Next we return to the early 1970s to consider Blood and Lace (1971), a powerful and influential suspense film. (Blood and Lace is available on Scream Factory Blu Ray and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

Your universe's critics still do not understand this film. In a review on Amazon, Dennis writes, “I don't recommend this to anyone unless you enjoy sleeping after 5 minutes into it. This is a boring, tedious movie.” Another Amazon reviewer unfairly calls the film “a rather languid, mystery/thriller without a whole lot of mystery or thrills.” Even more unfairly, a reviewer on IMDB writes, “Disappointingly, the movie has so many scenes that lack realism and common sense that the movie is totally unbelievable.” Properly viewed, the words “tedious,” “languid,” and “unbelievable” are the polar opposites of the excitement this movie has to offer.

When I am through, you will see the error of your ways and understand that Blood and Lace is not just one of the finest suspense films in cinematic history, rivaling those of your Hitchcocks and your DePalmas, etc., but it is also a socially relevant film. In fact, it is the cinematic equivalent of a Tennessee Williams play or a John Steinbeck novel--an unflinching exploration of the human condition.

The film opens with red-on-black titles that seem to promise gothic horror along the lines of Hammer’s vampire films from the 1960s. Perhaps the filmmakers used a familiar typeface and color scheme to lull the audience into believing this film would deliver familiar, and comfortable, gothic chills.

The film opens with a harrowing stalking scene. In a much-imitated technique, the camera takes on the perspective of someone lurking among the foliage outside a two-story house. There is a dissolve to the interior of the house as we, in the body of the stalker, move through the kitchen to find in a drawer a claw hammer.

The camera then takes on the point of view of the hammer itself.

The hammer floats through the house, making its way to a bedroom. There, a man in polka-dot boxer shorts and a heavily made-up woman lie sleeping. The hammer floats above them. Slowly it turns around so the claw end is facing the woman's sleeping face.

As the radio plays upbeat, innocuous music, the woman and man are grotesquely murdered. We don't see the direct impact of the hammer, but we see their bloody heads as the deed is done. Then the hammer drops to the carpet, the curtains are lit on fire, and the room goes up in flames.

A young woman named Ellie Masters wakes up screaming. Was the hammer murder a dream? She is in a hospital. For unexplained reasons, she speaks with the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel in this scene. She wants to get out of the hospital to look for her unknown father, but her social worker says she cannot leave because she's a minor.

Ellie is played by TV's Melody Patterson, who appeared on F-Troop as Wrangler Jane for four years in the late 1960s. It is to her great credit that in Blood and Lace, made four years after F-Troop ended, the filmmakers believed she was able to play a teenage girl at the age of 22.

Further, it is to the filmmakers' credit, as is evident in the image above, that they embraced the aesthetic of the film noir to such an extent that Ellie casts three distinct shadows in the hospital room. Are these three shadows a "foreshadowing" of events to come? The answer is no [spoiler].

Disregarding the social worker, she waits for nightfall, then runs away from the hospital. She is chased by a car, which she manages to lose by running along the railroad tracks. The driver is Calvin Carruthers, played by TV's Vic Tayback. He catches up to her on foot. He reveals he knew her as a child, and now that he works for the sheriff's office, he was contacted by Ellie's social worker to find her.

While Calvin drives Ellie back to the hospital, the filmmakers subtly answer some of our questions. Ellie was involved in the opening hammer murder--her mother was the female victim. Ellie had been asleep in her room during the murders. When she ran outside, she saw a man leaving her mother's room. She never saw the hammer--she only saw that in her dreams.

Calvin tells her not to go anywhere alone. She was the only witness to the murder, and the killer has seen her face.

Later, Calvin meets the social worker, Mullins, in a bar and they discuss Ellie's case. They both have personal connections to the case, not the least of which involves Ellie's mother, who was a prostitute, and she was intimate, apparently, with "every man in the county." Mullins says they're moving Ellie to a country house that is now used as an orphanage for troubled kids.

It is during this conversation that Calvin delivers perhaps the most famous line of dialogue from this film. "When you get to be my age," Calvin says, still talking about teenager Ellie Masters, "and you start thinking seriously about marriage, you start sniffing around for some good breeding stock." Poetry worthy of the masters.

We then move on to the Widow Deere's home for orphaned children. Ernest, a teenage boy, carries a suitcase outside. He is stopped by Tom, played by TV's Len Lesser, most famous as Uncle Leo from Seinfeld. Ernest is clearly trying to escape, so Tom has no choice but to survey the rack of knives in the kitchen and grab the biggest meat cleaver.

Tom chases Ernest through the hills. Ernest drops his suitcase and then, apparently trying to hide, hugs a tree.

Tom throws the cleaver at him, chopping off his right hand. Ernest takes off, leaving Tom to pack up the suitcase. He does not forget to pick up the severed hand and place it gently in the suitcase before he continues to give chase. Eventually, Tom gives up looking for Ernest, so Tom carries the suitcase, with the hand inside, back to Mrs. Deere's place.

Mrs. Deere, played by 1940s and 1950s movie star and Oscar winner Gloria Grahame, does not appreciate Tom losing one of the orphans, who are worth $150 per month from the county. Now is the worst time to lose one, as the social worker Mullins is coming tomorrow to inspect the place.

Tom and Mrs. Deere go downstairs to the basement's walk-in freezer. Reflecting standard procedure for a county-funded orphanage, the freezer houses the frozen, dead bodies of teenagers under sheets.


Here, the cinematography is highly stylized, as the lighting inside the freezer is bright blue. Some detractors of the film might say the blue color is distracting, particularly because the freezer's onscreen light bulb is visible but obviously not turned on, but clearly the filmmakers are effectively creating a mood of heightened reality.

Tom picks one of the bodies up. "It's frozen solid," says Tom. Mrs. Deere replies, "It'll thaw out soon."

They take the bodies upstairs to the "infirmary" so they will be counted in the monthly inspection. Mrs. Deere sits on a bed next to a girl's frozen body. She speaks to the girl tenderly, as if she were still alive.

We will pause here and reflect on Ellie's situation. Motherless and fatherless, she is being sent to an orphanage where the proprietors have no qualms about killing their charges, freezing the bodies, and wheeling them out to pretend they are still alive. We won't even mention the fact that a hammer murderer is loose and Ellie is the only witness to the crime. Will she be safe in the Deere house? The answer is no [spoiler]. Find out exactly how unsafe Ellie is in Part 2. Farewell!