20 October 2014

(1971)

What happens when no one has a childís best interest at heart? A quirky proto-slasher with both drive-in charm and a social conscience, Blood and Lace presents just such a scenario. It stands as director Philip S. Gilbertís only big screen effort, and itís a criminally overlooked one at that.

In the dead of night, a middle-aged woman (played by Louise Sherrill) and her lover (Joe Durkin) are attacked in bed by an unseen assailant with a hammer. The murder tool falls again and again, digging into their faces. The killer sets the room on fire and leaves as the gravely injured man musters enough strength to get off the bed.

We learn the woman was a prostitute, and her 18-year-old daughter Ellie (Melody Patterson) is now an orphan. Ellieís father is unknown, and she is temporarily put up in a hospital, where social worker Mr. Mullins (Milton Selzer) informs her that she is to be sent to an orphanage.

Despite the objections of Mullins, Ellie tries to run away, but Calvin Carruthers (Vic Tayback), a detective, catches her and takes her back to the hospital. Ellie reluctantly discusses her motherís murder with Carruthers. She explains that she saw a man running from her motherís room. When asked whether the murderer was carrying a hammer, she says that she only sees it in her nightmares.

That night at the orphanage, a young man, Ernest (Peter Armstrong), tries to run away but is chased by the caretaker, Tom Kredge (Len Lesser). Kredge chops off Ernestís hand with a meat cleaver, but Ernest manages to make it into the forest, where he bleeds to death.

Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame), who runs the orphanage, is displeased to hear of Ernestís escape. The state pays her 150 dollars a month per child, and as it turns out, Deere has already killed three would-be runaways. She asks Kredge to take their bodies from the freezer and place them in the infirmary, where she hopes to pass them off as being under the weather when Mr. Mullins visits for a head count.

The next day, Mullins arrives with Ellie at the orphanage, and while Deere shows him around, Ellie meets some of the other wards, including Bunch (Terri Messina), a 16-year-old girl, and Walter (Ronald Taft), whom Ellie is immediately attracted to. Bunch quickly establishes that Walter is her boyfriend, which Walter then denies.

Meanwhile, Deere tells Mullins that one girl, Jennifer (Maggie Corey), has been locked in the attic for trying to escape. She also informs him that three children are in the infirmary, and that Ernest has escaped. Deere asks Mullins not to report Ernestís escape, as this would result in him being sent to reform school. Mullins complies in return for favors of a sexual nature.

While exploring the orphanage, Ellie happens upon the infirmary. The three occupants do not respond to her presence, and she is quickly escorted out by a threatening Kredge. When she later questions the other wards regarding the three children, she is told that there are NO kids in the infirmary, and that Ernest was not the first to run away from the orphanage.

Mrs. Deere quickly takes a disliking to Ellie and frankly expresses her bitterness about growing old and losing her beauty. Deereís late husband, Jameson, was a customer of Ellieís mother. Ellie later discovers a dehydrated Jennifer in the attic. Kredge threatens Ellie again when she tries to bring the girl some water.

Not everyone is unfriendly towards Ellie. She has struck up a friendship with Walter, whom she tells of her plans to run away. He tries to dissuade her, but she tells him that she wants to find her father because she needs to know that she came from something better than her mother.

Kredge offers to help Ellie escape, asking her to meet him in the cellar. She does, but he attempts to rape her. Deere intercedes and tries to fire him. In Ellieís absence, however, Kredge blackmails Deere for a larger share of the money, saying that he has nothing to lose.

Having told Deere about Ellieís plan to escape, Walter apologizes to Ellie. Ellie explains that the man to whom her mother lost her virginity was her father, and that her mom blamed Ellie for what the pregnancy had done to her figure.

Meanwhile, Deere talks to the body of her dead husband, which she stores in the cellar freezer. The financial pressure is getting to her, especially with Kredge demanding a larger share. That night, Ellie wakes up to find a disfigured man with a hammer leering at her. She screams...but Deere convinces the other wards that it was only a bad dream.

The following day, the jealous Bunch arranges for Ellie to find her in a compromising situation with Walter. Ellie is heartbroken and tries to leave the orphanage, but is caught by Kredge and locked in the cellar freezer. Mullins shows up to confront Deere with police accusations, and, with the help of Kredge, she kills him and opens the freezer.

Just then, the disfigured intruder shows up and attacks Kredge. Ellie seizes the chance to make a run for it. The scarred man knocks Kredge down and pursues her. Deere drags Kredge into the freezer...but Jennifer locks the door on her, trapping the two murderers.

Ellie stumbles upon Ernestís body as her pursuer catches up to her. Admitting to her motherís murder, Ellie breaks down and begs for mercy from the man she assumes to be her motherís lover, disfigured by the fire.

The man then peels what turns out to be a mask from his face. It is Calvin Carruthers. She asks what will become of her...but Carruthers offers to keep her secret in return for her hand in marriage. Ellie accepts. Carruthers then tells her that her mother had lost her virginity to him. Realizing that she will now be married to her father, Ellie laughs hysterically.

One of the truly fun things about early 70ís horror movies is that the slasher formula as we know it had not yet solidified. In 1978, Halloween popularized a specific style and structure, and many film makers sought to imitate its success. But before that, we find a wealth of experimentation.

Blood and Lace is one such experiment, and itís definitely an odd bird. Several slasher elements are present: a respectable body count, an imperiled young heroine, a disfigured stalker, and even the requisite murder via subjective camera.

On the other hand, the plot moves through twists, turns, and improbabilities as multiple malignant characters vie for dominance. Itís almost like a deliciously perverse soap opera - not least because of the overly dramatic music, which seems lifted from a far earlier source, adding its own eccentric touch to the movie.

Blood and Lace is undeniably sleazy. In true Grindhouse style, themes of incest, rape, and prostitution are used for sheer shock value. However, the most disturbing aspect of this movie is its stance on humanity.

Every major character is despicable. Men are depicted either as weak individuals who allow themselves to be manipulated, or as threatening aggressors who use force or blackmail as means of sexual conquest. Mrs. Deere, Ellie, and Bunch, on the other hand, are skilled manipulators and not above using their bodies as bargaining chips.

And Blood and Lace definitely belongs to its lead actresses. Veteran Gloria Grahame underplays the insanity of the hectoring Mrs. Deere to chilling perfection. Apparently, Deere does not fully grasp the concept of death.

ďSo you see, Ellie, what you call death may be only the temporary absence of life,Ē she explains, elaborating on her hope that one day, medical science will find a way to restore those who have passed away...like her husband. Grahame delivers the line with the calm conviction of someone firmly secure in her own perception of reality.

The troubled Ellie Masters is no less interesting from a storytelling point of view. A spunky heroine forced to fend for herself, Melody Patterson imbues her with just the right amount of sweetness to make the audience sympathize with her plight.

This allows the movie to save its best shock for the final scene, where we learn exactly who Ellie is and what she is capable of. The one person we care about turns out to be no less seedy than the dark world she inhabits.

Unavailable in the digital format at the time of writing (officially, at least), Blood and Lace is way overdue for a legitimate release. Itís cynical, cleverly constructed, creepy, and just plain entertaining.

Contributing writer Kim Bruun Dreyer is a native of Denmark who has gobbled up horror pictures from an early age. He concluded his university education with a thesis on textual references and the role of the subjective camera in slasher films, and has contributed to the Danish genre webzine UNCUT.DK. He enjoys listening to opera, performing in amateur Shakespeare productions, and curling up on the couch with a scary movie.

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