Written by: Gil Lasky
Directed by: Philip S. Gilbert
Starring: Gloria Grahame, Melody Patterson, and Milton Selzer
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Shock after shock after shock as desire drives a bargain with death!
Blood and Lace is immaculately unhinged. Arriving in that nebulous time when the genre had been dabbling in grime on the drive-in circuit without taking it to the mainstream, this twisted little proto-slasher from American International Pictures is another one of those odd ducks straddling two eras. On the one hand, it’s certainly riding the wave of scummy 60s sleaze that would soon crest with The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; on the other, it sometimes feels like it belongs in a more quaint time, and the resulting tonal clash creates a fascinating discordance. Much like the films of Herschel Gordon Lewis, Blood and Lace is an off-kilter blend of gore and antiquated aesthetics: something about it just feels off and only highlights how delightfully fucked-up it is. You sense that something this deranged shouldn’t be unfolding in a movie that otherwise doesn’t feel too far removed from the days of Frankie and Annette.
It reminds you of that sort of movie whenever it’s not skirting around murder, sex, and other assorted sleaze, anyway. As it turns out, this actually isn’t very often, least of all right up top when it opens with a scene that is of note for slasher historians. In a sequence that would soon become all-too-familiar over the course of the next decade, Blood and Lace begins with ominous, point-of-view camerawork prowling throughout a moonlit house. A hammer enters the frame, carried by the unseen stalker, who proceeds upstairs to hover over a couple sleeping in bed. Soon, the claw end of said hammer plunges into a woman’s face. Blood splatters everywhere, which may be the only major element that won’t remind you of the opening sequence of Halloween. Its familiarity makes it staggering in more ways than one.
Even without the odd, retroactive sense of déjà vu, it’s quite the opening statement. Clearly,Blood and Lace is not here to fuck around—well, until it is. After this brutal murder, some explanatory futzing around is in order: we learn that the victims were a notorious town prostitute and her client, and this double homicide has orphaned the woman’s daughter, Ellie (Melody Patterson). Understandably traumatized by the event, she lands in some shoddy psychiatric care and worries that the killer—whom she saw slipping out of the house the night of the murder—will return to tie up loose ends. It doesn’t help that a local, chummy detective (Vic Tayback) playfully warns her that the killer probably will return—and not just because she has a pretty face.
All of this would be perfectly suitable to carry the entirety of Blood and Lace. I daresay that, however thin it may be, this plot provides plenty of conflict and opportunities for further grime and gore. Clearly, this is why I’m not in a position to make movies, as co-writer Gil Lasky dares to dream aloud, “what if we tossed Ellie into an orphanage run by a couple of homicidal maniacs and have the flannel-clad, hammer-wielding killer skulking about the place?” Lesser movies would perhaps force you to choose between one or the other. Blood and Lace is generous with its gonzo plot developments, however, and it begins to feel like an exercise in pushing the envelope in order to see just exactly what it can get away with (under a PG rating, no less!). Murder, sadism, pedophilia, child abduction, and more unfold before your disbelieving eyes, all the way up until the closing moments, when you can practically feel the film sprinting to the finish line, unloading its perverse baggage with every step. If nothing else, Blood and Lace is committed to coaxing your jaw to the floor until the very end.
What’s really interesting, though, is how all of this sleaze is couched in such an antiquated milieu. Between the warbling stock music and the overly earnest performances, it’d be easy to mistake this for any number of horror movies AIP churned out over a decade earlier—well, whenever it’s not dealing with ridiculously morbid stuff, like dead kids being squirreled away and made up to look like they’re suffering from an illness whenever social workers arrive. A more fitting title would be I Was a Teenage Torture and Murder Victim. The discordance doesn’t seem to arise out of any particular desire to highlight the loss of innocence or purity; rather, it just feels like no one had quite figured out how to meld teenage party horror with legitimately lurid material, so you’re left with this bizarre melding of two modes that often works despite itself. Tapping classic Hollywood starlet Gloria Grahame as the deranged Mrs. Deere only heightens the uncanny effect (that her partner-in-crime is Len Lesser of Seinfeld fame only makes it more pronounced), a tactic that would recur a decade later with the casting of Betsy Palmer in Friday the 13th.
These two make for a deliriously entertaining psycho duo. Descending from the lineage that started with Norman Bates and sprouted branches in the likes of Spider Baby, Texas Chainsaw, Deranged, Motel Hell, and House of a 1,000 Corpses, these two rural maniacs might be the most fiendish, what with their preying on an orphanage, of all places. The pair never seems to be particularly fussed about keeping up appearances (you wonder just how clueless everyone around them must be), and their charade has become so casual that conversations in the company of corpses dangling on meat hooks feel routine. Again, these two are and their shenanigans are more than sufficient, so the various subplots involving charred mass murderers and a love triangle between Ellie, the orphanage hunk (Ronald Taft), and a 16-year-old nymphomaniac (Terri Messina) feel like extra gifts.
Even more remarkable is that all of this resolves rather spectacularly, so much so that the film’s conclusion almost feels like the punchline to a perfectly crafted gag. Imagine if an urban legend involving a creepy orphanage suddenly climaxed with a dirty joke: that’s the beauty of Blood and Lace, a film that’s so bonkers that it transcends being a mere historical curiosity. It may share DNA with some more famous cousins, but it stands out as an exceptionally twisted branch of a crooked family tree. Sprung from the same regional, low budget horror well that spewed forth the likes of H.G. Lewis and S.F. Brownrigg, Blood and Lace helped nudge open the door for later, more accomplished brethren. This sort of movie had to learn how to crawl before it could walk, and watching this effort stumble around is a hoot.
Long unreleased on home video in North America, Blood and Lace arrives in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack courtesy of Scream Factory. Headlined by a commentary from historian Richard Harland Smith, the disc also features an alternate opening title and a theatrical trailer.
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