Thursday, August 15, 2019

When Maniacs Collide

A man wearing a big rubber mask holds a hammer over Ellie Masters where she lies in bed, staring confusedly back at him before finally screaming. The cruel matron of the orphanage where Ellie is staying explains this is only a dream in 1971's Blood and Lace, a captivating and schlocky riff on Psycho with a theremin-heavy soundtrack oddly pulled from Sci-Fi films. This only scratches the surface of this famous pulp film's free-associative plot which also includes frozen corpses that bleed, at least four murderous maniacs occasionally at cross purposes, and a whole lot of really short dresses and nighties. It's hard to take your eyes off this movie, it's a terrific pleasure.

The Wikipedia entry calls Blood and Lace a proto-slasher film. Like later slasher films, it takes some conspicuous cues from Psycho. Blood and Lace focuses on a pretty young blonde woman, Ellie (Melody Patterson), before introducing an unrelated maniac, Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame), who routinely turns to her dead husband for advice on how to run her orphanage.

I suspect this movie had a substantial influence on David Lynch. Ellie looks and behaves so much like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive it's uncanny--and I'd be spoiling both movies if I told you why the resemblance doesn't end there. The film starts with the murder of Ellie's mother, a prostitute, and one of her mother's johns. For this sequence, director Philip S. Gilbert introduces the novel technique of attaching a hammer to the camera, offering us a first person "hammer cam", if you will.

In the aftermath, Ellie has been temporarily committed to a hospital in her lacy nightie but she argues with a social worker named Mullins (Milton Selzer), insisting she be allowed to leave so she can seek out her biological father. The fact that she knows virtually nothing about him doesn't seem to discourage her.

Managing to sneak out of the hospital, she's immediately pursued by a strange man (Vic Tayback) who doesn't think to mention he's a police detective until after she's run off the road and along the train tracks for a while. There are a lot of logical problems in this film but there actually turns out to be sort of an explanation for this later on.

He informs her she needs to go live in an orphanage. Ahead of this, we're introduced to Mrs. Deere and her henchman, Tom (Len Lesser), who cuts off a boy's hand when he attempts to flee the place. We also have a glimpse of Tom's and Mrs. Deere's routine of moving corpses out of the freezer and into beds in order to pass inspections by Mullins. He doesn't look too closely at things due to a tacit understanding he has with Mrs. Deere who sleeps with him in exchange.

There's a scene later in the film where Mrs. Deere talks to Ellie about remembering what it was like to be beautiful and warns Ellie that one day she'll look in a mirror and see someone like her. But Gloria Grahame, who was 46 at this point, actually looks really good. I'd say her performance is more animated, too, than in The Man Who Never Was though she still has the almost totally paralysed upper lip.

Ellie discovers a girl tied up in the attic, begging for water--a victim of Mrs. Deere's brutal discipline, but Ellie doesn't think to mention it when the police detective drops by. The detective, whose name is Calvin, is shown in an earlier scene reminiscing with Mullins about how nice it was sleeping with Ellie's prostitute mother and talking about how much he'd like to get into Ellie's pants now. At the same time, he does seem genuinely interested in getting to the bottom of shenanigans at the Deere Orphanage.

Which all leaves the question, who is the man in the mask with the bright red and black shirt, wielding the hammer? He looks like an ancestor of both Freddy Krueger and Leatherface. Also, why does Mrs. Deere like to talk about reanimating corpses?

This movie is so much better than I was expecting it to be and it's available on Amazon Prime.

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