Wednesday, October 15, 2014

THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN 1975 - Creepy 70's TV Historical True Crime !

"Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one"

    Premiering during ratings sweeps on Feb. 10 1975 this was one of the best remembered and controversial TV movies released during that golden age of small screen movies. Although not a horror movie by definition THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN was one the more creepily unsettling viewing experiences of the time and thanks to its long unavailability (up till now) on home video and the impression it made on young minds (if you were lucky enough to have seen it) it has become something of holy grail for baby boomer horror movie fans. Up till now the only way to see this was via bootlegs of varying degrees of horrible quality, but a nice region 1 DVD from New Video Group (licensed from CBS Home Video) has recently been released.
   Viewing it again after almost 40 years its amazing to see how well its held up and how many of the things that were vaguely unsettling to me as a young teenager are now brought even more to the forefront (not to mention the copious amounts of blood flying about). Playing out as a weirdly hypnotic combination of American Gothic merged with a European art house film it remains to this day an unnerving viewing experience with some not to vague (and even some outright) references to necrophilia, incest and drug use lurking about in it's plot. Anchored by a mesmerising performance by Elizabeth Montgomery it was based on the actual events that incurred in Fall River Mass. during the summer of 1893 concerning the hatchet murder of Andrew & Abby Borden followed by the sensational trial and acquittal of their daughter Lizzie (Montgomery) for the murder.

    Following the actual events closely (some of the other family members present in the household have been removed) the film starts off like many true crime films with the discovery of the murder and then following through with the subsequent trial and its outcome, it has been criticized for simply being a drawn out TV courtroom drama (which at its core it is). However thanks to the above mentioned performance of Montgomery (along with a bunch of familiar TV faces), some truly disturbing flashback/dream sequences and the overall atmosphere of morbid family secrets in a sweaty (the actual murders took place in the midst of an oppressive summer heatwave, which the film brilliantly recreates) & claustrophobic setting the film does rise above your typical TV fare of the period.
   Sharing another plot point with other true crime films the movie presents the murder as a flashback during the trial and because the actual facts of the murder are still unknown to this day the film presents them as a "what if" with Lizzie Borden thinking back to the events of the murders. Although there have been other theories put forth to the identity of the perpetrator most scholars agree that Lizzie got away with murder and the movie does show her as the murderess (although it's been put forth that perhaps this sequence in the film is meant to be a dream). One of the mitigating circumstances that allowed her to be declared not guilty was the complete lack of blood seen on her immediately following the discovery of the crime (which had just happened prior to a maids discovery). The film puts forth an alternate theory (which leads to one of the best remembered sequences in 70's TV) that Lizzie stripped down naked and washed herself after each murder.

    The scenes of Montgomery slowly stripping down (at one point even caressing the hatchet handle) and later washing up are some of the more erotically charged sequences seen on TV up till that point and must have made quite an indelible impression on young minds (I know it did mine). Supposedly there was a harder cut prepared for Europe that showed Montgomery with full frontal nudity and when viewing the DVD today there is some brief instances of a visible nipple that does show that at the very least she did the scenes topless.
   The daughter of actors Robert Montgomery and Elizabeth Allen, Elizabeth Montgomery is most famous for her role as Samantha Stephens in BEWITCHED which ran from 1964-72 (in a role she grew to feel increasingly frustrated in) and later would work primarily in TV movies with roles here and in 1974's A CASE OF RAPE giving an example of what a gifted actress she was. Married to producer William Asher (the "Beach Party" movies) from 1963 to 1974 (and earlier to actor Gig Young and later to Robert Foxworth) she passed away in 1995 from cancer. Here as Lizzie Borden she gives a wonderful shape shifting chameleon like performance alternately creepy and vengeful and then playfully flirting with the men in the courtroom.

    Along with Montgomery it features a terrific cast of supporting characters including Ed Flanders (who appeared at one time or another in about every TV series), Katherine Helmond as Lizzie's sister and Fritz Weaver as the father (who seem to specialize in playing tyrannical family patriarchs). Although most likely not generating a bunch of press, for me this is one of the top DVD releases of the year. Amazon still seems to have a couple of the iffy releases listed, but this is the one you want.



  1. I was front and center in front of our family TV the night this aired - and I had much the same experience that you did. I got to set again around 15 years later in an airing on a local broadcast channel. It's an excellent film - and gave Elizabeth Montgomery another of her great TV movie roles - something she continued with for the rest of her life. I want to see this again -:thanks for the heads up on the DVD release!

    1. Hi Craig - I hadn't seen it since the original air date and and when watching it again now, its even more amazing then I remember. I stuck it in my DVD player and didn't move for the next 100 minutes. Great stuff !

  2. wow, Elizabeth Montgomery in a dark role. I had never heard of this, but I am certainly intrigued now. Though you have me much more interested in finding that European cut!

    I think the art of the TV has kind of died out. I guess you could count all those Sci-Fi channel movies, but I mean more so prime time major network films.

    1. There was a bunch of great TV movies back in the 70's 9along with as to be expected a bunch of dreck). This is one of the best !