Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975)
“The Legend of Lizzie Borden” from 1975, directed by Paul Wendkos, was a movie I had been dying to watch, both because I like to stomach anything Lizzie Borden-related and due to actress Elizabeth Montgomery. I’ve always been a fan of hers from growing up watching re-runs of “Bewitched” and she starred in the lead role as Lizzie Borden. “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” came out when I was just one-year-old, so I wasn’t one of those crowded around the TV watching it on ABC Movie of the Week when it aired, but I had read just how much it would have been controversial at the time for how much violence it showed. Violence, by the way, that doesn’t hold a candle to what we watch now, or would back then as the ‘80s approached, in terms of slasher films. If I had a been a bit older, we would have never been allowed to watch it in my house anyway.
Knowing the film was an award-winner (nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture Made for Television in 1976 and five Emmys), and seeing that it had high ratings on IMBD, I didn’t think it would be hard to find. However, I only found some versions recorded on YouTube, and therefore, watched a recording someone uploaded in 2017. The quality was horrible.
The quality being so bad was off-putting to me when I first started to watch it. I thought it was going to be like watching the cows down the road take a crap. What was I getting myself into? I thought it was going to be horribly corny—the blood too fake, the acting over-done and melodramatic, the scenes drawn out instead of succinct.
Then, about 30 minutes in, I decided to give it more of a chance. Did it still have some of those elements? Yes. Montgomery wasn’t the perfect actress cast as Lizzie Borden because even though she was 42, and Lizzie 32 at the time of the actual murders, it was more due to appearance. Montgomery was much taller, thinner, and had blonde hair unlike Lizzie, so to me it seemed out of character. As well, Montgomery had a flair for the dramatic which was laughable at times, but in the end, all worked with the plot, music, film techniques to make for an exciting watch. I think Montgomery made Lizzie a more interesting woman than she may have been in real life, where she was mostly dour. Montgomery and the film writers seasoned Lizzie with a bit of a mischievous personality for the film, which Montgomery was obviously good at due to her time on “Bewitched.” I became enthralled by Montgomery as the film continued and couldn’t tear my eyes from the screen. Her facial expressions were unpredictable and intense. It was a chilling performance that left the hair standing up on my arms.
The musical score certainly helped to make the movie, with its ominous chords being struck at just the right times. Sometimes the whole demeanor of an actress could be told by the sound of the music, heightened or lowered perfectly, timpani underbelly and bells jangling. It created an atmosphere of tension, confusion, fright, and fervor. It showed anger and resentment far past anything dialogue could do.
The filming techniques were dark, like black gauze hanging around the edges. Tight camera angles kept the watcher focused on emotions. The costumes and atmosphere for 1892 and 93 were so spot on, nothing forced, nothing grand, but wholly authentic. All subdued colors and puritan dress, except on Lizzie. The movie also did a wonderful job in terms of dressing Montgomery as Lizzie, indicating the wealth and culture with which Lizzie dressed, unlike her step-mother, sister, and maid, of course, who dressed in clothes to clean and such. I don’t know if this was to showcase Lizzie’s issues with her family of being spoiled, lending to fighting, as she presented herself with more pretentiousness or if this was just to highlight Montgomery as the actress. I have a feeling it was the former.
Using Lizzie as the main narrator, with dialogue being mostly either during the trial, or via conversations overheard by Lizzie, we can get that close atmospheric feeling of dread and dark wonder. She was always seeming to not be in the know, and here we see her, watching and listening to every detail with precision.
The film itself used the technique of flashbacking to show the past, while centering mostly during the trial, from which they used actual court documents. The questions and answers of everyone on trial, but especially Lizzie, were so strange, it was hard to look away. Many times, it flashbacked as Lizzie contemplated her life from the seat while others testified. This is where the film writers introduced the possibility that incest had occurred in her home between her and her father. It highlighted the fighting that went on in the household between her and her step-mother. Though they opt not to introduce the real-life uncle that stayed with them the night previous to the murders into the movie, it worked without him. They were able to flashback and give us their hypothesis into how she might have committed the murders, without leaving a trail of evidence, all through Lizzie thinking back on the moments – or else she was only contemplating how she could have done. Though there was no indication anyone else could have committed the murders, her sister was not home and only the maid was home with them that day, in the movie, without the uncle being featured, so it was more indicative to me that the film writers were taking the stance showing how she could have committed them and her motives for doing so.
The actual murders were depicted such for the time, with minimal visceral viewing, no special effects, but rather, showcased through Montgomery’s violent swings of the ax and subsequent reactions, all culminated by anger and rage. Her quick ease of washing the blood from her skin, almost feeling as if she was bathing in it, was diabolical. There was blood splatter of course, making this a slasher film. I’m not sure that even with the films of today taking more liberties in visually showing violence, that the horrifying way these people died could be shown any more maniacally than using your own mind to see what wasn’t shown.
The sister was always standing by Lizzie’s side and yet, also, always with a questioning look in her eye. She was like all of us, not knowing what to believe about her sister. I think that’s one of the points the movie makes, is that throughout history, no one has been able to make sense of Lizzie Borden, both her personality and if she committed these murders. Montgomery as Lizzie seemed cold, calculated, devoid of compassion, empathy, and sympathy, merely clinical. She seemed forgetful as if she lived on a different plane of existence, her mind always leading her elsewhere.
With her dream state issues, and her mental capacities in question, which the film does highlight, I wonder why more people didn’t err on the side of her committing murder because she wasn’t in her right mind?! Or was she just that devious?
The movie genuinely drudges up for me again a million questions about what happened that day, or throughout Lizzie’s life. It was the oddest sort of life, really, even before the murders, and afterwards, it was like it happened but didn’t really happen.
At the end of the movie, of course, the court declares “not-guilty,” but her sister questions her to the end. The foreboding music indicates to us a presence of evil, however. We don’t know whether to believe in Lizzie or not, just as most people still don’t today.
Out of all of this, my favorite part of the movie, and what I feel made this movie as chilling and tension-filled as it is, is the MUSIC!! 5 stars just for the musical score. It’s as ominous as it comes.
Upon writing this, I realized that “The Legend of Lizzie Borden” is free to stream for Amazon Prime members, of which I am. I started it on my computer to see the difference, and while still dark, the colors and images pop more off the screen. I’ll have to watch it again this way and urge everyone NOT to watch the YouTube version. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, at least rent it for $1.99. It’s a great late Friday night date-at-home movie as long as you have popcorn and red soda pop.
Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi has twenty years of experience in the journalism, public relations, and marketing fields and operates Addison’s Compass PR and Hook of a Book Media. She is an editor for Sinister Grin Press, as well as the marketing and PR specialist, and works as the latter for Raw Dog Screaming Press. She is the freelance editor and publicist for many authors across several genres too.
Erin is the author of the dark fiction and poetry collection Breathe. Breathe. published by Unnerving, and numerous other works featured in anthologies, magazines, and online sites. Her next poem is part of the upcoming anthology Dark Voices from Lycan Valley Press and she is currently co-editing a Gothic anthology for Unnerving.
You can find her at www.hookofabook.wordpress.com as well as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.