In the midst of television’s last golden age, a creepy and effective telling of the infamous Lizzie Borden case blew out the walls of both the TV movie and the historical crime drama.
“The Legend of Lizzie Borden” starred Elizabeth Montgomery, who in 1975 was firmly entrenched in American hearts as the sweet-faced, nose-twitching Samantha Stephens from “Bewitched.”
To see her as a grimly corseted spinster sweltering under the heat of a New England summer and her family’s penny-pinching morality was shocking enough. Scenes of Lizzie stripping to her skin before butchering her father and step-mother, though edited to network standards, sent critics and viewers into a rapturous tizzy.
The film was nominated for multiple Emmys, including lead actress. More important, it proved how a complex and counterintuitive performance, accompanied by evocative historical detail, could lift an oft-told and histrionic tale to artistic heights.
None of which can be said about the film “Lizzie Borden Took an Ax,” which premieres on Lifetime Saturday night.
Television is once again waxing golden and a headliner — Christina Ricci — plays lead, but this “Lizzie Borden” takes little advantage of either. With historical mood and attention to mundane detail lending dramatic credibility to pirates, vikings, ad executives and British aristocrats everywhere, director Nick Gomez and writers Stephen Kay and David Coggeshall rely instead on a head-banging soundtrack and Ricci’s enormous eyes to add what they must have considered a “cool” psychological twist.
Those eyes, and that heart-shaped face, do allow Ricci to transition from demure to frightened to completely crazy with alarming alacrity. Her Lizzie is more naturally born psychopath than dissociative woman pushed to the brink; little Rhoda Penmark all grown up and living in Victorian-era Fall River.
This is certainly a legitimate interpretation of Borden. She was acquitted in part because there was no physical evidence linking her to the crime, but mostly because the all-male jury could not believe a woman capable of such brutality. (Ricci’s diminutive stature works against her here; the real Lizzie Borden was much more substantial.)
That “Bad Seed” quality is what Lifetime, fresh off a similarly facile “Flowers in the Attic,” brings to the tale. Unfortunately, the image of a woman presenting a carefully innocent mien to the world while disposing of bloody weapons in the basement walks a fine line between horror and camp. And this “Lizzie Borden” stumbles far too often into the latter.
Much of the film is occupied by the “media frenzy” — gossip! photographers! outside the courthouse! — and trial. An aggressive (and quite clear-eyed) prosecutor (Gregg Henry) assumes that everyone understands that “asylums are full of madwomen,” but Borden’s defense attorney (Billy Campbell) cannily plays the “sweet girl, respectable family” card.
Both actors do their level best, as does Clea DuVall as Lizzie’s dubious but loyal sister Emma. But they all seem to be participating in a very different movie from Ricci, who flounces, flops and smiles knowingly but offers no insight against the pounding backbeat, like a CW heroine slumming it on Lifetime.
Indeed, the movie ends on such a note as to cause the audience to wonder how long it will take before “A,” of “Pretty Little Liars” fame, starts leaving Lizzie Borden an incriminating text or two.
‘Lizzie Borden Took an Ax’
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)