SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS GALORE
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
It irritates me whenever a slovenly thinker like Laura Mulvey earns a place in academia. Still, I recognize that her appeal stems from pointing out a basic truth, no matter how much nonsense she extrapolated from it. In this case the basic truth is that American cinema, though made to appeal to both male and female audiences, seems at first glance to center upon the efficacy of male characters and to situate female characters as decorative display. In her over-reaction to this truth, Mulvey called for some sort of “new cinema” which has yet to appear.
What ruins Mulvey’s case is that she failed to acknowledge the extent to which American cinema harbored female characters of considerable potency and efficacy—the exceptions, as it were, that disprove her rule. Further, many such “femme formidable” films come into being not in pursuit of the ideological purity Mulvey desires, but in pursuit of the almighty dollar. One such film, in which the female characters are principally efficacious and the male ones more reactive in nature, is the 1971 exploitation film BLOOD AND LACE.
Though LACE was helmed by one-time director Philip S. Gilbert, I suspect that the main creative force behind the movie was writer Gil Lasky, if only because Lasky later mined a similar concept in a later production, MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS. But while GIRLS is just a basic exploitation picture, LACE is unique in being chiefly centered upon the struggles of female characters.
LACE begins with an unseen figure moving through a house in a Southern-looking community. The intruder uses a hammer to brutally assault a couple in bed. The murderer then sets the room on fire. The murdered woman dies in bed without a struggle, but the assaulted man manages to stagger out of bed, though the scene ends before the audience sees if he gets clear of the fire. The killer escapes but leaves behind the murder weapon.
A day or so later young Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson) awakes screaming at a local hospital. She’s the daughter of murdered woman Edna Masters, but it’s not clear if Ellie actually witnessed the scene in the burning bedroom, or if the film is simply reconstructing what happened for the audience’s benefit. When Mullins, a local government official, visits Ellie, Ellie’s conversation with him suggests the reconstruction angle. Ellie tells Mullins that she did not witness the murder, or even see the murder weapon, though she’s dreamed of the hammer (later an important plot-point). She awoke while the house was burning and saw a man fleeing, whom she presumed to be her mother’s latest bed-partner; an unnamed drifter. In contrast to what the audience knows, Ellie thinks that the drifter murdered Edna Masters, who often sold her services to anyone able to pay.
Ellie isn’t interested in finding her mother’s murderer. The young woman hated her prostitute-mother for forcing Ellie to live in a house of sin. Mullins, though he’s aware of Edna’s checkered past, offers little sympathy. Because Ellie’s a minor he’s obliged to place her with a private home for underage adolescents and problem teens.
Ellie attempts to flee the area, but an officer of the local police force catches her at the train station. Detective Calvin Carruthers (Vic Tayback) is a local, and the two know each other slightly from the days when Calvin ran the local movie-house, though Ellie’s surprised to learn that he’s now a plainclothes cop. In her conversation with Calvin Ellie reveals that her main goal is to find her father. Edna never told Ellie anything about the man, except that he was Edna’s first lover and that he knocked up her up with Ellie—which Edna resented because pregnancy made her lose her figure. This may have been the cause of the split, after which Edna sold her services to every “traveling salesman” and “sixteen-year-old” willing to pay. Calvin sympathizes with Ellie but he’s duty-bound to deliver her to the state-sanctioned private reformatory, run by a widow named Mrs. Deere. Perhaps hoping to discourage Ellie from running again, Calvin warns her that the missing drifter hasn’t been found and that he might come after the daughter of the murdered woman.
Before Ellie arrives at the Deere reformatory, though, the audience sees that both Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame) and her hulking handyman Tom—who’s sometimes seen with a hammer—regularly maltreat their adolescent charges. The night before Ellie arrives, a boy named Ernest escapes, but Tom hunts him down, kills him and hides his body. Tom tells Mrs. Deere that Ernest escaped. Mrs. Deere’s only concern is that one less charge means less money from the state, so she conspires to conceal Ernest’s absence from Mullins, the official in charge of keeping a head count on the teens.
At first sight Ellie and Mrs. Deere are clearly fated to be enemies, particularly when Mrs. Deere makes the odd remark that her late husband Jamison spoke well of Ellie’s late mother. Since Edna was the town tramp, the script loosely implies that the late Jamison Deere may have used Edna’s services. Could he be Ellie’s unknown father? And just how did Jamison meet his death?
Ellie becomes acquainted with other teens, all of whom acknowledge that Deere works them like dogs. First Ellie meets 16-year-old “Bunch,” but soon steps on the younger girl’s toes by coveting “Walter,” the studliest fellow at the reformatory. Bunch tells Ellie that Walter’s boyfriend. But even before Ellie learns that this is a lie, Ellie doesn’t seem disturbed by the morality of boyfriend-stealing. Bunch also claims that Walter is “Mrs. Deere’s pet,” which assertion contains a measure of truth.
Ernest’s absence is revealed so Mrs. Deere is forced to claim that he ran off. The missing boy gives Calvin an excuse to show up at the reformatory to investigate, though he’s clearly more interested in Ellie. Hammer-wielding Tom happens to pass a remark about Ellie to Calvin and Calvin responds by telling Tom not to go near the young woman.
Ellie goes walking with Walter. She wishes that her mother hadn’t been such a slut, so that Ellie might have had a normal family with a proper father. Walter, an orphan who never knew his parents, demurs, for he isn’t sure it’s so good to know one’s progenitors. “You can look at them and see what you’re going to be.” Ellie continues to insist that she wants to be “better than my mother.”
Ellie continues to see evidence of Mrs. Deere’s iron hand: she keeps her charges on minimum rations so that she can keep more of the money. She also chains one runaway girl, Jennifer, in the attic without water for hours. Mrs. Deere speaks enviously of how Ellie still possesses the charms of youth, and how her late husband strayed from her in pursuit of prettier women. The widow also speaks as if her husband were alive in some way—though only later does the audience learn that Mrs. Deere keeps his body preserved in a walk-in freezer in the basement, and talks to Jamison’s corpse as if it’s alive.
Tom disregards Calvin’s warning and offers Ellie a chance to escape, but it’s just a trick to get her alone so that he can rape her. Ellie escapes in part because “teacher’s pet” Walter tells Mrs. Deere that he saw the two of them go off together. Later Walter tells Ellie that he ratted her out because he thought Ellie meant to have sex with Tom consensually, and that he Walter was jealous.
Mrs. Deere threatens to fire Tom. Though he still keeps quiet about his murder of Ernest, Tom blackmails the widow about other charges that disappeared and who are now kept in the freezer. Mrs. Deere reluctantly yields to the blackmail.
Meanwhile, just to further prove that even persons of one’s own age can’t be trusted, jailbait Bunch manages to seduce Walter—despite his earlier avowal of disinterest in such a young girl—and to rub the seduction in the face of “older woman” Ellie.
One night a strange figure with a burned-looking face invades Ellie’s room, though no one else sees it. Could he be the drifter who escaped the fire, driven insane by his wounds and seeking to kill the daughter, even though the audience knows he didn’t kill the mother?
When the cops can’t locate runaway Ernest, Mullins shows up to investigate the reformatory more thoroughly. Tom murders him. Moments later Tom is forced to fight the burn-faced man. The two fight; Tom is killed. Mrs. Deere, still pathetically hoping to conceal her crimes, hauls Tom’s body to the freezer. Vengeful Jennifer locks the door on the tyrannical harridan, and that’s the last the audience sees of Mrs. Deere.
Ellie flees into the countryside, where she stumbles across the corpse of Ernest. The burn-faced man overtakes her, only to pull off a face-mask. Surprise: it’s Calvin!
Calvin reveals that during the last few days he found the corpse of the drifter, who died after fleeing the murder-scene. He tells Ellie that he thought it was strange that she should dream of the hammer when she said that she never saw it. Because of that disparity, he deduced—correctly—that Ellie was the wielder of the hammer with which she killed her mother and her mother’s client.
Calvin tells Ellie that he masqueraded as a killer in order to spark Ellie's memory of the true events, since she seemed to have forgotten what she did. He convinces Ellie that if he reveals what he knows, she’ll face certain execution (guess she’s never heard of the insanity defense). Calvin offers her a deal: he’ll conceal what he knows if she marries him. After a very slight resistance Ellie agrees—at which point Calvin reveals the kicker: he was Edna Master’s first lover, and by implication Ellie’s real father. The film ends with Ellie laughing hysterically, for she’s not only made a deal with the devil, she’s fulfilled Walter’s prophecy and become just like her mother.
Given the presence here of both a “perilous psycho” (Mrs. Deere) and a “phantasmal figuration” (Calvin pretending to be a freakish killer), there’s no question that BLOOD AND LACE is a horror-film. But even whereas there are many horror-films that end badly for their protagonists, most of them are simply melodramas. LACE is a horror in the mythos of irony, which possesses a bleak, black comic aspect when one sees the extent to which all the characters are trapped. Even when the teens have the chance to escape the reformatory at the climax, none of them leave. “No Exit” has clearly been stamped upon their souls.
But is the tyranny more paternalistic or materialistic? Mullins and Calvin represent the law that keeps Ellie and the other teens prisoner. But it’s Mrs. Deere, who implicitly murdered her cheating husband, who is the prison-warden. Walter, despite being caught in a tug-of-war between two young girls, is described as Mrs. Deere’s “pet,” and he justifies this description when he tattles about Ellie’s supposed tryst. In the one long scene between Walter and Mrs. Deere, he relates to her like a mother, while she treats him indifferently, forcing him to pay her homage.
Mrs. Deere can’t totally control the brutish Tom, who may rape or kill on impulse. However, he’s little more than a minotaur who can’t do anything but prey on the captives others send him. Though he stymies Deere somewhat with his blackmail attempt, he has more to lose than she does from the revelation of Ernest’s fate. Mullins exerts some control over Mrs. Deere’s acquisition of her charges, but initially she’s able to quell his misgivings by plying him with sex. When Mullins finally sees the light, he dies as a result of his “deal with the devil woman.”
Calvin might seem to be an exception. He’s tough and clever, and seems to hold all the cards at the climax. Yet there’s an element of defeat in his victory. Clearly whenever his wife Edna kicked him out, she made it stick, as Ellie is never even aware of Calvin as a contender for the role of “absent papa.” He’s clearly watched his daughter grow up at the movies, and nursed a desire to have her in place of the unwilling mother. But though he maneuvers Ellie into taking her mother’s place (wonder how well that marriage went?), it’s implicit that Calvin would’ve been incapable of getting her in any other way but to hold a Sword of Damocles over her head. His manipulations smack of a desperate need for the lost icon of Ellie’s mother, and his “seduction via blackmail” could never have transpired had Ellie not stored up such massive resentment of Edna Masters.
Lasky’s script remains vague about Ellie’s motive for murder, harping only on her disgust at all the men who passed through her mother’s portals, and her desire for a real father who (presumably) would have controlled Edna’s profligacy. This doesn’t seem like a good motive for murder, though, especially since Ellie also kills a complete stranger. Freud assumes that the Oedipus complex manifests in girls the same way it does in boys, with the girl-child envying the mother’s sexual power over the father. Here, since the real father has been cast out, one may surmise that Ellie still resents her mother’s ability to entice men. By killing both Edna and the man who intrudes on what should be the bed of Ellie’s father, Ellie demonstrates that she is faithful to the absent father’s memory, and that she should take the mother’s place in the father’s affections. This is precisely what does happen, though it could not have happened had the mother not cast Calvin out in the first place, which in turn creates the war between mother and daughter.
Mrs. Deere is plainly a resurgence of the tyrannical mother whom Ellie has killed. The Greek Cronos swallowed his children, reversing the female process of birth via ingestion. Mrs. Deere doesn’t just eat children; she continued to torment them within her figurative gullet, for the crime of still being young. The widow takes her greatest pleasure in torturing Jennifer, and it’s clear that Ellie would have eventually received the same treatment. Admittedly, Mrs. Deere is anti-sexual where Edna was over-sexual. It’s initially surprising that there’s no evidence that Mrs. Deere has had sexual relations with her “pet” Walter. If Deere is a reflection of Edna, one might expect cougar-ish behavior from Mrs. Deere as well, given Ellie’s remark about how Edna was known to every “sixteen-year-old” boy who could buy Edna’s favors. But then, maybe there’s a greater irony in presenting Mrs. Deere as a woman capable of using her sexuality (with Mullins, who also may have slept with Edna) but is fundamentally faithful to her dead husband. Ellie, of course, wanted a mother who was faithful to Ellie’s real father. In effect, the film shows Ellie proof that mothers are not automatically nicer simply by being more monogamous; that such mothers can still be real “mothers” to their real and figurative daughters.
All of which, I hope, shows that despite being crafted by men, BLOOD AND LACE is a film entirely absorbed with the unique and terrible power of feminine nature.