There’s nothing more fascinating to me than the existence of proto-slashers. That is to say, movies made before the “big boom” of stalk-and-slash pictures, where famous elements of the subgenre could be found in narratives that were not otherwise beholden to it. Some proto-slashers are more eerily prescient than others. 1972’s Tower of Evil, for example, is a movie that’s really just an early slasher. But as I recently watched Scream Factory’s excellent Blood and Lace Blu-ray for the first time, I was struck by the familiarity of its opening scene. And how other elements of the slasher drifted in and out of its arena.
Made in 1970 and released in 1971, Blood and Lace features a blood-slicked prologue that, true to its slasher offspring, serves as a catalyst to our story proper. It’s also striking for anyone familiar with John Carpenter’s Halloween. Consider: several POV shots as an unseen figure creeps through a house. A hand curls around a threatening weapon–a silver hammer here–and then we move into the bedroom to watch two people sleep. The hammer lifts to the ceiling and then…
Well, the lightest blood this side of Dawn of the Dead gets splattered all over the place.
Okay, the bludgeoning is more brutal in theory and probably wasn’t all that shocking for its time. But hey, there’s enough about it that makes it a curiosity for slasher enthusiasts. And there’s added ferocity as the killer burns the home to the ground before escaping.
At this point, one may assume that Blood and Lace is going to be an even earlier example of the bona fide slasher film (assumptions that are supplemented by the suggestive poster). I certainly did. But it’s best to temper those expectations. Because while the rest of the movie isn’t bad at all, the prologue is where the proto-slashing ends.
The rest is spectacularly odd potboiler stuff. The sole survivor of the house fire is newly orphaned sixteen year old Ellie (Melody Patterson). She’s shipped off to a local orphanage run by the sadistic Mrs. Deere (Gloria Grahame) and her skeezy handyman Tom (Uncle Leo himself, Len Lesser). This is such a terrible place that kids are always trying to escape. Right before Ellie arrives, one young boy flees and Tom gives chase, accidentally maiming him and leaving him for dead. Turns out that Mrs. Deere and her handyman are in this for the welfare money and see the kids as commodities.
They’re not the only ones. Self-serving systems and the adults who work them are Blood and Lace’s central theme. There isn’t a respectable grown-up in the picture among the living or the dead. Not only are Ellie’s new guardians sadists, but she’s filtered through a process that couldn’t care less about her well-being. Her social worker knows that Mrs. Deere is a human monster, but is determined to place her there anyway because he benefits from the arrangement. And the detective in charge of Ellie’s case (Vic Tayback) desires her as “good breeding stock.”
Of course, the hammer wielding killer of the prologue was never caught. It’s a fact nobody seems all that concerned with and a premise the 1980s wouldn’t have dared to squander. Especially when a masked madman does show up at the orphanage, lording over Ellie as she sleeps and fumfering around the grounds in broad daylight to unintended hilarity. If Blood and Lace had been produced ten years later, it would’ve certainly been a body count picture. All the elements are there, begging for a masked killer to take a claw hammer to the scamming adults and promiscuous kids that line this thing wall-to-wall.
Alas, too much of the film’s middle section concerns Ellie’s repeated attempts to navigate the pitfalls of the orphanage. She crushes on an older boy and prompts the competition of another young admirer called Bunch (Terri Messina). She also runs afoul of our resident handyman who is always trying to get her alone. Along the way there’s double-crosses, seductions, and increasingly bizarre plot twists leading to an ending of incredibly poor taste. To say I loved the final beat is an understatement.
Blood and Lace is hardly a lost masterpiece, but Scream Factory’s Blu-ray represents the very first time genre fans have been able to see this picture since the drive in era. It’s honestly one of the best things about the Scream Factory label. It’s clear that their bread and butter lies with releasing John Carpenter films, steelbooks, and every bastion of 1980s nostalgia they can get their hands on. But there remains an undeniable commitment to rescuing forgotten obscurities such as this one. That is to be lauded. Without them I never would have seen Blood and Lace, and given its proximity to the subgenre I adore, I’m grateful for their efforts.
If any of this is your bag, then I can’t recommend this disc enough.