Andrea Runge, ax murders, bad movies, based on a true story, Billy Campbell, Christina Ricci, Clea DuVall, dysfunctional family, famous trials, Gregg Henry, historical drama, Lifetime Channel, Lizzie Borden, Lizzie Borden Took An Ax, murder, Nick Gomez, patricide, period-piece, set in the 1890s, Shawn Doyle, sisters, Stephen McHattie, true crime, TV movie
You’d think that making a film about the murder trial of Lizzie Borden would be kind of a no-brainer: after all, this is a case about a young woman from 1890s Massachusetts who was accused, tried and acquitted of butchering her father and step-mother with an ax. The case is so famous that it even inspired a children’s’ playground rhyme (“Lizzie Borden took an ax / And gave her mother forty whacks. / When she saw what she had done, / She gave her father forty-one.”). In certain ways, the media frenzy surrounding the case could be seen as a precursor to modern-day murder trials like Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias: young women who were all considered unlikely murder suspects thanks to their ages, looks and social statuses.
You would think that making a film about a fascinating, real-life case like this would be simple: judging by Nick Gomez’s truly terrible Lizzie Borden Took An Ax (2014), however, you would be wrong…dead wrong, as it were. While the film comes with a fairly huge handicap (it was a “Lifetime Channel original film”, which carries about as much artistic weight as do the terms “Syfy original” or “Asylum exclusive”), the problems (almost too numerous to count) go far and beyond the film’s place of birth. Lizzie Borden Took An Ax is a film that manages to get almost nothing right, managing to be simultaneously over-wrought, lackadaisical, over-the-top and duller than dishwater: no mean feat considering that the film whiplashes tone so often that one could get seriously motion-sick trying to keep up.
The film begins by sketching out (very skimpily) our major players: we meet the obnoxious Lizzie (Christina Ricci), a sort of 1890s take on Macaulay Culkin’s version of Michael Alig from Party Monster (2003); her supportive but numbingly milquetoast sister, Emma (Clea Duvall); her strict, closed-off father (Stephen McHattie), who’s interest in Lizzie appears to border on the incestuous; and Lizzie’s much hated stepmother (Sara Botsford). As far as characterization goes, that’s just about it. We do get a throwaway bit where a couple of town guys argue with Lizzie’s father, Andrew, about being shorted on payment for services rendered but this is never explored any further: I’d be shocked if the information was ever supposed to be more than a MacGuffin. With these characters, what you see is what you get.
So what do we get? Well, we get a ridiculously modern, stomping hybrid of hip-hop and blues for the musical score, which goes superbly with all of the ridiculous slo-mo shots: there are so many “badass” moments where characters stride in slo-mo down the street, accompanied by the over-the-top score, that I briefly wondered if this was the first ever historical drama completely informed by modern super hero movies. We get a performance from Ricci that ranges wildly between “just rolled out of bed stoned” to “every vein standing out in relief,” although the key connecting tissue is that no part of her performance ever feels accurate or real: it’s difficult to tell whether the odd characterization is Ricci or director Gomez’s fault but either option seems entirely valid. Stephen McHattie, who’s normally an incredibly reliable presence in indie genre films like Pontypool (2008) just looks confused here, as does Clea Duvall: both actors have the bearing of performers who are receiving their scripts a page at a time, just as lost as the audience.
While the story doesn’t veer far from the historical details of the murder, the script (which is as reliably awful as the rest of the film) still manages to throw in a raft of completely unnecessary, underdeveloped bullshit: we get another murder, which may or may not be related, although the film doesn’t care enough to explore it further; we get the suitably ridiculous portrayal of Lizzie as a modern-day party-girl magically transported to turn-of-the-20th-century Massachusetts; a stupid “insane roommate” subplot between Lizzie and her sister (the musical stingers and Ricci’s “crazy eyes” are straight out of Single White Female (1992) and enough over-acting to shame an ancient Greek theater troupe.
Picking a single low-point for the film is almost impossible but one of my favorites has to be the astoundingly stupid scene where Lizzie sneaks out to go to a party. The scene is shot exactly like a similar scene in a modern “wild youth” film might be staged: red-lit, thumping music, wild teens drinking…except it’s a period-piece, so all this takes place while the aforementioned “wild youth” are dressed in their best 1890s finery, dancing politely with each other. We get it: kids have always been kids. This doesn’t make it any less of a stupid affectation, however, although it goes hand-in-hand with that ridiculous musical score.
Essentially, Lizzie Borden Took An Ax is completely DOA, flatlining way before we limp in to the inane “twist”ending (spoiler alert: Lizzie did it, after all…duh). Truth be told, there’s virtually nothing to recommend about this film: the cast is pretty bad, including the more established actors like Ricci and McHattie; everything about the storyline is obvious and telegraphed; the score is ludicrous; the acting is too over-the-top, which turns the pulpy dialogue into something resembling film noir for idiots; the courtroom/trial stuff is simultaneously cheesy and boring…truth be told, the only miraculous thing about Gomez’s film is how it manages to be so bad without ever skipping over the line into “so-bad-it’s-good” territory.
If one is so inclined, however, there’s a pretty vicious drinking game that can be applied to the film. To whit: every time you get a gratuitous shot of McHattie’s ax-ruined face, take a drink. Since this happens at a ratio of at least once a minute for the first 30 minutes or so (including a hilarious bit where his face is covered…only for the cloth to be dramatically whipped away, revealing that damn bloody face again…take that!), you’ll either be toes-up drunk by the mid-point or completely unconscious: either way, you win.