Fun Performances Make Lizzie Borden Took an Ax
by Kristin Battestella
We all know the song, and though campy, the 2014 Lifetime Original Movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax utilizes juicy performances to flesh out the murderous ambiguity and did she or didn’t she 1892 courtroom drama.
Christina Ricci (The Addams Family) stars as Lizzie Borden, sister to Emma (Clea DuVall) and daughter of the soon to be bludgeoned Andrew Borden (Stephen McHattie). A messy barn, biting of luscious fruits, and Victorian white undies imply an underlying saucy to the spinster somber and silent dinners – tea time and full skirts make this largely a women’s world with the occasional, overbearing, intrusive man. Fortunately, hatchets are afoot in surreal visions, violent inserts, and murderous dreams, toying with our unreliable narrator and the muddled timeline in a self-aware, campy tone. Talk of previous crimes, grudges, and disgruntled encounters lay more motive drama to Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, rendering the modern, intrusive edge with obvious fake outs or teases unnecessary. Though not super gory, the splatter bash and killer crunch a half hour in do better than any trying to be hip approach. This case is both well documented and a logistical mess, which allows artistic liberties and sensational embellishments on the crowded crime scene, town gossip, erroneous reports, and faulty investigation. Press hysteria and exhumed bodies may seem like standard detective plotting, but period accents and Victorian protocol add to the evidence variables and questionable bloody dresses. Despite staying mostly with Lizzie’s questionable point of view, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax admits its stance via legal briefings and police discussions intercutting possible whack scenarios for a somewhat coherent frame on the what did or did not happen crimes. Debates on the unbelievable possibility of a woman committing such violence counters the scary white male jury versus little miss demure defense, and witness testimonies cast doubt on interrogations suggesting sociopath Lizzie did the the deed. However, Lizzie Borden Took An Ax does have some faulty framework – ye olde timestamps onscreen would have helped tremendously and historical conjecture is used as an excuse to waver between cool criminal warped and serious horror drama. Thankfully, this case’s moving fast topsy turvy doesn’t give us time to inspect the details, and not seeing the killings outright allows for hearsay, jury tours of the crime scene, and a slow horror reveal for the finale.
Christina Ricci’s Lizzie Borden is “a loner, Dottie. A rebel.” She gets up from the table without being excused, ditches the ironing if she can’t hum while she works, and otherwise spies, lies, steals, or worse. After all, she’s only a Sunday School teacher on Sundays! Lizzie looks at herself naked in the mirror and wants to go to a party at night without an escort – such not a little girl anymore behaviors imply more than just the bucking of Victorian attitudes when Lizzie gets more up close to her father than her cordial but prudish, dead woman walking stepmother. She clings to her dad, saying he wants her to stay with him forever and loves when she calls him handsome, but questions his suspicious sweat when she hugs him. Lizzie vows that she will neither be a wife nor a spinster, adding lesbian innuendo on top of the implied abuses or incest. How long has she been planning to kill? Lizzie Borden Took an Ax suggests a long gestating preparation with Lizzie’s calculated crime scene reaction, careful glances, and a practiced playing to the tears. Lizzie holds up a little too well for the horror that has happened and is more concerned with how polite the police are or how happy she will be to live alone with her sister – almost blissfully unaware of the attributed crimes. These deaths feel premeditated and well orchestrated, yet crazy cracks show once Lizzie faces some tough interrogations. She changes her tune and professes her innocence while dreaming about the killings and resorting to fainting and sensational courtroom antics. We feel she is faking and she says her mind is clear, yet the jury can’t tell either way. Despite the misplaced attempt Lizzie Borden Took an Ax takes with original girl power, button up cool facade, and hip badass style, Ricci creates a wild-eyed, slick transparency, and likable, scene chewing performance. Lizzie is a narcissist liar in action stifled by the courtroom and confused when she doesn’t get her own way, and Ricci clearly has fun with the party-throwing, attention seeking, and ultimately infamous heiress.
In contrast to bad girl Lizzie, Clea DuVall (Carnivale) as the elder Borden sister Emma is quiet and unassuming. Lizzie Borden Took an Ax briefly suspects her and throws shade her way, but Emma is said to be out of the house helping others when the titular slice and dice happens. Unfortunately, she soon doubts Lizzie’s account and comes to live in fear of what her sister may be capable of doing. Lizzie thinks they will be content forevermore in a new home at the top of high society, but Emma realizes her sister is utterly demented and locks her bedroom door at night to avoid Lizzie’s violent threats. She doesn’t like lawyers visiting the house or so many seemingly unneeded males entering their little world – again, whether it is possible abuses or implied feminine preference, Emma seems somewhat small or shy when it comes to men. Though not the fault of the cast, those men in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax are generally styled as inferior to the ladies parade or backhanded to the little women. We don’t have enough time with Stephen McHattie (Emily of New Moon) as the gruff and subsequently late Andrew Borden, yet his hands on innuendo as a potential reason for the crime is felt in those uncomfortable scenes with Lizzie. Billy Campbell (The 4400) as lawyer Andrew Jennings, however, provides Lizzie Borden Took an Ax with the cold facts – a realistic if circumstantial perspective of the situation for the audience compared to Lizzie’s loon and swoon. Gregg Henry (Hell on Wheels) as prosecutor Hosea Knowlton also provides fine legalese, not admissible battles, and harsh interrogations. At times, the media judgments and sensational her word against theirs back and forth feels like a contemporary courtroom drama. However, this famous case was modern, the OJ or MJ trials of its day, and the support here keeps the case grounded, balancing the over the top fun of Lizzie herself.
The carriages, period interiors, wallpapers, fine woodwork, and Victorian attention to detail also bring the stifling, rugged ye olde of Lizzie Borden Took an Ax to life. Bustles, gloves, feathers, fancy linens, and vintage lamps add upscale alongside mourning fashions and a visual air of sophistication. Despite congested house crimes, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax is well lit with bonus onscreen photography and old camera fun. Arrests and an overnight asylum whiff suggest the deplorable conditions for women against the system of the era, but swift cuts and artistic side shots keep the nudity ironically demure. Although some of the bright clothing, colorful accents, and modern fashion cuts feel slightly too contemporary as if the Lifetime millennial audience wouldn’t watch anything too steeped in total historic design, the neckties, cute hats, and shopping scenes are pleasant, subtle ways to update the period without being super intrusive. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the modern musical score used in Lizzie Borden Took an Ax. Perhaps some instrumental rock edgy rhythms from Tree Adams (Californication) could have embellished choice scenes, but Southern Rock lyrics are as out of place as the slow motion musical interlude transition scenes are unnecessary. Are such tunes fitting for a gritty western? Sure – but a winking Victorian crime drama about a lady killer? No. This kind of extra try hard is what ultimately leaves Lizzie Borden Took An Ax feeling rough around the edges with no thorough thinking. We’re never going to have a satisfactory definitive on the case so having fun with the yay or nay is forgivable, even expected. However, it’s odd that this ninety minute telling of the story in its entirety retroactively becomes the backdoor pilot for the follow up The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. Had there been a better plotted progression, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax could have been all about the backstory potboiler leading up to the wielding with the 2015 series left to pull out all the courtroom stops. Instead, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax merely ends with a hammy tie to the jump rope rhyme – because, come on, we all knew it was coming.
Lizzie Borden Took an Ax takes liberties with the eponymous case and can be confusing or inaccurate at times thanks to modern music, contemporary shoehorns, and a faulty need to be cool. The undecided nature of the story plays at both horror serious and Victorian sensationalism, and the presentation could have been a much tighter thriller. Fortunately, the entertaining performances and campy hatchet-work make for enough water cooler did she or didn’t she and yell at the screen debates.