Considering this movie just came to Shudder yesterday, I’m going to avoid posting spoilers in this review. Of course—this being a historical crime—most people know the gist of where this story is going. Some plot details will be discussed in this review but, for the most part, I’m going to keep it to a minimum.
A Look at the History of True Crime Horror
When I saw Lizzie was coming to Shudder, I felt an insatiable thirst coming on; I had to watch and review this movie, good or bad. If I have an area, this is it. A horror movie about a real-life murderer from history? This might just the a subject I’m more qualified to speak on than anyone else.
When I’m not writing reviews for 25YL, my day job consists of working on scripts for episodes of a true crime podcast called Obscura. I spend hours, days, sometimes weeks poring over court documents and transcripts, crime scene photos, interviews—just the most horrifying things one can imagine. I’ve seen images that aged me thirty years from a quick glance. To clarify, I love what I do, but not only is this job not for everyone, it’s for almost no one.
But it definitely is for me, so a movie about Lizzie Borden on Shudder means we have a movie on Lizzie Borden with better than a snowball’s chance in Louisiana of actually being good. I say that because every non-documentary I’ve seen on Borden has been, well, less than stellar. Not that Shudder hasn’t ever played host to a bad movie—every platform has—but much more often than not, their exclusives and originals are top-notch. Some of my ever-dwindling time on this earth has been spent watching previous films based on an alleged axe murderer called Lizzie Borden. None of that time is something I could, in good conscience, say was well spent. Shudder’s new exclusive, Lizzie, I’m pleased to report, acts as combo breaker to that frustrating streak.
Actually, this makes Lizzie something of an anomaly because, while every previous adaptation of Borden’s history has been an exercise in abhorrence, the lack of watchable material isn’t just a Lizzie Borden thing; it’s par for the course for true crime horror.
First, we should establish what constitutes “true crime horror” because I can already sense that some guy in a Leatherface t-shirt is out there reading this and calling me a hack who knows nothing about horror.
Myriad horror movies have roots in true crime cases, but that does not a true crime horror movie make. For my money, the best horror films in history seem to be—not so much based on a true crime story—but inspired by a true crime story. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and Silence of the Lambs all fall under this category and they all represent some of the greatest horror movies ever made. None are direct re-creations of Ed Gein’s productive years as the world’s most avant-garde interior decorator, they’re just inspired by Gein.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer straddles the line of “inspired by actual events” and “based on a true story.” It’s essentially John McNaughton’s re-imagining of Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole; I think “loosely based” is appropriate in this instance. It’s one of my all-time favorite films and a horror cult-classic. The Sacrament, Wolf Creek, The Strangers, same deal; all great films, none of them historically accurate. Then you have horror movies actually based on serial killers, maniacs, alleged hauntings etc…
These are rarely as good as re-imaginings like Texas Chainsaw. Dahmer didn’t do anything for me, nor did Gacy. Snowtown Murders is the first solid title that comes to mind in that category. Then there’s the criminally underrated My Friend Gacy, which stars William Forsythe (The Devil’s Rejects). That’s an underrated gem I without hesitation recommend to all horror and true crime buffs. After doing my homework, this movie gets much closer to the source material than most ever do—and to a damn near uncomfortable degree. We could look at Zodiac, but I would hesitate to call this a horror film. Not without its horrifying moments—and a brilliant movie to boot—it’s more a police procedural or drama, similar story with Monster or My Friend Dahmer.
So how does the recent Lizzie fair within this ridiculously specific Inception-esque sub-genre within sub-genre? Pretty damn well, actually. If I’m being honest, part of the reason prior Lizzie Borden efforts landed as underwhelming is because Lizzie Borden is a figure in true crime history I never found particularly interesting. I visited the Borden house a while back and it was definitely a cool experience, but the story, while gruesome, just never induced that irresistible sense of morbid curiosity so prevalent when I read about other female murderers from history.
The story of Aileen Wuornos, for example, is beyond riveting. The Giggling Granny aka Nannie Doss is enough to keep anyone up at night and God help anyone who does their homework on The Skeleton Lady, Gertrude Baniszewski. Jack Ketchum’s absolutely brilliant and criminally underrated book The Girl Next Door is loosely based on Baniszewski and the movie adaptation, even with its shortcomings and made-for-tv aesthetic, is a solid adaptation of the Grandmaster of Horror’s masterwork. Still, there’s no substitute for the book.
But Lizzie Borden isn’t quite so magnetic because she wasn’t an evil, irredeemable psychopath; she was troubled and there’s a difference. She was dealing with significant abuse and the people she killed—I won’t say deserved it—but probably had it coming.
Well, at least that’s the narrative in modern-day America. She was actually acquitted for the murders of her father and step-mother. Furthermore, reports of Borden’s familial abuse are technically unsubstantiated. Of course, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Also unsubstantiated was the notion that Lizzie Borden was a lesbian. Despite the ambiguities, American folklore is a force you needn’t bother trying to reckon with. The agreed-upon narrative is here to stay, no one is going to change that and the filmmakers of Lizzie aren’t about to try and fuck with that mac daddy.
That’s for the best, really, because who wants to see a movie about Lizzie Borden—the misunderstood and completely heterosexual non-murderer? This is America. When we order axes and lesbians, we expect axes and lesbians. Do not mess up that order.
Lizzie begins with a stark open, a good sign in almost every case. “Whose head am I staring at?” “Why is she washing a wall?” “Where am I?” Just watch the movie, see if things come together. I appreciate when a director or screenwriter assumes their audience is perceptive enough to be thrown right into a story; too many screenplays are riddled with unnecessary exposition. I challenge anyone with a completed screenplay—or novel for that matter—to go make a revised version of your most recent draft and remove as much exposition as possible. In most cases, it’ll be the difference between a tight story or a slogging one.
Something people don’t discuss in movie reviews or analyses nearly enough is pacing. Admittedly, pace is rarely a movie-ruining component, but on the flipside, seldom is it nurtured the way other, more immediately identifiable, aspects of cinema are. There’s no Oscar for best pacing; no awards of any kind, to my knowledge, so people let it fall to the wayside. It’s a pity because while failing to deliver rhythmic perfection may not ruin a movie, it will be the difference between an adequate film or an exceptional one.
Fortunately, one of Lizzie’s biggest successes is the speed at which this story progresses. It never slogs, slow burner that it is. This is a quiet film, moving at its own pace, but I never found myself checking my phone to see if it was nearing an end. Lizzie is on its own schedule and takes its time unpacking this new approach to a well-known story.
I’m biased, often the first guy to champion a movie’s screenwriter before the director, but Lizzie’s momentum I attribute to director Craig William Macneill. Pacing can be present in the screenplay, but once that script is passed onto the filmmakers, a film’s sense of urgency, or lack thereof, is the director’s responsibility. Having not read Bryce Kass’ final draft of Lizzie, I can’t say whether or not the movie’s skilled sense of rhythm was present in the blueprints, but Macneill would have had final say, and given how adept this movie feels in terms of progression, the right call was made.
The best movies in history are helmed by people who know when it’s time for a story to meander, when it’s time to move forward, and especially grasp the importance of sound. In recent years, the average Hollywood blockbuster forsakes these tragically overlooked film elements, but a universal truth is that master filmmakers are impossibly meticulous—never forsaking the minutiae.
I’m surprised to be saying this, but from a technical standpoint, Lizzie never comes across as the end result of an intermediate filmmaker. There’s a level of competence here exceeding what most could achieve in this field and while I wouldn’t say Macneill has reached the level of master-filmmaker with this, he’s well on his way. As previously stated, it’s a quiet film. The score is there, and it’s even good, but not overused. This low-key approach to the film’s audio aspects make blaring scenes of axe-wielding violence—sparse as they are—a more jarring experience for the viewer. Sound design alone gives Lizzie a unique atmosphere. Most audiences won’t notice—let alone appreciate such a thing—but there are those of us out there who do.
That coupled with a somber and well-framed visual style make what is ostensibly a horror movie feel like something you’d see on a list of predicted Oscar contenders. Not that I’d put Lizzie on the same pedestal, but if you look at some of the all-time greatest films—Eraserhead, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Repulsion—these movies all have remarkable sound designs and a sharp, consistent aesthetic.
Lizzie also has that.
Where it falls short is finding a story worthy of such artful care and technical precision. That isn’t to say the story is bad; it’s a fine movie. There are moments pure disgust, such as the bizarre axing of a few birds by Lizzie’s father as she watches on in horror. But for a story filled with this much tragedy, I never quite found myself being emotionally moved. Lizzie is far from lifeless or hollow. It has heart, characters both sympathetic and empathetic, but it’s also not the kind of movie I’m still going to be thinking about for days on end. Such a woebegone film should leave the viewer feeling emotionally drained, unable to stop thinking about the implications of what he or she has just witnessed.
For me, it was less like the time I had a literal panic attack in the theater parking lot after seeing Hereditary for the first time and more like me turning the TV off and saying “well that was pretty good.” What I’m saying is, from a writing standpoint, I think they could have done better; that’s the only complaint I had.
Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden is more believable than anyone who has thus-far portrayed the infamous axe-lady. Her performance in this is nothing short of phenomenal. Sevigny is one of the best actors we have making movies today, so it’s always a treat to see her on screen. I’d watch an episode of Keeping up With the Kardashians if I heard Sevigny showed up in it. And despite how famous she’s become; I’ll always associate her with the movie Gummo. I was a wild child in the ‘90s, what can I say? Trust me when I say, Chloe Sevigny will have an Oscar on her mantel one day.
Kristen Stewart sticks the landing here, too. The only movie I’ve seen her in prior to Lizzie is The Runaways, where she played a young Joan Jett. I liked the movie a lot, personally. Kristen Stewart is great at playing defeated. Just worn down by life, a ghost peering back at the world through dead eyes, expecting one of two things in life: absolutely nothing or bad luck. Never saw Twilight, probably never will, so since I don’t have a bad taste in my mouth from exposure to Stephanie Myers’ massively successful celebration of vampiric pussification, I have no ill will toward Kristen Stewart, or Robert Pattinson for that matter. Hell, that’s just Cedric Diggory to me; Diggory was a bad-ass and a good friend to Harry Potter. Plus, he played guitar on a Death Grips album—my favorite band—just for the record.
Twilight clearly wasn’t for me, so I never watched it. See how easy that is?
Back to the performances, the melancholic and tortured dispositions of both leads are well-executed in that they never come off as forced or melodramatic. In roles like these, self-parody is a trap that actors easily fall victim to. Thankfully, both Stewart and Sevigny exhibit equal parts restraint and emotional resonance—key ingredients for roles that were almost certainly challenging as all hell.
All in all, Lizzie is a good movie; it’s not without its flaws, but a worthy addition to Shudder’s current lineup. I may watch this again in a few months and see if I catch anything I didn’t before, but as of the time of this writing, I’d probably put it somewhere between a 7.5 or 8 out of ten. Let’s split the difference and call it a 7.75. That’s entirely too specific, but I’m comfortable with it.
Thanks for reading as always. Sound off in the comments, our forums, or on Twitter: @25YearsLater or my personal account @ShutUpJoshLami. We’re live-tweeting The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs every Friday night, so come join the party.
What did you think about Lizzie?