A Fall River, Massachusetts, jury in 1893 couldn’t determine whether or not Lizzie Borden killed her parents, and neither has anyone since. But according to the 2014 Lifetime Original Movie, Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, starring Christina Ricci in the titular role, she definitely whacked them. And starting Sunday night, with the premiere of the network’s spinoff miniseries The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, she’ll be offing everyone else in town too.
Meet the modern, TV-drama Lizzie: smoking hot, witty, jaunty in a feathered hat, and nonplussed by the gushy sound of any number of pointy objects piercing flesh. It’s stylistically gory with a dash of camp, packed with ostentatious period costumes, and set to screaming guitars. The eight-episode series is historical in the way Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter was. As Arturo Interian, vice president of original movies at Lifetime, says, “Lizzie’s body count gets pretty high.”
And if fans (4.4 million watched the 2014 movie, not including repeats or DVDs) and critics (we aren’t the only ones taking note) are right, Lifetime might have created its first mass-market hit. I know what you’re thinking: Confessions of a Go-Go Girl wasn’t a major crossover success? What about My Baby Is Missing or Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy?
Yes, the network’s stock-in-trade is manufactured, feminized schmaltz. And The Lizzie Borden Chronicles isn’t exactly off brand. Many of the tropes are there: a woman scorned, guilt versus innocence, an independent woman in an otherwise suppressive and patriarchal environment, a dead baby. No, we have no idea why that last one is in The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, but somehow, being in a Lifetime movie, it made sense. In other words, if The Lizzie Borden Chronicles is a cross-over success, the network will have achieved it on its own terms.
The series was born the way most sequels are: as a result of the first project’s popularity. “We knew there was something about Christina Ricci as a part-time Sunday school teacher, part-time ax killer in the 1890s that clicked for people,” Interian explains, “but what really sparked the series was our General Manager, Rob Sharenow, coming up to me afterward, and asking, ‘Did Lizzie kill anyone else?’ ”
The answer is “no”—and also, for the record, “she might not have even killed her parents.” So, the series created some corpses. With a couple of exceptions, the characters, storylines, and long list of victims are completely fictionalized: the leader of a local crime-ring syndicate, a dandy playwright from New York, an adoring policeman, the battered wife of a hotelier, a street-urchin prostitute. On the other hand, the best character, the other lead in the series, and Lizzie’s foil, is Charles Siringo, a Pinkerton detective, who actually did exist, although he wasn’t connected to Borden. Siringo is played by Cole Hauser, who delivers a classic cowboy: confident and reserved, toeing the line between chilling and charming, and always seeking justice, even when his path there is occasionally corrupt.
As for Ricci, Interian believes she was “born to play this role.” We agree, if only because, in retrospect, it seems every other character she’s portrayed could also have been a 19th-century axe murderer. She can nail creepy, always seems to be holding a secret. And in this series, her unconvincing displays of remorse and perpetual bed-me glances serve her well. She’s playfully wicked, occasionally killing for justice, but usually only in sick and twisted glee.
It’s fun to watch her, as Borden, embracing her new celebrity and reputation. She muscles around the townsfolk, delighted in their fear. When a group of children curiously follow her down a street, she grabs a novelty tomahawk off of a wooden Native American statue outside of a business, and turns around to brandish it at the children. They run screaming except for one, who stays and says, “I’m not afraid of you.”
Borden replies, “Then you haven’t been paying attention.”
A harsh electric-guitar riff wails throughout.
This is not groundbreaking, literary drama. The costumes are over the top, the characters recognizable, and the camp as dense as the night fog through which Ricci’s sinister face appears, from behind a tree, to spy on her next victim, before disappearing again. It’s candy. It tastes good as long as you don’t eat too many in a row and make yourself sick. And it’s at least a fun spin on a classic tale. There have been more than a dozen retellings in popular culture of the Lizzie Borden trial. It’s an American story that won’t die—but in this version many people will.