TV MOVIE "Lizzie Borden Took an Ax"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres 8 p.m. Saturday on Lifetime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT So the rhyme is wrong. Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her (step)mother 18 whacks. Father got 11. At least that's the count in Lifetime's history-based new movie, directed by Nick Gomez, whose past work on "The Shield," "Sleeper Cell" and "Homicide" proves he knows how to make a mood.

That's what resonates here -- all bleached-out-color and snatches of uneasy moments in the 1892 life of Massachusetts "spinster" Lizzie Borden, still living with the folks at 32. As played by Christina Ricci, Lizzie evokes a grown-up version of the onetime child actor's initial claim to fame, Wednesday Addams of the movies' creepy Addams Family. Except Lizzie isn't nearly as well-adjusted to either family life or the weird world outside.

Odd little Lizzie itches to be her own person, to go, as her controlling father (Stephen McHattie) bellows, "traipsing about, all alone, at night!" Even cowed older sister Emma (Clea DuVall) has some sympathy for that. But just as Ricci's blimp eyes unsettle her petite face, Lizzie's yearnings unnerve her era.

And so, blood runs, investigation ensues and a lurid double-murder trial fails to tidily tie up the tale. Is Lifetime depicting a "pathologically depraved butcher"? Or a culturally constricted descent into madness?

advertisement | advertise on newsday

MY SAY Now this is interesting. "TV for women" -- as approached in movie melodramas made by Lifetime and Saturday night rival Hallmark -- has long delivered two sides of the same standard-issue coin: jeopardy/ trauma or pluck/love. Suddenly we get idiosyncratic Lifetime efforts like this one (and last weekend's "Flowers in the Attic" adaptation), offering impressionistic sketches of familial undercurrents, psychological straitjacketing, cultural dislocation.

Study the details. Lizzie's house has radiators and a Victrola, the police use photography and forensics, the popular press goes nuts and, hey, is that a shot of morphine? The 19th century is almost over. But not. Her dusty town bears a sinister pallor, as old-timey Dobro plucks meet power guitars in an eerily evocative underscore (by Tree Adams of The Hatters).

BOTTOM LINE "Lizzie Borden" takes an ax to many assumptions -- including the one that Lifetime movies aren't worth watching.

GRADE A-