Teenager Ellie Masters (Melody Patterson) awakens from a nightmare where she sees her prostitute mother and her latest client murdered with a hammer, then the culprit sets the house on fire. The reason she's suffering these visions is because they pretty much happened that way; though she did not witness the killings, she did catch sight of a large man making good his escape, and has told the authorities precisely that. Now the only thing she wants to do is get away from this town, but her social worker Mr Mullins (Milton Selzer) tells her she has to be taken to an orphanage...
But not any old orphanage, no, this one is run like something out of an old Victorian barnstormer, and the head of the house of no less a person than Gloria Grahame. Well, Gloria Grahame playing the stern Mrs Deere, but here finding a late career forte as a baddie in Blood and Lace, the proto-slasher which earned the reputation as the sickest PG rated movie ever made. To understand that, you have to be aware that in the United States of 1971 there was no PG-13 to be awarded and seemingly as long as there was no sex (nudity was allowed) or strong language in your opus the ratings board were happy to allow any kid under seventeen in to watch it without any adult supervision.
Although even then, the board appeared to have nodded off when this was passed given the content, and especially in light of the twist-packed finale which climaxed on a punchline that would surely have got it an R rating today, not because it was explicit, but because its meaning was very plain for those who understood it. Before that, what you had was a kind of Southern Gothic, a predecessor to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in its way for while nobody was eaten here, the villains certainly had no respect for human life judging by the way they treated those who happened to pass into their orbit. Those villains chiefly being Mrs Deere and her lead henchman, the "handyman" Tom Kredge (Len Lesser).
This gruesome twosome are paid when they get an orphan to stay with them, and they set them to work to supply them more funds into the bargain, so you can see why they would want as many kids as possible to take care of. And that's "take care of" in more ways than one, as when rebellious Ellie winds up at the house and begins snooping around she finds some particularly grey-looking teens lying in the infirmary before Tom interrupts her and sends her away. Why were they grey? Because they are frozen corpses kept in the establishment's freezer room, runaways who were caught and killed but must be preserved in case someone like Mr Mullins begins his tour to see that everyone is present and accounted for.
We see one of those runaways pursued by Tom early on, and though he makes it to the surrounding woods, he hadn't reckoned on the thug flinging a meat cleaver at him which cuts off his hand at the wrist (!). The predicament Ellie is in doesn't end there, as not only does she have to contend with a soundtrack of library music from at least twenty years before dogging her every move, but she has a rum-looking, hammer wielding chap skulking about the home as well, so it looks like her sole chance at being saved might rest on the creepy detective Calvin Carruthers (Vic Tayback) who is introduced chasing her (lots of chasing going on in this movie) only to reassure her he has her best interests at heart... let's say he does and he doesn't. This was penned by Gil Lasky, who wrote a few dodgy screenplays around this time though this was the most notorious, and with good reason: it's safe to say that everyone in this film is a nutter in some form or another, and part of the reason it compels is you don't know how far it will go. PG!