Few subgenres in the annals of horror filmmaking are as strange or intellectually fraught as that which director Robert Aldrich birthed with WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? The films that followed in its wake (christened “hagsploitation” “Grande Dame Guignol” or “psycho-biddy” flicks) were macabre little shockers that served a dual purpose: to slake the popular bloodlust that Hitchcock’s PSYCHO had whetted at the turn of the decade, and to give actresses of a certain age steady work.
By the close of the 1950s, Hollywood’s Golden Era had ended, and the once worshipped glamor goddesses of the American screen found themselves aged, unloved, and underpaid. Aldrich’s film (based on a novel by Henry Farrell) changed this. The casting of cinematic icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as former showbiz sisters whose grim rivalry concludes in death and madness launched a whole new subgenre dealing in middle-aged female rivalry and psychosis.
Actresses from Shelley Winters to Barbara Stanwyck found themselves playing murderous matrons in what was surely a far cry from the on-set experience they were used to. Though, over the years, many have lamented the lot of these once adored matinee idols stooping to headline tawdry exploitation pictures, there’s a certain level of bravery on display in these films. When so many former leading ladies were being relegated to benign, motherly, supporting-character status, these genre films offered an alternative—a chance to transmute that forced, pseudo-maternal air into something wicked, and continue playing the kinds of meaty roles all good actors crave. A handful of iconic actresses gave their final performances in these films; leaving the terror of aging and identity lost writ large upon the silver screen.
At once grim and campy, the hag horror picture (or what critic Renata Adler would eventually refer to as the “Terrifying Older Actress Filicidal Mummy genre”) became a box office fixture for the better part of a decade, and although largely forgotten, it remains one of the most bizarre niches in horror history ripe for rediscovery. Below you’ll find some of the genre’s most notable entries.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1962): Crawford and Davis would return frequently to the Grand Dame Guignol genre once it became a moneymaker, but it can’t be overstated what a risk this first film was. The two Oscar winners’ willingness to go full-tilt freak show surely raised a few eyebrows in its day, but the leap of faith paid off: Davis received her tenth Oscar nod for her role and both assured they (and their contemporaries) would be castable for the foreseeable future, even if the roles were anti-glam. Though WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE is familiar (and the feud between its leads is likely more famous than the film itself) time has done little to lessen its impact. The central relationship between the deceitful, self-absorbed, Hudson sisters still stings, and the closing moments are a thing of carnivalesque, monstrous beauty. This SUNSET BOULEVARD gone gonzo is a perfect dish for both highbrow and camp tastes—a perennial favorite of both drag queens and serious cinephiles alike.
HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964): Robert Aldrich followed up BABY JANE with this southern-fried gothic tale intended to reunite the former film’s stars. As the bad blood between the two leads had reached a boiling point on their previous project, Crawford passed on the role, but Davis returned to play the woefully cracked title character. Again penned by Henry Farrell, HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE is Tennessee Williams meets Edgar Allen Poe, with just a hint of Herschell Gordon Lewis-style splatter for flavor. Davis plays Charlotte, a faded southern belle with a tenuous grip on reality who lives on a moldering Louisiana plantation. When her cousin Miriam (Olivia De Havilland) arrives to play caretaker, Charlotte’s sanity rapidly deteriorates–visions of spectral ballroom dances and disembodied hands pursuing her everywhere she goes. In typical hag horror fashion, relatives are duplicitous, visions are not to be trusted, and there’s much blood shed by the time the credits roll. The typically angelic De Havilland is practically devilish, and Davis makes fine uses her newly acquire horror chops (specifically a ragged shriek) to fine effect.
STRAIT-JACKET (1964): While Bette Davis’ natural proclivity towards ugly, difficult characters made her transition into genre film all too easy, Joan Crawford had a rougher go of it. As a child who grew up in abject poverty, she was fiercely protective of her hard-won glamor girl image—brandishing it like a shield throughout her entire career. This beauty, however, had ice in her veins and a backbone like a steel rod. Schlock master William Castle did well, then when he cast her in this film, written by Robert Bloch (of PSYCHO fame) about a sometime ax-murderess, named Lucy Harbin, who goes from demure church mouse to snake-haired gorgon in the blink of an eye. After a lurid opening in which Lucy separates her cheating husband’s head from his body, she spends twenty years wailing away in a mental institution. When she’s re-united with her now adult daughter (Diane Baker), they try and pick up where they left off with unsurprisingly disastrous consequences. With a far-out score, go-for-broke histrionics, beheadings aplenty, and trans-generational sexual tension, this is one of Castle’s most purely entertaining offerings (nary a gimmick in sight) and shows Crawford at her sensuous, scary best. Floral dresses and charm bracelets never looked so obscene, before or since!
LADY IN A CAGE (1964): “Subtle” is not a word any sensible critic would use to describe the films in this list, but this Walter Grauman effort, at the very least, tries something different in letting its themes of rotten motherhood take a backseat to a more Hitchcockian brand of terror. Olivia De Havilland (back in characteristic wholesome mode) plays Mrs. Hilyard, a wealthy widow recovering from a broken hip who finds herself trapped between floors in a cage-like elevator installed in her mansion. Her effete, beloved son Malcolm (William Swan) is off on a weekend getaway and Mrs. Hilyard’s attempts to use the emergency bell attract the unwanted attentions of a wino, his prostitute friend, and a band of bloodthirsty beatniks (headed by an almost unrecognizably young James Caan) who destroy her home, rob her, and promise to kill her before the day is out. Here’s the kicker–unbeknownst to Mrs. Hilyard, Malcolm has left a note telling his doting mother just how awful she is, imploring her give him his inheritance and “let him go,” otherwise he’ll kill himself. LADY IN A CAGE throws a good deal of psychological weight around behind its ridiculous setup that lets it sit comfortably among the other films on this list. Mrs. Hilyard may be the most subtly tyrannical monstress of them all; her sunny disposition a mask concealing a deep misanthropy and an untapped capacity for violence that leads to one of the nastiest endings of any film in the Grande Dame Guignol genre.
DIE, DIE, MY DARLING (1965): The exquisite Tallulah Bankhead came out of a twenty year semi-retirement to headline this Hammer Films production. In what turned out to be her last onscreen role, Bankhead plays Mrs. Trefoile, a former actress (aren’t they all) turned religious zealot who kidnaps her deceased son’s fiancée (Stefanie Powers) in order to keep her pure should they meet in the hereafter. Powers is a plucky heroine, and a young Donald Sutherland is suitably creepy as a pasty, simple-minded gardener, but Bankhead truly steals the show, her famously seductive whiskey voice channeled into something of a hiss—giving the character a uniquely serpentine evil. While the tortures inflicted upon Powers are tame and the finale is flat as a pancake, the bible and gun-toting Mrs. Trefoile is truly the stuff of nightmares—a formidable, weeping, lipstick-smeared monster that could put the fear of God in Carrie White’s mom.
THE NANNY (1965): Jane Hudson may be one of Bette Davis’ iconic roles, but her greatest work in the Grand Dame Guignol genre is her most uncharacteristically showy. Directed by British master of suspense Seth Holt for the Hammer Film Productions, THE NANNY pits Davis against pint-sized co-star William Dix in a disturbing game of cat and mouse. The infamously mercurial actress is almost unrecognizable as an angel of death in the guise of domestic servant who is hell bent on keeping her job as family caretaker, despite her charge’s insistence that she murdered his infant sister years earlier. As with so many films on this list, the truth is even stranger than it appears on the surface. Combining B-movie chills and a stiff-lipped English social realism to startling effect, THE NANNY is the rare sort of spine-tingler that transcends its genre confines to deliver an experience that’s both emotionally devastating and thematically satisfying.
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971): Coming at the tail end of the hag horror cycle, this backstage drama-cum-buddy flick-cum-psychological thriller sets itself apart by setting its action within the 1930s Tinsel Town that so many of the genre’s characters desire to return to. Written (once again) by Henry Farrell, the tale concerns friends Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen (Shelley Winters) attempt to start new lives after their sons are sent to prison for the murder of a woman. Sick of the tabloid attention, they change their last names, move to Hollywood, and set up a dance school specializing in grooming mini Mae Wests and Shirley Temple clones. Soon, they’re receiving threatening calls and letters from someone who’s none-too-happy that their progeny won’t be meeting the electric chair, and the pressure proves too much for the meek and mentally fragile Helen, who starts offing men and bunnies with equal fervor. A more introspective entry than most films on this list, the weight of the past hangs about these character’s necks like a noose, gradually tightening despite their furied attempts to reinvent themselves among the glitz and glam of the Hollywood elite.
THE BABY (1973): Here we have the nadir (or apex, depending on your taste level) of the mad mommy genre with Ted Post’s outrageous tale of perpetual infancy. Anjanette Comer stars as Ann, a social worker tasked with investigating the eccentric Wadsworth Family. Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) is the tough-as-nails mother to three adult half-siblings: two creepy, nubile girls and a developmentally stunted boy (known only as “Baby,”) who spends his life crawling about, soiling his diaper and playing in his crib. By day, the women zap him with a cattle prod and by night, the girls bed him (or, shall we say, crib him) in scenes of familial dysfunction heretofore unmatched in American cinema. It’s not long before Ann decides she must save Baby from his abusive female relatives, but, as you might have guessed, her attentions aren’t as savory as they initially seem. THE BABY is the last gasp of a dying subgenre, and as such, dials the crazy up to ten. Though Ruth Roman is miles away from top tier matinee idol status (her most famous film being Hitchcock’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) she brings an old-school Hollywood gravitas to what is a truly offensive exploitation picture. Most of the actresses on this list wouldn’t have come within spitting distance of this material, but Roman attacks it with gusto and lifts the entire endeavor out of the muck. Though it may lack the narrative and psychological complexity of its forbears, THE BABY is still a worthwhile trip to crazytown, if only for an ending that will have you lifting your jaw off the floor in disbelief.
Further watching: WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, THE NIGHT WALKER, DEAD RINGER, THE ANNIVERSARY, BERSERK, I SAW WHAT YOU DID, EYE OF THE CAT, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE?