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14 November, 2011

Bobbie's Essays: Whatever Happened to Horror-hag Movies?

According to Wikipedia, Psycho-biddie movies, or as I prefer to call them Hagsploitation, is defined as “a dangerous, insane or mentally unstable woman of advanced years ... Often (but not always), there are two older women pitted against one another in a life-or-death struggle, usually the result of bitter hatreds, jealousies, or rivalries that have percolated over the course of not years, but decades ... The psychotic character is often brought to life in an over-the-top, grotesque fashion, emphasizing the unglamorous process of aging and eventual death. Characters are often seen pining for lost youth and glory, trapped by their idealized memories of their childhood, or youth, and the traumas that haunt their past.”

It all began in 1962 when an aging and forgotten ex-child-actress, Jane (Bette Davis), goes all whack-a-doo on her reclusive and wheelchair-bound ex-ingénue actress sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford), screaming “Ya are, Blanche!  Ya are in that chair!”  With that declarative statement, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE slammed open the doors to the golden age of horror-Hagsploitation!  Youth-obsessed Tinseltown sat up and took notice as one drunken and slattern former Hollywood leading lady tried to force-feed another aging ex-screen star her own cooked parakeet while the invalid ex-star sister tries in vain to get someone’s—anyone’s—attention to her dire and ultimately deadly plight!  (Personally, I would have force-fed Blanche that damned buzzer she was always pushing!)  Made for a paltry $980,000, it took home $4,050,000 and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning for Best Costume Design.  

Suddenly, all that was old was new again and Warner Bros./ Seven Arts, eager to continue milking that cash cow, quickly signed both actresses to another movie, HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (working title: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO COUSIN CHARLOTTE).  But, what the Studio didn’t count on was the contemptuous relationship between the two stars.

Joan Crawford, desperate not to play opposite the conniving Bette again, took to her sick-bed long enough to force director Robert Aldrich to sign another aging actress, Olivia de Havilland, as a replacement.  This time, instead of playing dueling sisters, the two acted as sparring cousins, one a slightly off-her-rocker Southern Belle (Bette) who was believed to have killed her married ex-lover with an axe years before and one sweet-seeming but scheming cousin (Olivia) sent to settle affairs at the old mansion.  In actuality, her purpose is to drive her cousin insane and steal her fortune.  HUSH, HUSH also pulled out of the mothballs two other aging stars of yesteryear, Joseph Cotton who plays the lawyer boyfriend of Olivia and Mary Astor who was the long-ago slain ex-lover’s then wife, now widow.  While HUSH, HUSH didn’t do the box office that BABY JANE did, it still pulled in $7 million.

Meanwhile, Joan Crawford hit the horror hag circuit hard and signed to act in schlock-meister William Castle’s STRAIT-JACKET (1964).  In this film, Joan plays Lucy Harbin, a trampy young wife who finds her husband in the sack with another woman and chops both of their heads off.  Twenty years later, a subdued Lucy is released from the mental hospital where she was sent after the double homicide and reunites with her now-grown daughter Carol (Diane Baker) and the murders begin again.  For this movie, Joan, now age 60, plays both the 29 year-old younger Lucy and the 49 year-old older Lucy and she does so with somewhat believability.  You can see the wardrobe/ make-up tests here:

While Joan was busy hacking up half the County, Bette starred in DEAD RINGER (1964) in a duel-role as twin-sisters, one who kills the other, then assumes the dead twin’s identity and husband (Paul Henreid).  But, what she doesn’t know is that her now-dead sister had a younger lover in the form of Peter Lawford.  (UGH!)  DEAD RINGER also features perpetually ancient Estelle Winwood (who played Sybil in Bert I. Gordon’s THE MAGIC SWORD) who was 80 when she made this movie!

Not to be out-done, Joan next starred in another Castle shocker I SAW WHAT YOU DID (And I Know Who You Are) in 1965.  Well, starred in is stretching the truth somewhat as Joan was only hired for four days work but Castle, recognizing the star power of her name, gave her first billing.  Here she acted for the final time opposite John Ireland, whom she’d first worked with in 1955’s QUEEN BEE.  This was also her last American acting job and she only appeared to two more foreign films before quitting the silver screen for good.  In I SAW WHAT YOU DID, Joan plays the part of the cheating husband’s demanding girlfriend whom he kills.  Just then, the phone rings and two young girl prank callers chant “We saw what you did!”  Terrified of being found out, John tracks down the young prank callers with more murders on his mind.
Bette next crossed the Big Pond to act in THE NANNY (1965) where she played the title role with a noticeably un-Mary Poppins-flair.  Harboring a deep dark secret, Nanny goes about her duties with a clinical detachment.  Here she gives a terrifying performance as the overly-protective mother-figure to long-suffering wife, Virgie, while a little boy, Joey, harbors the belief that it was Nanny who drowned his little sister in the bath!  Joan also took her show on the road to the UK and filmed BERSERK (1967) in which she’s a circus owner whose performing troops at set upon by a psychopathic killer.  Actor Ty Hardin, 25 years her junior, plays her tightrope-walking love interest.  Joan, always conscious of how she’d look on camera, ordered Desmond Dickinson, the director of photography, to only use medium-long shots and, should the camera come closer, to artfully film the dark bars of shadows that crossed her neck.  The film was short on plot so it was padded extensively with shots of various circus acts, including Diana Dors, England’s answer to Marilyn Monroe, being sawed in half during a magician’s trick gone awry.

While Bette went on to play the one-eyed domineering mother in Hammer’s THE ANNIVERSARY in 1968, Joan was reduced to starring in her last film, the laughably bad TROG (1970).  Here Joan plays an anthropologist opposite a man wearing a left-over monkey outfit from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  While Bette spent the next two decades appearing in many fine horror movies such as SCREAM, PRETTY PEGGY (1973/ TV), BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) and THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME (1968/ TV), none were of the horror-hag variety.

Other aging and largely forgotten actresses followed in the footsteps of Joan and Bette.  Olivia de Havilland went on to play in LADY IN A CAGE (1964) as an invalid woman trapped in her own private elevator and terrorized by a gang of thuggish brutes lead by James Caan (in his first credited movie role).  This surprisingly nasty film also stars another aging former beauty, Ann Sothern (who would later meet up with Bette in THE WHALES OF AUGUST (1987).  Another star hitting the horror circuit was Tallulah Bankhead in DIE!  DIE!  MY DARLING (1965), opposite Stephanie Powers.  It is reported that when Tallulah saw herself in this movie, she apologized for “looking older than God’s wet-nurse” and never acted in another film.  Roman Polanski pulled silent-screen actress, Ruth Gordon, out of moth-balls, casting her as Rosemary’s pushy and nosey neighbor in 1968’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, a role that landed her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.  Geraldine Page put in her best effort in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE (1969) as the murdering wealthy employer of hapless companions, including Ruth Gordon.  In this movie, we get to see the greatest physical fight between two old biddies ever filmed!  Unfortunately, Gordon only shows up for her paycheck in the awful 1978 made-for-TV movie LOOK WHAT’S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY’S BABY with ex-child star Patty Duke playing the Rosemary Woodhouse role.

Next to dip her toe into the genre was former glamour-girl Shelley Winters in WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?  and WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, both made in 1971.  In WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN, Winters plays opposite another fading screen star Debbie Reynolds, as a pair of older women who decide to movie to Hollywood to escape the shame of their two son’s murder spree.
Penned by Henry Farrell, the man who started the whole genre with WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, HELEN is filled with pot-holes and wasted opportunities.  In WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO, Winters plays a wealthy if daffy woman who keeps the mummified corpse of her long-dead daughter in a secret room of her mansion, where she sings it lullabies at night and holds séances to communicate with the dead daughter’s soul.  On Christmas Eve, Winters throws the annual Christmas party for local orphans and spots a young girl who bears a striking resemblance to her dead daughter.  However, not even with her Oscar-nominated role as Mrs. Rosen in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE in 1972 did Winters manage to grab Hollywood’s fickle eye again and Winters once again hit the horror hag trail, acting as the drunken and slovenly ex-star Bertha in the white trash flick, POOR PRETTY EDDIE (1975).

Sadly by the end of the 1970’s, horror hag movies had gone out of style and not even TV movie producers would take a flyer on them.  However, the genre had one last surprise up its ragged sleeve and that surprise was CARRIE (1976) starring Sissy Spacek as the shy girl with enormous powers and Piper Laurie as her demented and domineering mother, it shot it’s author Stephen King into instant pulp horror fiction stardom.  The title character, Carrie, is a high school student tormented by fellow female students.  Her mother, Margaret, is a religious nut case who believes her daughter will burn in Hell if she attends the school prom when one of Carrie’s tormenters has her boyfriend ask Carrie to the dance.  The mother’s right.  All Hell does break loose but not in the way the mother envisioned!  Audiences ate it up and it grossed almost $34 million for MGM Studios.

Some loyal readers might argue it didn’t end there and mention MOMMIE DEAREST (1981) and MISERY (1990) as examples.  However, I contend that MOMMIE DEAREST was a bio-pic and, therefore, doesn’t count.  And with MISERY, Kathy Bates was only 48 when she starred in that movie...too young to be any kind of a “hag”...and could never be thought of as a classic Tinseltown beauty.  No ... I believe the genre died a much-deserved death because the audiences that first saw the actresses perform saw them at an earlier time of beauty and grace, the gentler years of slim bodies well-dressed in Dior gowns, smiling for the cameras.  And now, like neck-cranners at the scene of an accident, the audiences wanted to see them at their worst, chewing up the scenery and looking every bit the hag the audiences paid good money to see.  But whatever the time-line and for whatever reason, horror hag movies as a genre ended.  We shall never see their likes again.  And more’s the pity.  So, here’s to Bette and Joan, Olivia and Tallulah, to Shelley and Debbie and Piper.  Thanks for the frights, ladies!


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