Popularly referred to as “hagsploitation” or “psycho-biddy” cinema, the genre of the Grande Dame Guignol was born, unintentionally, in 1962 by horror film director Robert Aldrich.
After his sensational hit, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, starring screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, a string of “older women in peril” films rushed into production, with companies such as Hammer Films and Seven Arts seeking to reinstate, and capitalize on, mature actresses who’d been put out to pasture by Hollywood – for the unthinkable crime of aging.
Broken down into two categories – “delusional predator antagonist” or “woman in peril protagonist” – the films played off of the original theatre of the macabre created in 1895 by the Parisian stage company, the Grand Guignol, which produced entertainment so gruesome, it’s reported that some patrons actually threw up during the performances.
Since opportunities to continue their craft were becoming fewer and fewer, most “old time” actresses (many of whom had won Oscars, and multiple other awards) took on the Grande Dame offerings, seeking to resurrect, if only momentarily, the careers they had cherished, and for many of them, these films marked their final appearances on celluloid.
The results were often revolting, sometimes pathetic, and occasionally stellar. It was a crapshoot, to be sure, but one that all of them were willing to gamble on – thank the campy gods.
1. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
As the flagship of the Grande Dame Guignol, Baby Jane contains every vital and vile element for a true psycho-biddy flick. Joan Crawford as “woman in peril” and Bette Davis as “delusional predator” scream across the screen as sisters engulfed in warped sibling rivalry and a twisted family secret so heinous it would drive anyone to alcoholism and the wearing of babydoll dresses.
The old creaky mansion is a staple in the genre (sometimes substituted with an ostentatious mansion for a wealthy, not-yet-fallen Dame), and both wheelchair-bound Blanche (Crawford) and crazy as a loon Jane (Davis) spend listless, endless days obsessed with youth and the past, because that’s what old women do, after all – never mind they’re only in their 50s.
Living a nightmare from which neither can wake, Crawford and Davis argue, cajole – cook and are served domestic pets and disgusting varmints – and moon over themselves in old black and white movies (actual clips taken from some of their real-life, lesser-known work). They pine for lost histories, steep in regret and jealousy, and dream delusional of making a comeback, trapped in a treacherous prison of their own design.
Thematically, Baby Jane is awash in rotten stereotypes, but Davis and Crawford raise creepy camp to an art form so spectacular that the film – predicted to fail miserably, and passed on by every studio except Seven Arts – not only made nine times its budget back at the box office, but garnered five Oscar nominations, including one for Davis as Best Actress.
Davis even toured the talk show circuit with a pop song version of the film’s title, which she dueted on the record release with Debbie Burton, who plays the young Baby Jane in the film. (In the film’s final scene, an instrumental version of that tune can be heard coming from a transistor radio on the beach.)
Notable costarring performances by the exceptional Maidie Norma as caregiver Elvira, and Victor Buono as the con-man attempting to take Jane for a ride, complete this gorgeously shot chiller that remains one of the premiere cult films of all time.
2. Lady in a Cage (1964)
The angelic Olivia de Havilland wasn’t about to let her two Oscars stand in the way of being locked in an cage-like home elevator for ten hours and tormented by a triage of beatnik hoodlums. Directed by Walter Grauman of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre family, this violent and vicious psychological torture-fest sought to enlighten audiences on youth crime, public apathy, and the carnage wrought by mothers who love their sons too much (they turn them gay and suicidal!).
There isn’t a redeeming moment in this gut-churning bang-up, however, save the fact that de Havilland, as the wealthy woman in peril, looks breathtaking, even whilst being tongue-lashed by James Caan (in his first screen credit, and posturing as a buffoonish Marlon Brando).
In true Dame form, de Havilland, as the superior Cornelia Hilyard, lives in world of egotistical delusion. She believes that her son prefers her company to all others, regardless of his weariness, and she also prides herself on the brilliance of her own poetry – which she recites from her journal, to herself, to calm her nerves when the power goes out in a heat wave leaving her stranded between floors, dangling about 14 feet off the ground.
She’s so proper and smug, in fact, that our sympathies barely lie with her, a standard theme of the Grand Dame genre: her vanity made this happen! The day of riotous murder and mayhem brought on by the drug-taking delinquents who trash her pad finally culminates in de Havilland fighting violence with violence (thus, losing her moral code and imploding her perfect bubble), which results in a truly shocking end for Caan. The response of onlookers who witness the bloody scene ties it all up into a neat, brutal little bow: people just don’t give a damn.
3. Straight-Jacket (1964)
After the success of Baby Jane, and ruing the fact that she’d been snubbed out of her own Oscar nomination (indeed a crime, because Crawford was just as sensational as the wonderfully cake-faced Davis), Joan Crawford found her perilous niche in the Guignol and signed on with shock director William Castle for the story of an ax-wielding waitress sent to an asylum for removing the heads of her cheating husband (an uncredited Lee Majors) and his floozy.
Castle wanted to make the next Psycho, so hired the novel’s author Robert Bloch to pen this tawdry tale of a woman slowly loosing the rest of her marbles when she’s finally released from the asylum and people start turning up in pieces. But it’s been 20 years. She’s supposed to be cured. She’s supposed to be reuniting with her now-adult daughter at her farm, a tricky task since the girl (Diane Baker) witnessed the chop-shopping of her father.
The 59-year-old Crawford, who always believed she never looked a day over 30, actually plays her character Lucy Harbin at age 29 in the beginning of the film, setting the campy tone for this frightfully amusing and, actually, rather suspenseful “who’s-doing-it.” This keeps us in the dark as to whether Lucy is a woman in peril or a delusional predator “renewed,” and that’s the point of it.
But, even an ambiguous Lucy can’t get off scot-free, and when she drunkenly and brazenly man-handles her daughter’s fiancée one evening – in front of her daughter! – we’re reminded that women “past their prime” are silly, inappropriate hags, even if they’re innocent of dismembering the farmhands. Crawford didn’t seem to care, giving it her all and relishing the reigniting of her flame, even taking to the street with Castle at screenings where they handed out cardboard axes to movie patrons.
4. Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
As “part two” in director Robert Aldrich’s Grande Dame Guignol trilogy, Charlotte was supposed to reunite Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and briefly did so. Reports vary as to whether Crawford disappeared from the set because she feared being upstaged, once again, by Davis, or if she really was ill, but a few hours of footage went into the can before the studio insisted Aldrich recast the villainous part of Miriam, the questionably kind cousin to Davis’ nuts-for-brains Charlotte.
Enter Olivia de Havilland, who, unlike like Crawford, was great friends with Davis, to take Crawford’s place, and the murderous stage is set for the story of a delusional southern debutant way past her expiration date who lives on a rancid plantation, ostracized from society when she’s blamed for the mutilation death of her fiancée at their engagement party 37 years before.
Now, with only her sassy maid (Bewitched’s Agnes Moorehead) to look after her, and with land developers moving in, Charlotte’s kindly cousin Miriam suddenly shows up to “take care of things,” ahem.
Like Baby Jane, Charlotte is rife with psychological tension, a ghastly family secret, lush cinematography, and a splendid cast that includes newcomer Bruce Dern, Victor Buono, and veteran stars Joseph Cotton and Mary Astor, in her final screen performance. Who is delusional predator and who is woman in peril is once again murky, which is essential to the mystery, and while Davis’ Charlotte is much more sympathetic than her Baby Jane, we still have to sit through screeching tantrums and pining for lost love and youth.
A hit at the box office, Charlotte was nominated for seven Oscars, including Agnes Moorehead for a standout performance (she won the Golden Globe), and a nomination for Best Song for the title track, which was subsequently released as a single by Patti Page and went all the way to #8 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The Grande Dame Guignol was now a goldmine, and everybody wanted to cash in.
5. The Night Walker (1965)
Considered the best actress to never have won an Oscar, force of nature Barbara Stanwyck also saw her career hit the skids in the 1950’s. Offered a slew of B-grade westerns after her triumph in 1949’s Sorry, Wrong Number (which she didn’t really mind, being a cowgirl at heart and workaholic), by the 1960’s, the Guignol came a-knocking.
Director William Castle managed to wrangle the Dame in by proposing that her co-star in this eerie mystery-shocker be former husband and matinee idol, Robert Taylor, for whom it was well known that Stanwyck still burned a torch.
Written by Castle collaborator Robert Bloch, The Night Walker is the least bloody and disturbing of all the Dame films, feeling more like an extended Twilight Zone episode. This isn’t a bad thing, especially if you love TZ, and the story of Irene Hunt, a woman whose ghoulish millionaire husband perishes in a fire in their mansion (of course), and then comes back to stalk her in her dreams (or are they?!) is filled with enough swirling cameras and Disney-styled Haunted Mansion music and mannequins to keep thriller fans utterly engaged.
Forget that it’s schlocky, or that Irene, now uber wealthy and free of her pervy husband, decides to return to her former career as a beauty salon owner instead of travel the world, because Stanwyck, as usual, manages to make a purse out of a pig’s ear. In fact, she did that later on The Big Valley, too. We’re sure of it.
The best thing about The Night Walker, outside of Stanwyck, is that for once, a Grande Dame isn’t portrayed as a frigid, sexless, dried-up old nag. Irene is definitely interested in some romance, frolicking with a younger man (Lloyd Bochner) in her dreams, and on the make for her husband’s former lawyer (Taylor), in “real life.”
Alas, Stalker didn’t fare well at the box office, and it permanently turned the 58-year-old Stanwyck off of film. Only receiving scripts thereafter that she complained were about “grandmothers who eat their children,” she moved permanently to television for “part two” of an impressive career, winning a few Emmys and a Golden Globe in the process.
6. The Nanny (1965)
Bette Davis, like Barbara Stanwyck, lived for acting. She couldn’t not work. She also didn’t give a hoot what she looked like, perfectly willing, even back in her ingénue days, to turn herself into a monstrosity (see Of Human Bondage and The Little Foxes). This meant that the Grande Guignol was perfect for Davis, and every horror studio was hot on her tail after the successes of Charlotte and Baby Jane.
For this particular psychological offense, Davis traveled to England where Hammer Films eschewed their usual gothic trope and cast her as an English nanny (with a pretty spot-on accent) to a boy who is released from a sanitarium after he is blamed for the drowning death of his little sister. Joey (William Dix) is positive that Nanny was behind the murder, however, and with each skirt of her every advance, we watch Nanny’s sweet exterior crumble and her demented forces unleashed.
This is the first Grande Dame Guignol to pit a child against a Dame, and as the genre wore on, filmmakers realized that in order to draw in younger audiences, it was good business to throw in a child, stunning starlet, or stocky stud to battle it out with the lunatic lady – thus cementing the now time-honored stereotype that old women want to mutilate anyone who embodies their own lost youth.
7. Die! Die! My Darling! (1965)
Raspy-voiced titan Tallulah Bankhead came out of a 20-year cinematic retirement for this deranged tale of religious zealot who locks her almost-daughter-in-law into the attic of her dilapidated mansion, in hopes of keeping her virginal for her recently deceased son. You read that right.
As Mrs. Trefoile, Bankhead doesn’t quite get that her son, who seems to have committed suicide in a self-inflicted automobile accident (again, because of too much motherly love!), had actually been dumped by his perky fiancée Patricia (Hart to Hart sexpot Stefanie Powers) prior to his death. She also doesn’t get that Powers was just dropping by the old English manor to say “hi” – not to become a spiritual concubine for Bankhead’s peculiar and aggressive love for her dead, and probably gay, son.
But no matter. Pat, as younger woman in peril, ends up in the attic, stabbed with scissors, starved, and worst of all, evangelized to – with organ music! It’s a Hell fit for any girl who dares to venture out on her own in a cute little sports car, charitable endeavor or not, and all things considered, Darling manages to work up some exceptionally decent shocks and white-knuckling suspense, including a uniquely disturbing performance from up-and-comer Donald Sutherland as a mentally handicapped gardener.
Sadly, this frenzied flick would prove to be Bankhead’s final screen appearance. So ill during the shoot that Hammer Films considered removing her from the project, Bankhead put up her own salary as a guarantee that she’d finish the film. She did, and while it’s no Lifeboat, she still manages to be wickedly delightful, and scary as sin.
8. Picture Mommy Dead (1966)
No one could ever accuse Zsa Zsa Gabor of being an actress, and her ghostly appearance in this incredibly warped and unintentionally hilarious Guignol fulfills that status quo. Again featuring a macabre set-up in which a child is sent to a sanitarium and, upon her return, tormented by an older woman, Mommy is B-grade, even for B-grade – but don’t let that stop you.
Featuring the children’s song, “The Worms Crawl In,” an abominable earbug that’s official title is “The Hearse Song,” this tale of little Susan (My Three Sons’ Susan Gordon) who watched her mommy (Gabor) burn to death in the bed of their very large mansion, and now has PTSD visions of her (or are they real!?) and has to contend with her father (Don Ameche) and his hot-to-trot new wife, Francene (Martha Hyer), should be a drinking game: every time Susan grabs her temples, drink. See you in the ER.
Everything is not what it seems, of course, and the true villain is probably the step monster and not the tormenting dead mother, but neither woman will win a prize for maternal love. It’s all rather ridiculous, which is par for the course, but Gabor, who only has about two lines, does look stunning, even on fire, so perhaps it’s not such a bad addition to a resume that includes Queen of Outer Space and Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tillie. In fact, barva, dahlink.