9. Berserk! (1967)
This is one for the books. Tied with her What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? nemesis Bette Davis at three Guignol films apiece, Joan Crawford suddenly sprinted into the lead with what has to be crowned the best, worst, Grande Dame of them all. It has everything. Set in a circus – a circus – Berserk! features Crawford as lady ringmaster Monica Rivers, a control freak who harbors dark, dark secrets. And a troupe of dancing poodles. A troupe of dancing poodles.
At 63, Crawford’s Dame opens the show in tights, showing off the ageless gams she’s maintained since 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters, romances a 37-year-old tight-rope-walking beefcake, and engages in scrappy barbs with her unruly 19-year-old daughter (To Sir with Love’s Judy Geeson). Meanwhile, someone’s killing carnies!
As in, literally sawing Brit sexbomb Diana Dors into two, on stage. Nails through the brain and missing trapeze safety nets eventually have all the carny crew in a huff before we finally discover the culprit of this murderous mayhem: Joan Crawford as script consultant.
True, Crawford’s drinking had reached epic proportions by this time, so much so that no American film company would front the insurance needed to hire her – and so she fled to England where they merely stipulated in her contract that she could not drink before noon. What’s a little cocktail before noon? It’s always brunch somewhere in the world.
Regardless, Crawford was a pro, and even with ludicrous dialogue and surrounded by dancing poodles – dancing poodles – she manages to shine. Meanwhile, free Pepsi for the cast and crew!
10. Games (1967)
French people are classy – everyone knows it, everyone hates them for it. So, when a French Grande Dame makes her way to Hollywood to star in a Guignol, it’s something of a celebration.
Enter Oscar-winning icon Simone Signoret as a con-artist psychic who helps spin a labyrinthine web of deceit and death with the help of a conniving James Caan, and we have one of the higher-caliber, twisty tales in the Grand Dame series. Must be all that French.
Directed by the other king of shock horror, Curtis Harrington (who later directed the nighttime soap Dynasty, which makes perfect sense), the story centers on socialite newlyweds Paul and Jennifer Montgomery (Caan and Katherine Ross, the same year she appeared in, um, The Graduate) who allow an Avon-Lady-type psychic to convalesce at their Upper East Side New York pad after she basically faints on their doorstep.
Their charity soon turns deadly, however, when a series of pranks by the couple, who revel in sadistic games, go awry, and secretive alliances begin to come to light –all casting Ross in the role of younger woman in peril. It soon turns into a regular Agatha Christie maze of would-be culprits and charades, and Signoret delivers her sinister, haunting best as the Grande Dame predator who, in a rare turn of the genre, ends up getting the best of her besters. Vive la Grande Dame!
11. Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969)
In producer Robert Aldrich’s final installment of his Grande Dame Guignol trilogy, he returns to the “What Ever” catchphrase and again enlists the aid of two Hollywood icons.
This time helmed by Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon (who picked up an Oscar the year before for Roman Polanski’s stylish nightmare, Rosemary’s Baby), Aunt Alice is a desperately grim tale of recent widow Mrs. Marrable (Page), who, after being told she’s been left penniless, proceeds to hire and then murder a series of elderly housekeepers in order to steal their pensions.
She also buries their bodies under giant trees in her front yard, the holes for which she tricks the women into digging themselves before whacking them over the head with a shovel. Good for the roots, she says, so it’s apparently a win-win.
Mrs. Marrable’s plans are unraveled, however, when Aunt Alice (Gordon) arrives as the newest naïve hire, but who is secretly on a mission to find out what’s become of her close pal, the woman Mrs. Marrable recently popped and plopped.
There’s a forgettable side-story about a single mother who moves in next door to Marrable’s desert compound, who instrumentally figures in when all of the dirty deeds are uncovered, but it’s watching Page and Gordon engage in a knock-down, drag-out battle of the Dames, complete with hair-pulling and smacking, that makes this Guignol insane fun and utterly unforgettable.
12. Eye of the Cat (1969)
Most audiences only know Eleanor Parker from her turn as the icy Baroness von Schraeder in the Sound of Music, but Parker, thrice nominated for an Oscar, is considered one of Hollywood’s greatest and most underappreciated actresses. Her turn in Eye of the Cat should probably be left out of her esteemed resume, except how often does a film come along in which every brutality hinges on the protagonist’s fear of cats?
Yes, bedroom-eyed Michael Sarrazin (who made a big hit that same year in the exceptional They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) plays Wylie, a young man deathly, deathly, deathly, afraid of felines. Unfortunately, his wealthy, wheelchair-bound Aunt Danny (Parker), has about a 100 of them roaming around her mansion.
If Wylie can’t get over his ailurophobia, however, he might not be able to save Aunt Danny from the many attempts on her life, the worst of which has to go down in cinematic horror history as one of the most warped ways to bump off an old lady: rolling her down a perilous San Francisco street backward in a wheelchair. And into on-coming traffic. That scene alone is worth the rest of the film, most of which you’ll never bother to remember.
13. Flesh Feast (1970)
By the late 1960’s the Grande Dame Guignol started to go downhill – yes, it’s possible. Almost everything had been done, and with the exploitation films of the 1970’s on the horizon, the Guignol often turned exceptionally cruel in order to offer fresh material.
Film Noir femme fatale Veronica Lake had been one of the screen’s most glamorous faces, her blond peek-a-boo trademark hairstyle in hits such as This Gun for Hire, the Glass Key, and I Married a Witch, framing her lovely face and making her the envy of women and the dream of men. By 1970, however, Lake had faltered, and badly.
A series of run-ins with the law, arrests for shoplifting and bar-room brawls, as well as rumored acute alcoholism, had tarnished the star beyond redemption. Envisioning a comeback, Lake took pen to paper in the late 1960’s and published her memoir, the profits of which she unfortunately funneled into her personal project, Flesh Feast.
A deplorably bad “mad scientist” tale, Lake plays Dr. Elaine Frederick, a malevolent doctor developing a mutant strain of maggots that hunger for human flesh. But that’s not all. In order to be allowed to use the laboratory and equipment, Dr. Frederick’s financiers have insisted she help them clone Adolf Hitler. But that’s not all.
While Dr. Frederick pretends that her maggots are to be used for regeneration (coming to a cosmetic surgery clinic near you), she’s actually going to use them to eat off the new Hitler’s face as revenge for the murder of her parents in a concentration camp. Okay, now that’s all.
At only 48, Lake appears to be in her mid-60s, a reflection of the troubled life she led and, predictably, Flesh Feast did not resurrect her career. Instead, it marked her final silver screen appearance and was a tragic cap to a once stellar career.
14. Savage Intruder (1970)
Not much better awaited megastar Miriam Hopkins when she joined the Guignol, and she, too, made her final film appearance in one of its appalling offerings. Hopkins had starred in Hollywood’s first three-color film, Becky Sharp, in 1935 and received an Oscar nomination for her performance (she’d be nominated for a Golden Globe in 1950’s The Heiress opposite the winning Olivia de Havilland, as well), but by 1970, Hopkins was set for an older woman in peril travesty.
As faded screen star Katherine Parker, Hopkins lives in her mansion atop the Hollywood Hills – the former home of real life silent screen star Norma Talmadge, who was the inspiration for Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Blvd.
Not about to waste any cinema history, writer-director Donald Wolfe made sure Hopkins turned out a perfectly vulgar Desmond impersonation, and threw in famed actor John Garfield’s grandson, David Garfield, as the serial killer male nurse who comes to “care” for her. He also lured the illustrious Gale Sondergaard into the mayhem in a thankless supporting role.
The tagline for the film really says it all, “She loved and trusted him, until he cut off her head,” and watching the 67-year-old actress lust after the obviously abusive and warped 25-year-old Garfield is truly fodder for late-night gross-out flicks. It’s fascinating Hollywood history aside, what sets this Guignol apart from others is the inclusion of the hippie drug culture, and LSD and dope would now be making some regular appearances in the genre.
15. What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)
It’s hard to pick the best Grande Dame Guignol, and while What Even Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte are obviously at the top, this remarkably slick and well-acted crime-thriller would have to come in third.
Directed by Curtis Harrington and written by Henry Farrell, author of the Baby Jane novel and Charlotte screenplay, Helen was nominated for an Oscar for costume design, and cemented Shelley Winters as a Grande Dame (at least momentarily) after her previous forays into gore via The Mad Room (1969) and Bloody Mama (1970). It also presented an incredibly fit 39-year-old Debbie Reynolds as the wee bit younger “woman in peril” who affects a winning Jean Harlow impersonation.
The tale of Helen (Winters) and Adelle (Reynolds) two mothers in the 1920’s who move to Hollywood and open a dance studio after their adult sons are thrown into prison for committing a notorious murder, sounds campier than it actually was, at least for 1970. Stylish, freakish, and delightfully suspenseful, Helen satirizes “child star” culture much like Baby Jane, and also features an appearance by Agnes Moorehead, in her second Guignol, as Sister Alma, a superficial evangelical the likes of controversial real life preacher, Aimee Semple McPherson.
As the wildly unstable of the two mothers, Winters’ confused predator whines and shrieks and sees demons, continuing the actress’ brilliant reign as one of the few Hollywood stars you want to throttle on screen but bear hug when she’s off it, and Reynolds gives one of the better dramatic performances of her career.
Glittering dance numbers and old tyme songs make this thriller an entertaining and only mildly uncomfortable exercise – until the rabbits come home to hatch. When that happens, get ready for an ending so disturbing you’ll wish you could unsee it. Too late. That’s showbiz.
16. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)
Two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters, like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barabra Stanwyck, was also one of those actresses who never stopped working, and after her triumph in What’s the Matter with Helen? she quickly moved on to her next and final Guignol – and does she go out with a bang. Or, perhaps, a flame.
As the delusional predator Dame living alone in – you guessed it – an enormous mansion, Winters as the title character Auntie Roo is at her maniacal best. When her young daughter perishes in a freak domestic accident, Roo becomes unhinged and now, many years later, makes a tradition of inviting a horde of kiddies from the local orphanage over at Christmas to hear her sing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. Really.
This year, the unfortunate tots include brother and sister Christopher (Mark Lester) and Katy (Chloe Franks), and, as luck would have it, Katy turns out to be a dead ringer for Roo’s lost lassie.
Kidnapping is now on the menu, and Roo tries every which way to convince the skeptical siblings that they’d be better off in her gingerbread manor (it really does look like one, hence evoking a serious “Hansel and Gretel” metaphor that is not lost on Christopher), but conspiring servants who’ve been stringing Roo along with fake séances that channel her daughter aren’t about to let two little ragamuffins ruin their hoax. Christopher also finds Roo pretty terrifying, and after a few too many scraps, Roo imprisons Katy in her dead daughter’s room. The room in which the mummified corpse of the dead daughter still resides.
The oddest thing about Roo, however, isn’t seeing Winters sing lullabies as she cradles a tiny stiff, but that we actually kind of like Roo, and even feel sorry for her. So much so, that when Christopher finally enacts a ruthless escape, putting Roo into mortal peril, we feel like he’s a rotten little bugger after all. Is a gingerbread mansion so bad? Is Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Tit Willow” really that awful of a song? Well, probably.
Nonetheless, Roo gets her due, and Grand Dame Winters subsequently bid farewell to the treacherous genre, opting the following year to get capsized in an ocean liner on New Year’s Eve in the Poseidon Adventure – for which she’d receive her fourth Oscar nomination. That’s a Dame who knows how to go out in style. Well, at least until Cleopatra Jones….
Honorable Mentions: The Anniversary (1968), The Big Cube (1969), The Mad Room (1969), Trog (1970), Dear, Dead, Delilah (1972) , Night Watch (1973), The Killing Kind (1973) , The Baby (1973).
Author Bio: Stacy Davies has been an art and culture journalist for 20 years and is a film lecturer at the University of California at Riverside, and the University of Phoenix. Her favorite thing to watch, after art house films and classics, are ridiculous late night movie macabres, and she will forever blame/thank Elvira, Mistress of the Dark for the exceptional education.