Hagsploitation. Hag Horror. Grande Dame Guignol. Psycho Biddy. All of these terms attempt to classify a subgenre that burbled forth in the 1960s, spawned from a couple of influential thrillers and the availability of talented older actresses. Hollywood historically has granted men longer careers. If you were Joan Crawford or Bette Davis at midlife, your options were limited no matter how great your acting or influential your career. But what to call the subgenre? I find Hagsploitation too broad: in theory, it would include all kinds of movies that are beside the point. Grande Dame Guignol assumes the presence of a bona fide Grande Dame, and would include horror films that also seem off-genre, simply because an aging great plays a part. If Judy Dench or Maggie Smith starred in a thriller in the 2000s, we'd suddenly have a revival, regardless of the kind of horror movie.
So Psycho-Biddy it is.
Sunset Boulevard (1950), a predecessor of sorts, features Gloria Swanson as a demented has-been in a Gothic mansion, murder, mystery, film noir, and dollops of dark humour. A genuine classic, it won Academy Awards and has been preserved in America's National Film Registry. We're not quite in the pulp territory favored by the Psycho Biddies, but many of the key elements are present.1
Psycho (1960) not only inspired, years later, the slasher genre, it's the probable reason Psycho-Biddy exists. Psycho represents a nod from a prestigious director towards pulp material. It uses (comparatively) limited sets (most notably a distinctive haunted house) and budget (for Hitchcock). Its story presents a murderous recluse, a tragic event in the past, and a twist. Most importantly, its phenomenal success directly led to the making of the not-dissimilar What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which is where Psycho-Biddy really begins.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? unites screen legends and rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis as, well, fading stars. Robert Aldrich directed the psychological thriller, adapted by Lukas Fuller from Henry Farrell's 1960 novel. The story concerns the Hudson sisters, one-time celebrities living together in a crumbling home. "Baby Jane" (Davis) was a vaudeville child performer; as her star fell, Blanche's (Crawford's) rose in Hollywood. Jane manages an acting career, but she remains second-rate, and begins to drink. A car accident after a party leaves Blanche in a wheelchair and at the mercy of her increasingly deranged sister, who carries the guilt for the crippling mishap.
Although of a higher quality than much of what follows, Baby Jane set the style and tone. Psycho-Biddy features big, but often faded names chewing scenery as crazy, usually homicidal old ladies with dark mysteries in their pasts. The stories feature Gothic trappings, pulp subject matter, black humour, and they generally veer into camp. Past guilt usually plays some role, as does repressed sexuality. Titles frequently pose a question. Someone usually sings a creepy kiddie song. These elements all appear in Baby Jane, and recur regularly throughout the subgenre.
Baby Jane received a TV remake in the 1990s with the Redgrave sisters. It rarely rates mention.
Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, also released as Whatever Became of Cousin Charlotte? (1964) reunites Davis, Aldrich, Farrell, and Heller for a blending of the nascent subgenre with Southern Gothic. Charlotte (Davis), an aging southern belle bears the suspicion of having murdered her beau years earlier, and she now resides in a decaying family mansion slated for destruction. She occasionally takes shots at people from her window with a rifle, but she remains strangely sympathetic. The film features a kiddie chant (reminiscent of "Lizzie Borden took an axe") and a kid-friendly theme song, conniving relatives, psychological tension, and twists both expected and surprising. It also includes the likes of Olivia de Havilland, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, and Mary Astor in the supporting cast.2 A prestige piece of pulp, it received seven Oscar nominations, making it, at that point, the most-nominated horror movie in history.
The Moorehead role was supposed to be Crawford's; she was quickly dropped due to some on-set difficulties, but returned to the subgenre later that year for Straight-Jacket (1964), a less impressive piece, written by Robert (Psycho) Bloch and directed by pulpmeister William Castle. Castle loved gimmicks; at some theatres, first-run patrons received cardboard axes. In this one, psycho-biddy Lucy Harbin (Crawford) returns home after passing twenty years in a psychiatric ward for the murder of her husband (Lee Major's first movie role). Suddenly, people start falling to the axe. Is Lucy still a killer, or is someone trying to frame her?
Lady in a Cage (1964) gives Olivia de Havilland a lead role. Although her character, wealthy Cornelia Hilyard, has issues (she arguably drove her son to suicide), she's a victim for most of the film, trapped in her elevator during a home invasion. Of course, she's tougher than she looks, and dangerous when caged.
"Don't Open Till Doomsday" (1964) a celebrated episode of The Outer Limits, might be viewed as Psycho-Biddy meets SF. It stars Miriam Hopkins, who had a brief heyday in the 1930s and was considered for the part of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. In 1929, her character and her bridegroom receive an odd wedding present, a boxlike object which traps the groom inside with an otherworldly intelligence. Almost forty years later, another young couple arrive at the crumbling Gothic mansion where the demented old lady now lives, Miss Havisham-like. She has been luring couples for decades, hoping to sacrifice them in order to get her husband back.
Fanatic aka Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), Tallulah Bankhead's final film, concerns a deranged woman who kidnaps her late son's fiancée, with delusions of purifying her. Stephanie Powers and Donald Sutherland also star. Bankhead, heavily intoxicated, reportedly took eight hours to redub a minor amount of dialogue; the incident became the hook for Matthew Lombardo's biographical play, Looped.
The Nanny (1965)-- not Fran Drescher!-- represents Hammer Studios' shot at Psycho-Biddy, crossed with the Bad Seed. Bette Davis returns to the screen as the Nanny and caretaker for a British couple whose young daughter died under suspicious circumstances. Their young son (Joey Fane) took the blame. He's clearly one disturbed little boy, but did he do it? Nanny has a really twisted relationship with the mother, and the boy insists the old girl's not as she appears. The first act gives us Hammer's characteristic slow pace, but we're left in genuine doubt for much of the film about which character killed the little girl, and why. The blasé attitudes, meanwhile, might be seen as satire of the British stiff upper lip. The film features long-time character actor Pamela Franklin in an early role as the Keane-eyed teeny-bopper in whom the disturbed son confides.
In Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969) Geraldine Page stars as Claire Marrable, an aging murderess who cons her housekeepers out of their coin before killing them. The stakes increase when the latest housekeeper appears to know a good deal more about Marrable than she first lets on. Based on the novel The Forbidden Garden, it proved only moderately successful and is rarely seen now.
What's the Matter With Helen? (1971) gives us Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters, who move to 1930s Hollywood after their sons are convicted of a Leopold and Loeb-style slaying. They open a school to train potential Shirley Temples, but tainted blood appears to run in the families and things turn disturbing. Winters gives a deranged performance, enhanced, according to Reynolds, by the fact that she really was close to a nervous breakdown at the time of the shooting. The film features the obligatory twist and strong suggestions of lesbianism. In fact, these were supposed to be more than suggestions, but scenes were toned down and excised to keep the film from getting an R rating (at the time, any strong indication of homosexuality was likely to win a film an R rating). We also get treated to an off-kilter rendition of "Animal Crackers in My Soup." The film is no masterpiece, but it makes an interesting and still-watchable thriller.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? aka Who Slew Auntie Roo? and The Gingerbread House (1972) is a modern-day riff on Hansel and Gretel. "Auntie Roo" Forrest (Shelley Winters) appears to be a benevolent old lady who throws a lavish Christmas party each year for the kids of local orphanage. We learn almost immediately about her secret side: like a certain other notorious character from a more famous thriller, she keeps the corpse of a mummified relative in the house. In this case, it's her long-dead daughter, Kathleen, to whom she sings lullabies. The plot thickens as a charlatan posing as a medium and his associate try to bilk the woman out of her fortune. Meanwhile, a pair of orphan siblings, Christopher and Katy learn the truth—but no one believes them, because of their penchant for spinning imaginative tales. Roo, increasingly unhinged, notices a similarity between her daughter and Katy, and decides her Kathleen has returned. This British-made film was probably the last commercially successful psycho-biddy.
It's uncertain what the phenomenon teaches us. Pop culture imitates itself and the media often grants men longer careers. Psycho-biddy made growing old a virtue, and established itself firmly enough that Mad Magazine recognized and parodied the subgenre in their 100th issue. "Hack, Hack Sweet Has-Been,or Whatever Happened to Good Taste?" (1966) gives us a bevy of crazy old ladies falling to a plot that, in the end, turns out to be orchestrated by an Annette Funicello stand-in and the Beach Party Movies kids, who are annoyed their trend is being swept away by the Psycho Biddies.
Afterthoughts: Biddy Viddies or not?
Trog (1970) , technically a Grande Dame Guignol and definitely not a Psycho-Biddy, it often makes lists of such films because it is Joan Crawford's last. She in fact plays a scientist in a low-budget "revived prehistoric creature" monster movie, and a rather sorry example at that. The film stuffs a muscle-man into a leftover costume from the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It doesn't fit, so he looks like a normal man with an ape-head, wearing the skin of another ape to protect his modesty. The ape suit was reportedly reused a year later for Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Home for the Holidays (1972), a well-remembered made-for-tv thriller, squeaks into the subgenre, as it concerns a group of sisters who discover their aging stepmother is a murderess, and their dying father wants them to kill her. Sally Fields appears as the youngest sister; Joseph Stefano, who penned the adaptation of Psycho for Hitchcock, wrote the script. It has twists, of course, and many viewers remember it for its raincoat-clad, pitchfork-wielding female killer. In addition to being a late-entry Psycho-Biddy, Home for the Holidays is a kind of proto-slasher, and a link to Black Christmas aka Silent Night, Deadly Night (1974), that most infamous of Holiday Season Horrors, and (arguably), the true originator of the slasher genre.
1. A friend e-mailed me and pointed out that Arsenic and Old Lace might be viewed as another predecessor.
2. The Charlotte cast also includes Bruce Dern, Victor Buono, George Kennedy, and others. Ellen Corby, best-remembered as Grandma Walton, plays the local gossip. John Megna appears as one of the small town kids who torment Charlotte. The distinctive-looking child actor had his most prominent role as "Dill" in To Kill a Mockingbird, but Star Trek fans will forever recall him as the "Bonk Bonk! Naughty Grup!" kid from the episode, "Miri." His adult career lagged, and he eventually left acting and became a teacher.