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Known as the 'Grande Dame Guignol', or the more derogatory labels 'Hagsploitation', 'Psycho-biddy' or “batty spinster”- it is a, relatively small, subgenre of horror-thrillers that can incorporate camp films, gothic, black comedy, psychodrama, and revenge features. As the studio glamour roles, that established stardom, sought younger talent, the once-ingénues found a popular niche - capitalized on by the likes of William Castle, Hammer Studios and similar exploitive horror pop'corners. Just being a bit-part matriarch wasn't enough - they needed an edge as dangerous, unsuspecting, psychotic murderers or highly dysfunctional mothers. The subgenre is generally categorized into differing definitions. The most recognized are;

1) Movies that have formerly-glamorous, but now aged, female film stars (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Shelley Winters, Olivia de Havilland etc.) - often playing disturbed, unstable or life-threatening characters. These often include films that would be a step-down from their once-prominent marquee status. An example would be Joan Crawford's, relatively, minor role in, William Castle's I Saw What You Did , known for it's Psycho-like shower sequence. It is often included in genre lists because of it's proximity to the director / star pairing in Straight-Jacket made a year previous.

OR, a much broader definition;

2) Films with portrayals of aged women, often unhappily married or spinsters, in distress (Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage, Liz Taylor in Night Watch) who are coerced to madness (Barbara Stanwyck in The Night Walker) or have descended into mental instability (Sandy Dennis in Robert Altman's That Cold Day in the Park), are evil (Louise Fletcher in Flowers in the Attic, Kathy Bates in Misery) and some lists accept supernatural characters that are simply unnaturally-old (Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger, Florence Marly as the green 'queen-bee' Martian in Queen of Blood). We discount these as incongruous to our grouping.

For many the genre officially began in 1962 with the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But there are others and we will identify many of this unusual cycle of cinema. Billy Wilder's 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard should be considered part of this genre with a delusional, unhinged, formerly-glamorous silent-era film star who shares thematic similarities with standard 'hagsploitation' characters - although Gloria Swanson was only 51-years of age at the time of the production with Crawford and Davis only 56 and 54, respectively, in Baby Jane. A case could be made for the inclusion of the 1944 comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. So, many consider these a stretch of the genre's boundaries. We will stick with loose definitions even with some debatable titles that incorporate the second definition that I, frankly, find have tenuous links to the cycle. However, they are included because it is such a potentially discerning genre and may be evocative of the closer-associated entries.

Often the actresses showed resiliency matching the strong characters they portrayed and they gave these films desirability. The parts continued but rarely as leads. The roles shrank but not the performances. Piper Laurie as oddball as they come in Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) and Curtis Harrington's Ruby (1977) or Joan Bennett and Alida Valli as aberrant witches in Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977). The more eccentric the better. What do we recall from Tobe Hooper's 1982 Poltergeist? Zelda Rubinstein's memorable Tangina whisper "Let's go get your daughter". The characterizations became more extreme - and the public wanted to love them again. Noir favs Gloria Grahame in Blood and Lace, and Ruth Roman in The Baby. Ellen Burstyn's small but unforgettable role in Requiem for a Dream. Anne Bancroft's Ms. Dinsmoor, enigmatic more than insane, stealing the show in Alfonso Cuarón's delightful 1998 modern remake of Dickens's Great Expectations.

With the starlet sex-appeal in the rearview mirror, obsolete for the studio 'A' dramas, these 'Grande Dames' showed their flexibility bringing their charismatic appeal back with over-the-top, but believable, performances. We had grown old too. Followed on the silver-screen for decades as heroic leading ladies or wanton femme-fatales who captured our hearts with their emotion-filled eyes, come-hither smiles and embraceable characters. A reciprocal relationship that neither side wanted to end. If only there were more. 

 

Sunset Boulevard

(1950)

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?

(1962)

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

(1963)

Dead Ringer

(1964)

   

   

 

Lady in a Cage

(1964)

The Night Walker

(1964)

Straight-Jacket

(1964)

Frantic

aka

Die Die My Darling! (1965)

 

    

 

I Saw What You Did (1965)

The Nanny

(1965)

The Witches

(1966)

Berserk!

(1967)

 

    

 

 

Games

(1967)

The Big Cube

(1969)

That Cold Day in the Park

(1969)

Eye of the Cat

(1969)

     

    

 

The Mad Room

(1969)

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?

(1969)

Flesh Feast

(1970)

Savage Intruder aka "Hollywood Horror House"

(1970)

 

 

Trog

(1970)

The Beast in the Cellar (1971)

Blood and Lace aka "The Blood Secret"

(1971)

What's the Matter With Helen?

(1971)

    

 

Dear Dead Delilah

(1972)

The Killing Kind

(1973)

Night Watch

(1973)

The Baby

(1974)

 

     

 

Frightmare

(1974)

Gran Bollito aka "Black Journal"  

(1977)

Ruby

(1977)

 

Windows

(1980)

Flowers in the Attic

(1987)

Misery

(1989)

       

     

 

Loosely Related

 

Mommie Dearest

(1981)

Feud: Bette and Joan

(2017)

Requiem For a Dream (2000)

      

      

      

 

Books

 

Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother

by Peter Shelley

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
by Henry Farrell

Miss D and Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis
by Kathryn Sermak

Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud?
by Shaun Considine

Collage

 


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