Trav S.D.’s Guide to the Great Psycho-Biddies
Continuing our month long series of Halloween Horror posts, today we take a look at the subgenre now informally known as “psycho-biddy”, or sometimes, less succinctly as “Grand Dame Guignol”. This is a very specific little subset of films that flourished for about a decade starting with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962).
It seems significant to me that the genre flourished in the ’60s and ’70s, for its primary subject matter and style are all about painful transition. Even our nickname (psycho-biddy) for this group of films is cruel and unkind and unfair; that’s what gives it its special truth. What each of the films has in common is an aging Hollywood actress at its center, usually a star of the highest caliber who is now a bit past her prime. That’s the “biddy” part, though it’s an exaggeration. Rarely are the women downright elderly. To dare speak the normally unspoken: they are roughly menopausal, still for the most part retaining aspects of their former beauty and sexuality and still vigorous enough to kick up an awful fuss. It’s just that their present time of life torments them; they Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. And so they are “psycho”. Sometimes they are manipulative villains; sometimes the “gaslighted” victims. But the common denominator is a good dose of cray-cray and thus lots of opportunity for the actress in question to do some very large acting.
The time at which the films these were released also make for highly interesting stylistic transition. The genre has one foot in the ancient and one in the modern. It is a shift away from the Gothic style of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s (vampires, zombies, mummies), and closer to the more realistic and graphic conventions of the “slasher” style that would prevail in the ’70s and ’80s. But the shift is a partial one. An implied supernatural is often present, though always revealed to have been a ruse. They are sometimes set in an atmospheric “Old, Dark House”, with dust and cobwebs and forbidding architecture. And best of all, the STARS themselves are from the earlier era, although interestingly it’s never a veteran of actual horror films like Fay Wray or Elsa Lanchester. No, the horror is NOW. Instead, the actresses are normally ones associated with MELODRAMA, and this is what the genre is about most of all. Heightened, flashy, wonderfully over the top acting. These are not just our Lady MacBeths, but our Lady Lears. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”
We have immediate antecedents for the genre in several places. All of the “gaslighting” thrillers for example, which normally starred a young heroine (Gaslight, Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Dragonwyck). Southern Gothic melodrama, especially by writers like Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams (especially A Streetcar Named Desire…Blanche Dubois is a clear ancestor).
With Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) we are getting awfully close. Gloria Swanson’s silent movie derived performance is the benchmark. And the setting and situation (a decaying Hollywood mansion) would essentially be appropriated by many of the films. What Swanson does in this film, and what the psycho-biddy prime exemplar Bette Davis would do in many of her earlier films like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Now, Voyager, paving the way for her dominance in the genre, is to go way out on a limb, daring to be as unappealing (unattractive) as possible. If done well, such a turn could be attention-getting…even award-winning. What separates Norma Desmond from the true psycho-biddies is that for most of Sunset Boulevard we don’t realize how dangerous she is. She is a “crazy lady”, a figure of fun. Grotesque, but not yet a monster, at least not until the film’s final moment.
The last piece in the puzzle is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which establishes the scale and basic dimensions of the genre. The acting is big; the movie is small. The films are low-budget, with small casts, and usually a single, claustrophobic location, a house in which the characters are trapped. It adds to the poignancy and the power: a big star raging, banging on the frame of the movie screen to get out. Interestingly, with its Oedipal theme and a domineering murderous “mother” at its center, Psycho comes a hair’s breadth away from being a psycho-biddy movie itself. The only problem of course, that in Psycho, the woman is dead. But the character, as she lives through her son’s demented performance, is psycho-biddy. A dead ole psycho-biddy.
Anyway, here are the great examples of the genre. Note that we stick to the perimeters of the genre. While there may be similar movies starring men (Ray Milland springs immediately to mind) the psycho-biddy genre is specifically about the female experience. And the woman’s role is of a specific type. While Bette Davis is in lots of other horror movies later in her career (e.g. Burnt Offerings) we only include the ones in which she rattles the roofbeams. Warning: we always include spoilers!
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Universally acknowledged to be the foundation of the genre. Director Robert Aldrich would perhaps be the genre’s key auteur — he is involved with four of the films we mention here. I find this very interesting, because Aldrich is otherwise very much associated with actions films, war movies, westerns — very much MALE oriented. Gender norms seem to be a preoccupation of his. As is cold, hard, cruelty. In Baby Jane, Bette Davis plays the titular infant, a former child star in vaudeville who’s always been a cloying, irritating spoiled brat of a thing. Now approaching the mid century mark, she has been tasked for decades with caring for her invalid sister (Joan Crawford), whom she delusionally blames for ruining her career. Now it takes a turn, and Jane begins to terrorize and torture the sister, and dream of getting back on top. She dispatches a few innocent by-standers who make the mistake of dropping by the house (including one of my favorite character actors Victor Buono), and does charming things like serve her wheelchair-bound sis a rat for luncheon.
Crawford doesn’t eat the rat but she does chew up the scenery. Along with Davis, she would become the genre’s pre-eminent star. She came to the table with a good track record in similar vehicles. Aldrich had directed her in Autumn Leaves five years earlier, and she’d recently been in The Story of Esther Costello. In both of them, as well as Baby Jane she is the appealing and sympathetic victim, and gets to hang on to her glamour somewhat. (Which is humane — she was a few years older than Davis). As we said above, Davis had pioneered the risk-taking “unglamorous” prestige role, where she let herself be as ugly as the role called for. She pulls out all the stops in Baby Jane, setting a high bar for the actresses who would follow on the trail she blazed.
Baby Jane was a big hit at the box office. William Castle, who knew a good thing when he saw it, jumped into the genre with both feet in Strait-Jacket, in the wake of a couple of less characteristic films like Zotz! and 13 Frightened Girls. In Strait-Jacket Joan Crawford plays an ax murderer who is released from an insane asylum after 20 years and is reunited with her daughter (Diane Baker), a sculptor. Murders start happening again. Is it Crawford? Or someone else…? The film makes us wonder, and we get to have our cake and eat it too. Crawford has a past as a crazy killer, but she is also being gaslighted. Joan had done crazy before — notably in Possessed (1947). But in these films, and the later Berserk (see below) we can see that she prefers an ambiguity that allows her to remain sympathetic and appealing (as opposed to most psycho-biddies, who revel in being scary, scary, scary). Strait-Jacket is also notable for having early performances by Lee Majors and George Kennedy.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Robert Aldrich’s follow-up and companion piece to Baby Jane. The original conceit was that Davis and Crawford would both return, but with their roles flipped, with Davis now as the sympathetic victim and Crawford as the scheming torturer. Unfortunately the two actresses hated each other. Crawford worked on the picture a few days, then feigned illness and was let go. Crawford was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, a wonderful bit of stunt casting, as her traditional role in films was the reverse of what she is here. In her early years she was usually the innocent angelic damsel. And yet she did play a killer in The Dark Mirror (1946), a crazy in The Snake Pit (1948), and a black widow in My Cousin Rachel (1952). Sweet Charlotte fit her like a glove.
The story has its similarities to Strait-Jacket. The titular Charlotte is a Southern belle, widely believed to have killed her lover (Bruce Dern) with an ax after he jilted her. She’s now an old maid, living on her Louisiana plantation with her servant (Agnes Moorehead, who would return to the genre many times). But now the state wants to build a highway through her property, tearing her away from everything she’s ever known. To help her in her fight she enlists her cousin (de Havilland) and an old friend (Joseph Cotten) — but the two proceed to gaslight her so she will be put away and they can share her fortune. Until she gets wind of it and proves how dangerous it is to make someone believe they’re crazy. Also in the cast are Victor Bouno as Charlotte’s father, George Kennedy as the highway construction foreman, and, in her last role, Mary Astor.
Lady in a Cage (1964)
We give this one an honorable mention, as it is a slightly different type of movie, but with some overlap. Olivia de Havilland plays a rich and not-very-nice older woman who is wheelchair bound and who gets trapped in the elevator of her mansion. For the bulk of the movie, while she hangs there in her little prison, she is tortured and terrorized by a bunch of bunch of punks and thieves played by Jeff Corey, Ann Sothern, James Caan, et al. Also in the film in small roles are Scatman Crothers and the giant Richard Kiel. The presence of de Havilland, a wheelchair, an intense relationship with her son, and terror inspire us to include the film here, but in a true psycho-biddy film, the malefactors wouldn’t be strangers, and the cage surrounding the victim would as psychological as it is physical. This one is a bit closer to something like Sorry, Wrong Number or Wait Until Dark, which exploit our fear of the intruder.
The Nanny (1965)
A terrific British film starring Bette Davis in the titular role as the homicidal wack-job whose true cracked malevolence only the little boy in her charge can see. Unfortunately, the boy was blamed for the murder of his sister, and his “irrational” behavior is chalked up to his being a problem child. In reality, he is merely terrified of THE NANNY.
Die, Die, My Darling (1965)
Co-produced by Hammer Films and Columbia Pictures, this 1965 film was called Fanatic for its U.K. release and Die, Die, My Darling in the U.S., presumably due to the fear that it might cause distress on the part of psychotic wackos who identify too strongly with Tallulah Bankhead’s character and thus become offended. Bankhead (in her final screen role) plays a religious nut who occupies a decaying mansion way out in the English countryside, assisted by her servants, one of whom is a hilarious half-wit played a hair too convincingly by Donald Sutherland in one of his first roles.
As with all of the aging grand dames who took on such roles in this subgenre, the usually glamorous if not precisely beautiful Bankhead is dressed all the way down for this part. Her appearance is shocking the moment she appears in the screen.
The plot? You can’t tell from that poster? Kittenish Stefanie Powers pays a courtesy visit to the mother (Bankead) of her deceased boyfriend, and doesn’t learn that the woman is insane until it is far too late. Bankhead’s got on the hairshirt…doesn’t even put salt on her wheat germ , and she goes from making Powers wipe the lipstick off her face to locking her in an attic room and starving and beating her to prepare her for her reunion with her beloved son in heaven.
The poster is misleading in one respect; there isn’t a lot of Psycho style stabbing in this picture. Bankhead’s character resorts to a handgun to do most of her bullying, which in this particular subgenre is ironically a little refreshing. The film later inspired a song by the punk group The Misfits.
The Night Walker (1964)
Another William Castle film. Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman who is the virtual prisoner of her husband, a blind, insanely jealous scientist. She is attracted to his lawyer (played by her real-life ex-husband Robert Taylor) and has endless fantasies about a perfect man billed as “The Dream”. In some of the fantasies she marries him in front of an audience of mannequins! When her husband blows himself up in a lab accident, she begins to enjoy her first measure of freedom for the first time…but that’s not how it ends. This one was also written by Robert Bloch (the man who wrote the novel on which Psycho was based), and is Stanwyck’s last movie (she only did television after this). The Night Walker has long been an unavailable holy grail, both for fans of Stanwyck and of William Castle. I just discovered to my delight that it become available on DVD a few months ago! Can’t wait to see it!
Picture Mommy Dead (1966)
This is another honorable mention. The picture was originally to have starred Gene Tierney and Hedy Lamarr, which would taken it fully over into the proper terrain, I think. Instead the roles were played by Martha Hyer and Zsa Zsa Gabor, who are neither old enough nor iconic enough. The gaslighting in this film is of a young person, a girl (Susan Gordon, daughter of the film’s director Bert I. Gordon), who has inherited her dead mother’s fortune. Her father (Don Ameche) and stepmother (Hyer) scheme to grab it by making her crazy by making her “see” the ghost of her dead (murdered) mother.
Berserk advertises the promising premise of a bunch of mysterious murders committed on the atmospheric back lot of a travelling circus of which Joan Crawford is both proprietor and ringmistress. In her circus outfit the 63 year old Crawford exhibits a surprisingly viable (shapely) pair of legs, but her mug is of course fairly age appropriate. The love scenes with the perpetually shirtless Ty Hardin stretch credibility well past the breaking point, making even the concept of a horror circus seem reasonable by comparison, unless you go with the cynical theory that he’s only in it for the millions and millions of dollars that only some screenwriter would assume traveling circus owners possessed in 1968. At any rate, through the bulk of the film, Crawford being Crawford, we are made to think she is the one behind a string of spectacular murders under the big top. But it is only her jealous daughter. This was Crawford’s penultimate film, the last being the even more preposterous Trog (1970).
The Killing of Sister George (1968)
We give this one honorable mention because it was directed by Robert Aldrich, and it is on a similar theme — a batty older woman making life hell for the people around her. The “killing” here is only metaphorical — what’s being killed off is a soap opera character played by the anti-heroine (Beryl Reid) — but the name does imply and seem to promise a psycho-biddy experience. But there is no true horror here, properly speaking, unless you’re horrified by lesbians.
The Anniversary (1968)
Again, just “honorable mention”. The screenplay was written by the same guy who wrote The Nanny (above), adopted from a popular stage play. And it was produced by Hammer. And it stars Bette Davis in a psycho-biddy role (wearing an eye patch!), though her terrorizing over her three children and their families is all psychological. It is best categorized as a black comedy.
Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969)
Robert Aldrich’s last entry in the field; he produced this one, with Lee H. Katzin as director. Geraldine Page is a widow who subsists by dispatching her paid companions, a fact that goes undiscovered due to the remote desert location of her home. After she kills victim number five (Mildred Dunnock) she takes on housekeeper #6 (Ruth Gordon) and gets more than she bargained for. Peter Bonerz (Jerry the Dentist of The Bob Newhart Show) plays a lawyer.
Eye of the Cat (1969)
Oh, this one’s got it all. Eleanor Parker as a rich aunt in a wheelchair, and Michael Sarrazin and Gayne Hunnicutt as a young couple out to get her out of the way so they can take her townhouse. And a script by Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Psycho. Standing in Sarrazin’s way are cats — lots and lots of cats. And his character really hates cats. The film’s most memorable scene (of several) is one in which Parker’s wheelchair runs amok and she finds herself rolling down one of those steep San Francisco hills…
Savage Intruder a.k.a Hollywood Horror House (1970)
This is easily the most low-budget of any of these films, probably by an order of magnitude. The Gilligan’s Island font on the credits was a big warning signal when I started watching. And it is the only feature directing credit for its author, Donald Wolfe, and looks more than a little amateurish. And yet it has so much going for it — in some ways more than some of the other films on this list. First, it’s shot on the old Talmadge estate in Hollywood (or Beverly Hills, to be more accurate) so there’s a wonderful documentary aspect. The plot is sort of Sunset Boulevard meets Psycho meets something more low-budget, say, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Joe Besser (!) plays a Hollywood tour guide/bus driver who serves as the story’s framing device. Miriam Hopkins as a demented, delusional, reclusive, alcoholic ex-star in a wheelchair. Gale Sondergaard plays her companion. Lots of blasts from the past in the supporting cast, like minor ’30s actors like Florence Lake and Lester Matthews, and reaching back all the way to the Keystone days, Minta Durfee! With David Garfield (John Garfield’s son) as a ne’er-do-well hippie psycho killer hired to be Hopkins’ nurse, who introduces himself first as “Laurel N. Hardy” and then later as “Vic Valance”. While the dismembered body parts in the film are all too clearly pieces of mannequins, the movie has several cool dream sequences and psychedelic party scenes. This film struck me (and I bet I’m not wrong) as a possible explanation for what drew horror director Rob Zombie to Raised Eyebrows, the upcoming Groucho Marx bio-pic, inspired by the comedian’s last years, which bore more than a passing resemblance to some of these movies.
The Mad Room (1970)
Shelley Winters and Stella Stevens (also together in The Poseidon Adventure and Cleopatra Jones and the City of Gold — I’m beginning to smell a pattern! Of what, I don’t know, perhaps wine drinking during lunch breaks). Winters is a rich widow, Stevens her paid companion. Things heat up when Stevens springs her two younger siblings from the loony hatch and brings them to stay with her at Winters’ mansion, where are they outfitted with their own “mad room” to make them feel more at home. The two kids were put away for their suspected slashing of their parents, but that can’t possibly be the case, can it? And yet, who is there left to suspect-? When Winters is hacked up, things heat up even more — and more still when the family dog starts trotting around with her severed hand in his mouth. If you can add two and two you know the conclusion to this film. As an added bonus, we get Beverly Garland as the jealous, drunken wife of Winters’ masseur/ gigolo.
What’s the Matter with Aunt Helen? (1971)
Shelley Winters (the new queen of the genre) is back, this time paired with Debbie Reynolds. More importantly, this one was written by Henry Farrell, who’d written the screenplay for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and co-wrote Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, as well as How Awful About Alan (1970), starring Psycho’s Anthony Perkins. In this one, Winters and Reynolds play a couple of Depression-er Iowa mothers whose sons are convicted of the murder of a girl, Persecuted by their neighbors, the two change their names and move to Hollywood, where Reynolds finds love and success…and Winters finds isolation and paranoia. Blood will be shed. Screaming will happen.
Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1971)
Winters is back once more in her most delectable psych-biddy star turn, in a film released by AIP. She plays the titular Roo, a psycho recluse who secretly keeps the mummified corpse of her daughter in the attic, singing to it, and conducting seances to communicate with her in concert with a fraud played by Sir Ralph Richardson. Meantime, she also puts up a solid front as a philanthropist, and hosts an annual jaunt where she invites a group of orphans to visit her home. A pair of uninvited kids sneak in, and thus get a behind-the-scenes picture denied the other children. Unfortunately, Auntie Roo catches one of them…who bears a resemblance to her dead daughter. It’s up to her brother to free her. In doing so the two children will become the answer to the question posed by the film’s title. Sound a little like Hansel and Gretel? The terrific cast also includes Lionel Jeffries as a police inspector and Hugh Griffith as a butcher.
Dear, Dead Delilah (1972)
Terrific entertainment. A wheelchair ridden Agnes Moorehead, at the height of her Bewitched fame, with family friend and adviser Will Geer at the height of his Waltons fame. Moorehead plays a horrible, stingy matriarch, who has control of her family’s Southern estate and fortune. She’s dying, but not fast enough for her brothers Michael Ansara and Dennis Patrick. Furthermore, it emerges that she has written them out of the will! Then cometh …murther! Including a decapitation by a ghostly horseman (see photo above)!
Night Watch (1973)
It is perhaps a little unfair to include this one here. Star Elizabeth Taylor was only 41 when the film was released — that’s scarcely a proper biddy. But then again, Olivia de Haviland is but 46 in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. And hard living has taken a noticeable toll on Liz’s once perfect visage (it happens to us all) and its a good seven years after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which she had distinctly, definitely planted the flag in middle age. In Night Watch, she would seem to be the victim of a gaslighting by her husband (Lawrence Harvey) and her friend (Billie Whitelaw). But who is gaslighting whom? Along the way, we get a thunderstorm, a spooky old house, a Rear Window scenario, and a history of mental illness and murder.
The Killing Kind (1973)
Look, all these movies are sick. This one will make you queasy in new and different ways. John Savage plays a dude who comes home from a two year stint in the jug for having participated in the gang rape of a girl. Unfortunately we are shown that event in a prologue — I’d have been content to have heard it referred to in dialogue. But at least it allows us to see that Savage was an unwilling participant, although probably for the wrong reason. You see, he is a boy who loves his mama. Too much. His mother is played by a now-plump but still vivacious Ann Sothern, who is clearly guilty of being too affectionate and indulgent with her son. A promiscuous woman, possibly a prostitute in her younger days, she’s now happy to have her shirtless hunk of a son back home to bring a little life into the joint. The problem is, when Savage gets aroused…he gets aroused. And the women around him (Ruth Roman, Cindy Williams, et al) get dead. When mother discovers the truth of the murders she helps to cover them up and then puts poison in the lad’s chocolate milk. As creepy a set-up as this is, I have to say it may contain the best acting of any psycho-biddy film, particularly by Sothern, who manages to be quite affecting and sympathetic in her role, incest and all. And Savage gets a couple of freak-outs of his own that, well, leave an impression.
The Baby (1973)
Here Ruth Roman (also of The Killing Kind) stars as yet another “very special” mom. Mama and her two daughters, a pair of disturbingly sexy (in this context) hench-babes, spend all of their time looking after “Baby”, a 21 year old grown male infant, whom we assume has some sort of a mental problem. To confuse matters, however, he doesn’t act like a retarded adult. He is TREATED as an infant by the three women: dressed like one, kept in a giant crib and an over-sized playpen, fed with a spoon and a bottle. But later, it seems like one of the sisters is CONDITIONING him to be stunted, shocking him with a cattle prod, commanding “Baby doesn’t talk! Baby doesn’t walk!” One of the more disturbing features is that Baby (David Mooney) coos and cries with an actual baby’s high pitched voice, not that of a retarded man with a full-sized voice box.
Mama and her girls like Baby just fine the way he is. That’s why they get a little bent out of shape when a social worker (Anjanette Comer) comes nosin’ around and starts spending TOO much time on this one particular case. We spend most of the movie concerned for this social worker’s well being, culminating when Baby’s family bonk her on the head and tie her up in the basement and put a gag in her mouth. But then she escapes. With Baby. And what happens to the three crazy ladies when they catch up with the fancy social worker woman…well, let’s just say it’s not pretty. But I will tell you it involves a variety of sharp objects. (“Social Worker mustn’t play with sharp objects!”)
And the piece de resistance…well I just have to share it with you, otherwise you won’t believe me when I tell you it’s the goddamnest thing you’ve ever seen in a movie. For it appears that all along the social worker has had DESIGNS on Baby. You see, she already has had her OWN baby-man at home, her husband, who had sustained brain damage as the result of an accident. Now he has a play mate! The movie ends with the two men lovingly playing with toys together as their new mama and grandmother look on. At any rate, it’s not the most GRAPHIC movie, in the world…but I did find myself audibly saying “Oh my God!” at least once every five minutes at some new moment of weirdness.
Okay! By now we are at the mid ’70s and will soon be entering a time of new preoccupations…baby sitters, summer camps, sorority houses. Apparently we have ceased to be worried about old ladies….which seems fitting, because why the hell were we ever terrified of old women to begin with!? What was that all about?! I don’t happen to be too terrified of “Freddy” or “Jason” or Michael Meyers, but at least they make more sense as villains, at least superficially.
On further reflection there is something to it, and I think the key can be found in Who Slew Auntie Roo?, which closely follows the Hansel and Gretel motif. For at some primal level dating to early childhood we ARE afraid of old hags and witches. Childhood would be a time in our lives when such scary women would be much larger than we are, and would hold a power over us. And of course if you happen to BE an older woman, you’ll have an entirely different read on all this, which I would be most interested to hear.