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Stacie Ponder – Even in Her Roles as a Creepy Old Lady, Bette Davis Commands the Screen

Blogger Stacie Ponder’s horror columns appear every Wednesday.

Pop quiz, hotshot: When I say “grand dames of horror,” which actresses come to mind? Which performers of the female persuasion have made great, lasting contributions to the genre? Though tastes vary, there are a few names that most horror fans would toss into the ring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Karen Black, Barbara Steele, Ingrid Pitt, and the chick who plays the hitchhiker who gets killed whilst eating a banana in Friday the 13th Part IV. One actress who rarely gets mentioned when it comes to horror, however, is one of Hollywood’s greats: Bette Davis. From the 1960s until her death in 1989, Davis made upwards of seven horror films — I’d say that qualifies her as a scream queen, but in these movies she was usually the one making people scream.

Her most horrifying role — hell, one of the most horrifying roles ever, in my humble opinion — is her turn as aged child star Baby Jane Hudson in 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? . Wacko Baby Jane is scary enough to give Freddy Krueger pause, what with the serving up rats for dinner, the torturing of her wheelchair-bound sister, and for the love of god, the child-like garb, the makeup, and the singing! When the end of the movie rolls around and Jane is completely off her nut, acting like a 60-year-old 6-year-old, it’s absolutely horrifying on, like, ten levels. The frizzed out ringlet curls, over-done eyeshadow, and ghost-like pancake makeup equal crazy with a capital C, and honestly, when I see women who vaguely look like that wandering the hair dye aisle at my local CVS, I cut a wide swath around ’em. Hey, I paid attention to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and therefore I’m pretty sure those women are homicidal…or they’re going to sing weird songs about their daddies to me, which might actually be worse.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, wherein Davis plays the insane Charlotte, was originally titled Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? and was to re-team the Baby Jane
duo Davis and Joan Crawford. Crawford fell ill and was replaced by
Olivia de Havilland; regardless, it’s doubtful that mortal enemies
Crawford and Davis would have been able to stand each other long enough
to wrap the film. Personally, I’d have loved it if the Whatever Happened to…
series had continued on for, oh, six or seven sequels starring those
two old broads. Surely there were still plenty of family members to get
through, and plenty of scenarios that would have pitted Bette and Joan
against each other in various battles to the death. Just imagine the
possibilities! Whatever Happened to Great-Gramma Trudy? or Whatever Happened to the Avon Lady Who Turned Out to Be Your Long Lost Mom? or Whatever Happened to That Old Broad Who Lives in My Attic? Oh, my kingdom for a time machine!

Davis made films pretty much right up until the day she died — truth
be told, I think she died about five years or so before she actually
figured out she was dead. In her last few horror roles, such as Mrs
Aylwood in The Watcher in the Woods or Aunt Elizabeth in Burnt Offerings ,
she was relegated to “creepy old lady” status. She had become an odd
combination of frail and virile — frail because she was so damn tiny
and withered from age (not to mention a stroke), but virile because she
was still Bette effing Davis and she could command the screen
regardless of her stature.

Wicked Stepmother
I love is that it really didn’t matter to her what she was doing — she
was just making movies, and if they were horror it made no difference;
she wasn’t “above” the genre, unless the film itself was a total piece
of crap. Case in point: Her very last onscreen appearance was in Larry “ It’s Alive ” Cohen’s Wicked Stepmother,
wherein she played a witch. Apparently Davis thought the script was so
bad she demanded changes be made; when no one acquiesced, she walked
off the production. It’s a shame that after all the accolades, the
Oscars, and the brilliant performances she gave during the course of
her career that she’d go out… not so much with a bang, but rather
with a sad little mewl (literally — to explain her sudden absence from
Wicked Stepmother, Cohen simply had Davis’s character transform
into a cat). She should’ve busted out a ringlet-curl wig and gone all
Baby Jane on ’em…that would’ve gotten results!

From the over-the-top histrionics of Baby Jane to the house of Hammer ( The Nanny ) to classic made-for-TV horror ( Scream, Pretty Peggy )
to haunted houses and creepy woods, Bette Davis made her mark in
virtually every subgenre horror has to offer — and in turn, she
offered a bit of legitimacy to every film she took on. Take that, chick
who plays the hitchhiker who gets killed whilst eating a banana in Friday the 13th Part IV!

sp.jpgA fan of horror movies and scary stuff, Stacie Ponder started her blog Final Girl so she’d have a platform from which she could tell everyone that, say, Friday the 13th, Part 2 rules. She leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor’s edge of danger and intrigue.

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