In 1962, one of my favorite subgenres was born with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? : Hagsploitation flicks! There’s something about the terms “hagsploitation” and “hag horror” that makes my inner feminist raise a finger in quiet indignation to say “Err, excuse me, but isn’t ‘hagsploitation’ vaguely… I don’t know, sexist or something?” but really, what better way is there to describe these films? It’s a genre in which women don garish makeup, flip out, and get their psycho on. One gander at Bette Davis in full-on Baby Jane Hudson drag is enough to make both me and my inner feminist shrug and say “Yup… whatcha got there is a hag, alright.”
Generally speaking, hag horror features a wackadoo woman of advanced years who holds grudges from decades past… to the murderous extreme! Most often, these movies pit older actresses against one another for any old reason: jealousy, rivalries, those aforementioned grudges. Their hatred for each other bubbles under the surface for years until it explodes in a psychotic, poison- or stabby-filled rage party. Hagsploitation certainly boasts its fair share of black humor, and often these movies become high camp as these venerable elder actresses deliver their dodgy dialog with all the fervor they can muster. As it’s the first of its kind, no movie exemplifies the “Grand Dame Guignol” better than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.
The film, which pits former child star Baby Jane (Davis) against her wheelchair-bound sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), helped bolster the late careers of two of Hollywood’s finest actresses. While entering the realm of horror exploitation might seem a strange career choice (these days actors start in horror before ditching it once they become successful), it turns out that audiences love watching actresses get ugly and duke it out.
Baby Jane proved so successful — an Oscar nomination for Davis; an Oscar win for costume design — that Hollywood, in typical fashion, decided to immediately drop the bucket into the well again. Never one to shy away from a gimmick, producer-director William Castle nabbed Joan Crawford to star as ax-murderer Lucy Harbin in Strait-Jacket . Crawford, a woman teetering on the brink of 60, is both manic and sympathetic as a woman of 40 who grabs an ax and makes with the whacking when she finds her husband in bed with a floozy. If you’ve yet to see Strait-Jacket, then you, my friend, are in for a treat. It’s over-the-top melodrama with decapitations, psychosis, and a Scooby Doo-style ending of epic proportions.
As I touched on in an earlier column, Crawford and Davis were to be reunited in Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (originally titled What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?) before Crawford fell ill and left the production. As in Baby Jane, Charlotte casts Davis once again as a real kookadook, but this time she’s got Southern flavoring. It’s a bit like the difference between regular fries and zesty fries — both delicious, but one has a wee more zing.
Beyond Davis and Crawford
Bette and Joan certainly weren’t the only women to make their mark in hagsploitation, however. Shelley Winters appeared in several “question mark” films, their titles a dead giveaway: What’s the Matter with Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? both hit in 1971. In the former, Winters costars with Debbie Reynolds as a couple of old Hollywood broads whose sons happen to be serving time for murder. It’s a movie that’s as interesting as it is campy; there’s a definite “unrequited love” undertone to the relationship between the women, all building to a climax that’s far more horrific than those of its genre predecessors. The bloodshed is to be expected as horror entered the 1970s and gore replaced Gothic… not that I’m complaining, mind you.
Looking back at the films falling under the hag horror banner, the list of actresses you’ll find is simply astounding: Tallulah Bankhead ( Die! Die! My Darling! ), Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon (What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?), Lana Turner (Persecution), Agnes Moorhead (Dear Dead Delilah)… no matter the stigma generally attached to the horror genre, in the ’60s and ’70s it seems that no formidable actress would shy away from it.
Any horror fan knows that trends come and go; recently it’s been all but impossible to escape the clutches of the zombie film, and I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that thanks to Twilight, we’ll all soon be up to our necks in vampire flicks. By the mid-’70s, the hagsploitation trend went the way of the dodo, and it’s yet to be resurrected. As much as I’d like to see it, I’m not sure if it can be resurrected with (insert fist shaking here) these actresses today. In a sense, hag horror is all about how decidedly unglamorous it is to grow old; of course, “growing old” is a concept that’s fast disappearing in Tinsel Town. Everyone’s fighting nature tooth and nail, filling in wrinkles and lifting this and tucking that. Is anyone brave enough to slather on the pancake makeup and the bad wig and go all ten kinds of Baby Jane Hudson on screen? Or to appear barefaced (but still bad wigged) and engage in some Lucy Harbin-style axey shenanigans? Come on, ladies, step up!
A 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.Read More