Following my look at the horror films of Bette Davis I've been interested in other examples of famous Hollywood actresses who later flourished in the horror and thriller genre. Many times ending their film careers there. These films often fall into the category known as "hag horror", "psycho-biddy" horror, or "Grande Dame Guignol",* a genre of film that featured older leading ladies placed in perilous situations. In it they could play the ruthless villain, the psychotic killer or the mentally unstable victim. In some of these examples, however, these former stars were simply the talented presence in otherwise mediocre films and TV specials.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is the film that began the "psycho-biddy" sub-genre, based on the novel by Henry Farrell, a name that will come up again, and directed by Robert Aldrich. Crawford plays wheelchair-bound Blanche who is mentally and physically terrorized by her sister Jane (played by Bette Davis.) Aldrich's direction and the use of black and white film effectively conveys the sense of claustrophobia and mental decay as both Jane and Blanche spend their days obsessed and trapped, (in Blanche's case literally) within the shadow of their former glory days. Both stars put in excellent performances, Davis as the disturbing, malevolent Jane and Crawford as the subdued but determined Blanche.
Following the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Joan Crawford teamed up with horror gimmick maestro William Castle for this Robert Bloch penned thriller. Crawford plays Lucy Harbin, a woman who in a fit of jealous rage murders her husband and his lover with an axe. After spending twenty years in an asylum she returns home and the axe murders start again, but is she the one responsible? In this silly but entertaining thriller Crawford plays the role with the utmost seriousness as the unbalanced and disturbed Lucy. The star power of Crawford no doubt helped Strait-Jacket become one of Castle's most successful films.
I Saw What You Did (1965)
In 1965 Crawford had a small role in another William Castle production. In I Saw What You Did she plays the amorous neighbor of a man who has just murdered his wife. However the story really follows the two girls who unfortunately randomly prank call the man and say "I saw what you did".
Also known as Circus of Blood, Berserk! is a British horror, Crawford plays the ruthless owner of a traveling circus where a number of ludicrous murders occur. The film co-stars British horror stalwart Michael Gough and Diana Dors (an actress who herself embraced the hag-horror character in her late career). The story and script is ridiculous and at times hilarious and the seduction scenes between Crawford (who was 62) and her much younger co-star Ty Hardin are embarrassingly painful to watch. Today I think the film is mostly enjoyed for its camp value and silliness.
Night Gallery: "Eyes" (1970)
In the episode "Eyes" Crawford plays a rich, ruthless blind woman who blackmails a prominent surgeon into performing an eye transplant, with eyes taken from a man who desperately needs the money. Needless to say things do not go as planned.
In what was to be Crawford's last feature film she rejoined the producers of Berserk! for another cheesy British horror, often listed as one of the worst films ever made. In Trog Crawford plays anthropologist Doctor Brockton who helps capture the missing link, a troglodyte and attempts to educate him. In the traditional monster movie style the creature escapes and runs amok in the English countryside and it is up to Dr. Brockton to stop him.
The Sixth Sense: "Dear Joan: We're Going to Scare You To Death" (1972)
This episode of The Sixth Sense was Crawford's final acting role. She plays Joan Fairchild who after a car crash seeks help from a group of ESP dabblers at an isolated house. However, instead of helping her they decide to use their telepathic skills to send Joan images of her dead daughter to try and frighten her to death. The episode ends with usual lead character Dr. Rhodes (Gary Collins) interviewing Joan Crawford about her own strange experiences. Later this 60 minute episode was re-edited and included as part of the series Night Gallery in syndication.
In another William Castle thriller written by Robert Bloch, Stanwyck plays Irene Trent a wealthy woman who is terrorized by recurring dreams. At first her dreams are fantasies of an imaginary lover but later she suffers from nightmares in which she is haunted by her recently deceased and insanely jealous husband. She is convinced that the dreams are real and it is up to attorney Barry Morland (Robert Taylor) to help her solve the mystery. This was to be Stanwyck's last feature film, from this point on she only did television.
The House That Would Not Die (1970)
The House That Would Not Die was an ABC Movie of the Week, co-written by Henry Farrell, (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.) Stanwyck plays Ruth Bennet, a woman who inherits and moves into an old house in rural Pennsylvania with her niece Sara. Shortly after moving in they begin to hear voices calling in the night, things are knocked off walls and Sara and their neighbor Professor Pat McDougal (played by Richard Egan) begin to act very strangely. The House That Would Not Die despite it's sensationalist title is a pretty simple and tame haunted house mystery, based on the book by Barbara Micheal. It is the performances of Stanwyck and Egan that make it worth a watch.
A Taste of Evil (1971)`
Another ABC Movie of the Week. In this tele-film thriller Stanwyck plays the mother of Susan (Barbara Parkins) who has recently returned home after spending years in a mental institution, following a childhood trauma. Shortly after returning Susan feels as if someone is watching her and then she begins to see the dead body of her step-father (William Windom) who everyone tells her is alive. Stanwyck is on top form as the sympathetic mother and the twist in the story is one that a 1970s audience must have found very disturbing.
Olivia de Havilland
In Lady in a Cage Olivia de Havilland plays Mrs Cornelia Hilyard, a wealthy, semi invalid mother who quite literally gets trapped in the cage of her private elevator during a power cut. Taking advantage of her vulnerable position she is at first robbed and later terrorized by a group of sociopathic delinquents led by Randall Simpson O'Connell, played by James Caan. De Havilland is excellent as the trapped woman who conveys a myriad of emotions as the menace and torture increases. The film is visually disturbing and it's brutal, nihilistic atmosphere, filled with senseless violence does make it difficult to watch.
Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte reunited Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? director Robert Aldrich with writer Henry Farrell who co-wrote the screenplay based on his unpublished short story. It was also set to reunite Bette Davis with Joan Crawford, but after Crawford pulled out she was replaced with de Havilland who took up the role of Miriam. This was the second time in a year that de Havilland had to step in for Crawford, who had initially taken the role of Mrs Hilyard in Lady in a Cage. Although Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte showcases Davis's talent as the mentally unstable, former Southern belle suspected of killing her sweetheart, de Havilland's portrayal as the poor practical cousin sent to help her is a perfect nuanced counterpoint.
The Screaming Woman (1972)
Based upon a short story by Ray Bradbury, de Havilland plays a wealthy, former mental patient who returns home to her large estate. One day whilst walking in the grounds she hears the screams of a woman who has been buried alive, however no one will believe her story. This tense tele-film is filled with nervous energy which at times makes it very frustrating to watch.
The Swarm (1978)
In a slight deviation from the "hag-horror" theme it might be worth noting de Havilland's small role in the disaster-monster horror film The Swarm, about a swarm of killer African bees that descend upon Texas. It also featured Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Slim Pickens and Henry Fonda. De Haviilland would not be the only former Hollywood leading lady who would appear in these B-movie monster horrors. Ida Lupino had appeared in The Food of the Gods in 1976, which was about giant predators inhabiting a small Canadian island. Shelley Winters was in Tentacles (1977) a film about a giant octopus and Myrna Loy was in Ants (1977) a film about killer ants attacking people trapped in a hotel.
Produced by Hammer Films, Die! Die! My Darling (originally titled Fanatic) starred Tallulah Bankhead, best known for her role in Lifeboat (1944). Here she plays Mrs Trefoile, a religious zealot who is obsessed with the death of her son. When she is visited by her son's former fiancée Pat, she kidnaps her and plans to "cleanse" her soul. This she does with the help of her servants played by Peter Vaughn, Yootha Joyce and a young Donald Sutherland. Bankhead puts in a terrific performance as the psychotic mother who tortures and torments her son's former lover, in what was to be her final film.
The Witches (1966)
Joan Fontaine owned the rights to the novel The Devil's Own by Peter Curtis (pseudonym of Norah Loft) and brought the project to Hammer Films, where it was adapted for the screen by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale. In The Witches Fontaine plays the sympathetic and fragile schoolteacher Miss Mayfield who after recovering from a nervous breakdown takes up the position of headmistress at a small village school, only to suspect that the village may hold a coven of witches. This was Fontaine's final film, afterwards only appearing on television. One such appearance was in the Gothic soap-opera like TV movie Dark Mansions (1986), in which she plays the matriarch of a family haunted by an ancestral tragedy.
For more examples of Hollywood Hag Horror see Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.
For more examples of Hollywood Hag Horror see Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.
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*The term "Grand Guignol" refers to the popular Parisian theatre which specialized in naturalistic and visceral horror performances