The Horror of Bette Davis

Though famous for her dramatic roles Bette Davis, towards the end of her career, found herself an unexpected niche within the horror genre. "Hag horror" or "psycho-biddy" horror flourished during the 1960s and 1970s, featuring famous actresses from Hollywood's golden age like Tallulah Bankhead, Shelley Winters, Joan Crawford and of course Bette Davis. They were a combination of Gothic, thriller and melodrama, with the stories centering around the mental instability of older women. Early incarnations of this figure can be seen in Dickens' Miss Havisham  and in Tennessee Williams' Blanche Dubois. Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) can also be seen as an early influence. Bette Davis however proved to be an exemplar in the role.

Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
© Warner Bros.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a psychological horror/thriller credited with creating the "psycho-biddy" sub-genre, directed by Robert Aldrich. The story centers on two aging sisters, Baby Jane (Bette Davis) a former child star who takes care of her invalid sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), a former Hollywood actress. Envious of her sister's success and under the delusion that she is preventing her from making a successful comeback, Jane begins to sadistically torment and terrorize her sister. Part of the genius of this film is in the casting of two former screen icons whose rivalry before, during and after this film became notorious. In this role Davis is perfect as the demented, grotesque and increasingly terrifying Jane, earning herself an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Dead Ringer (1964), an example of a Bette Davis pyscho biddy, hag horror films
© Warner Bros.

Dead Ringer (1964)

Davis plays a dual role as twin sisters Margaret Delorca and Edith Philips. In a slightly predictable but enjoyable thriller the story follows poor and unmarried sister Edith, who discovers the evil treachery of her wealthy estranged sister Margaret. In revenge Edith decides to kill her and take her place whilst trying to convince her friends, the police and Margaret's secret lover.

Bette Davis in Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, 1964
© 20th Century Fox

Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) 

Following the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? director Robert Aldrich hoped to reunite stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for this modern southern Gothic thriller. Originally cast in the role of Miriam, Crawford was only on set a few days before pulling out due to illness, though the real reason is thought to be the continuing animosity between the two actresses. Like in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte deals with domestic horror and the power struggle between two women. Davis plays Charlotte, a wealthy, former Southern belle, who everyone believes brutally murdered her lover decades before. She is now an aging woman who has spent most of her life isolated in her large mansion and is now facing the threat of losing her house to developers. Her poorer cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) moves in with her, ostensibly to assist her but possibly to act against her. Like in Baby Jane there is murder, manipulation  and insanity but the Gothic overtones are on a much grander scale, the large decaying house is representative of Charlotte, whose mind is trapped in the past and whose sanity is likewise deteriorating.

Bette Davis in The Nanny (1965)
© Hammer Films

The Nanny (1965) 

In a much more understated but equally chilling role, Davis plays an English Nanny in this Hammer Horror produced film. Davis is Nanny to ten year old Joey who has recently been released from a children's mental institution after the suspicious death of his sister years earlier. He returns to a dysfunctional family, an absent father, a depressed mother and a Nanny who beneath her sweet veneer hides a number of secrets. Davis' subtle portrayal of a cool and calculating individual coupled with the twists and turns of the plot produce an intense and disturbing dark thriller.

Honourable mention should also go to another Hammer film production featuring Bette Davis. In the black comedy The Anniversary (1968) Davis plays a one-eyed matriarchal tyrant who forces her family to come home and celebrate her fortieth wedding anniversary. The screenplay was adapted from the play by Bill Macilraith and the film still retains its stage-like quality. Although not a horror or thriller Davis' character shares a number of traits found in her "psycho-biddy" horror and she revels in the role.
Bette Davis in Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973)
© Universal Television

Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973)

In this made-for-TV movie Bette Davis plays another sinister matriarch, the alcoholic mother of Jeffrey Elliott, an eccentric sculptor who hires a college student to be housekeeper of their Californian mansion. The student, Peggy, starts to become suspicious when a man comes to the house looking for his missing daughter and she sees a mysterious figure in the house and grounds. Scream, Pretty Peggy combines elements of a thriller with Gothic romance, with Davis playing a supporting but memorable role.

Bette Davis in Burnt Offerings (1976)
© 20th Century Fox

Burnt Offerings (1976)

Burnt Offerings is a haunted house movie directed by Dan Curtis, famous for the TV series Dark Shadows. The story follows the Rolf family who rent a rundown mansion for the summer from a pair of creepy siblings, the only caveat being that the sibling's mother Mrs Allardayce, will continue to live in the attic and the family must not disturb her. In a departure from her usual "hag" role Davis plays Aunt Elizabeth, the Rolf's elderly relative who comes to live with them. The house seems to affect each member of the family differently, the father Ben (Oliver Reed) becomes increasingly angry and starts to hallucinate, his wife Marian (Karen Black) becomes obsessive and Aunt Elizabeth's health deteriorates. There is a gradual sense of foreboding and menace as the family's mental and physical stability weakens and the house comes to life.

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978) Bette Davis as Widow Fortune
© Universal Television

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978) 

In this mini-series, based on the novel Harvest Home by Thomas Tyron, Davis plays Widow Fortune, the matriarch of a small, farming community who seem to have some odd religious practices. A brilliant example of an American folk horror, Widow Fortune's homely charm and down to earth wisdom belie more sinister motives.

Bette Davis in The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
© Walt Disney Pictures

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

The Watcher in the Woods is known for being one of the most spooky movies that Disney ever produced. Davis plays Mrs Aylwood the reclusive owner of a large house that is rented by the Curtis family. The oldest Curtis daughter, Jan, feels afraid in her new surroundings, especially in the woods that become the focus of some of the strange happenings. Jan believes it is all linked to the disappearance of Mrs Aylwood's daughter, who she closely resembles, and who vanished decades earlier. Though Mrs Aylwood appears sinister at first, as the movie progresses it shows Davis in one of her most tender and nurturing roles.

Bette Davis was not the only star to enter the world of the pycho-biddy. For more on the "Hag horror" genre see my posts Hollywood Hag Horror Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.


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