Hollywood Hag Horror (Part 2)

Continuing with Part 2 of my list of Hollywood hag-horror, where I am looking at the former Hollywood leading ladies who ended their careers in the horror and thriller genre. (See Part 1 here) Like in many examples of Grande Dame Guignol or "psycho-biddy" horror, we will encounter mental degradation, two ladies squaring of against each other and film titles that end in question marks. Henry Farrell, the writer of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and other Grande Dame Guignol classics will also appear again.

Shelley Winters in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo (1972)
Shelley Winters in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo (1972)

Shelley Winters

I shall begin with Shelley Winters, the two time Academy Award winning actress who began her career playing the blonde bombshell working girl in films such as A Double Life (1947) and A Place in the Sun (1951). Later she would transition to more character-based roles with memorable parts in The Night of the Hunter (1955), Lolita (1962) and Alfie (1966). Alongside Bette Davis she would fully embrace the archetypal hag role later in her career, as well as some other colourful characters. In fact she would surpass Davis in the number of horror and thriller films she would appear in and match her in her disturbing, grotesque and over-the-top performances.  

The Mad Room (1969) Shelley Winters, hag-horror

The Mad Room (1969)

The Mad Room is a remake of the Victorian noir Ladies in Retirement (1941) starring Ida Lupino. In this updated version Shelley Winters plays a wealthy widow who convinces her paid companion (Stella Stevens) to allow her two younger siblings to live with them. The catch is that the brother and sister are suspected of killing their parents and have recently been released from an asylum. The siblings have been fitted out with their own "mad room" within the large house and soon strange things start to occur.

What's The Matter With Helen? (1971) Hollywood Hag-horror

What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

What's the Matter With Helen? was written by Henry Farrell (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The House That Would Not Die) and directed by Curtis Harrington. This would be the second time that the pair collaborated. In 1970 Farrell penned the TV movie How Awful About Allan, a male version of the Grande Dame Guignol thriller starring Anthony Perkins, perhaps the originator of the  psycho-biddy in his famous role in Psycho. What's the Matter with Helen is set in the 1930s and co-stars Debbie Reynolds. Winters and Reynolds play mothers who move to Hollywood after their sons are convicted of murder. Adelle (Reynolds) finds love and success whilst running a school for child actors whereas Helen (Winters) retreats into isolation, obsession and paranoia, ultimately resulting in horrific violence.

Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972) Shelley Winters, hag horror

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)

Director Curtis Harrington and Shelley Winters returned a year later with a modern take on Hansel and Gretel in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (Also known as Who Slew Auntie Roo?) Winters plays the seemingly kind and generous Mrs Forrest, known locally as Auntie Roo, a wealthy widow who treats children from the local orphanage to a Christmas party in her large mansion. Of course Auntie Roo is not all she appears to be, when she sees a girl who reminds her of her deceased daughter she kidnaps her. Her brother becomes suspicious and tries to find her, discovering Auntie Roo's macabre secrets along the way. Winters is brilliant as the crazed "witch" in this modern day horror fairy tale. The film also features excellent supporting roles from Lionel Jeffries as a police inspector, Sir Ralph Richardson as the fraudulent psychic and young Mark Lester (Oliver!) as Roo's adversary.

As well as his work with Shelley Winters, honorable mention should also go to Harrington's earlier venture into the hag-horror genre with his 1967 psychological thriller Games, featuring French star Simone Signoret. Signoret plays a mysterious older woman who ingratiates herself into lives of a young couple, with deadly consequences.

Revenge! (1971)

Revenge! was an ABC Movie of the Week. Winters plays a deranged mother who kidnaps and imprisons a man she thinks is responsible for the death of her daughter, keeping him in a dirty cage in her basement. The man's wife seeks the help of a psychic to try and find him.

Shelley Winters in Something To Hide (1972)


Something To Hide (1972)

Something To Hide, also known as Shattered, is a British thriller with Winters playing a small role as the shrewish wife of  beleaguered husband Harry Field, played by Peter Finch. Dissatisfied, alienated and incredibly anxious Field picks up a young, pregnant hitchhiker, played by Linda Hayden (The Blood on Satan's Claw), who he learns is equally as menacing.

The Devil's Daughter (1973)
The Devil's Daughter (1973)

The Devil's Daughter (1973)

The Devil's Daughter was an ABC Movie of the Week. A young woman, Diane Shaw returns home to attend her mother's funeral. She is received by her mother's best friend, the friendly Lilith (Winters) who invites her to stay in her large mansion. Unbeknownst to Diane her mother had sold her soul to the devil and made a further promise involving her daughter. Winters is wonderful as the creepy and duplicitous Lilith and the film has a great cast including Jonathan Frid (Dark Shadows) and Joseph Cotten.

Poor Pretty Eddie (1975), Shelley Winters

Poor Pretty Eddie (1975)

Poor Pretty Eddie is a disturbing and rather unpleasant exploitation horror, set in the backwoods of the American south. A young singer (Leslie Uggams) is left stranded at an isolated hotel run by the insane, alcoholic washed-up actress Bertha (Winters). There she is subjected to torment and torture from the sleazy and corrupt townsfolk and the innkeepers psychotic Elvis impersonator son Eddie.

Shelley Winters in The Tenant (1976)

The Tenant (1976)

Shelley Winters has a small but memorable role as the suspicious and mean-spirited concierge in Roman Polanski's paranoid, psychological thriller set in a Parisian apartment block.

Tentacles (1977)

Tentacles is a very poor and cheap monster movie cashing in on the Jaws craze, about a mutated giant octopus that wrecks havoc on a small California coastal community. Despite it's poor quality it does boost a very good cast, with the legendary actor director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen), Henry Fonda and Shelley Winters in a minor role.

The Initiation of Sarah (1978)
The Initiation of Sarah (1978)

The Initiation of Sarah (1978) 

The Initiation of Sarah is a TV movie in the vein of  Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976). The story follows Sarah, a shy, insecure college student with telekinetic powers. When she is rejected by a popular and elitist sorority she joins an obscure one, led by the eccentric house mother, Mrs Hunter (Winters). Mrs Hunter has an interest in the occult and convinces Sarah to use her psychic powers against their enemies, in particular the rival sorority led by the bitchy Jennifer, played by Morgan Fairchild. This is an enjoyable TV movie the best parts of which feature Winters who revels in the role of the manipulative crazed sorority house mother.

The Visitor (1979)

This would be the strangest film that Shelley Winters would appear in. In a sort of sci-fi version of The Omen it stars John Huston as an intergalactic warrior who comes to earth to battle evil in the form of a demonic little girl and her pet hawk. It is hard to describe exactly how strange this film is, with its weird atmosphere and strange plot. What is also amazing is the number of talented actors/directors that appeared in it, including Shelley Winters and John Huston there was Glenn Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Franco Nero, Mel Ferrer and Lance Henriksen. Despite its psychedelic oddness and flawed execution some viewers may still find it strangely fun and entertaining.

Lana Turner 

  Persecution (1974)

Persecution (1974)

Persecution, also known as The Terror of Sheba or The Graveyard is a British Tyburn production. Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice) stars as the evil and domineering mother who takes pleasure in tormenting her timid son David (Ralph Bates). When her son returns home after a number of years the torment continues, rather ludicrously with the help of her beloved pet cat. After two deaths David's mind finally snaps and he takes his revenge. This is an odd and really quite boring film, seen by many as nothing but  a cheap derivative of other better made Grande Dame Guignol films. However, Turner does do her best in the role and is the reason to watch it.

Joan Bennet

My inclusion of some the late film and TV roles of the actress Joan Bennet, most famous for her roles in film noirs such as The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) and Secret Beyond the Door (1947), does veer slightly away from the typical "hag-horror". In her later roles in horrors and thrillers she would never play the all-out manically deranged older woman and her performances were quite understated. However I thought she was worth including in this list as she did appear in a number genre films and the next film in particular features the work of "hag-horror" writer Henry Farrell.

Joan Bennett in The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972)
Joan Bennet in The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972)


The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972) 

In 1966 Bennnet returned to the horror/thriller genre and reintroduced herself to television audiences when she appeared as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the matriarch in the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971). In 1972 she appeared in an ABC Movie of the Week The Eyes of Charles Sand, co-written by Henry Farrell. The story follows Charles Sand (Peter Haskell) who, after the death of his uncle inherits the family legacy of  "the sight", as explained to him by his aunt Alexandra (Bennett). Guided by ghostly apparitions and visions of the past and future, Sand helps a disturbed young woman who believes her brother has been murdered, but whose sister insists is alive. Aided by his psychic abilities he sets up to solve the mystery.

Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria (1977)

Bennet would continue her career within the horror genre when she appeared in Dario Argento's giallo thriller Suspiria. In what can be best described as a fever dream of a film, Bennet plays Madame Blanc, an instructor at a German ballet academy that is run by a coven of murderous witches.

This House Possessed (1981)

This House Possessed was an made-for-TV movie for ABC. It follows Gary Straihorn, a pop singer suffering from nervous exhaustion who with his nurse, buys a new house in the country. This house has all the modern technology in security, electricals and solar power but also appears to have a mind of its own. Bennett plays the Rag Lady who plays a part in unlocking the house's mystery. The film is quite enjoyable as a haunted house film, a bit like a supernatural low-budget Demon Seed.

For more on Hollywood Hag Horror continue with Part 3 of this series. 


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