After a long couple of weeks in which I either seemed to be applying for jobs or watching Game of Thrones/Survivor in the last few days I've finally got on back on the Old Horror Movies wagon (or fallen off of the 'I really should stop watching Old Horror Movies' wagon. Either/or).
So what I have been watching this week? The three big ones have been Dementia-13, Francis Ford Coppola's first film that doesn't exactly hint at his future greatness, The Terror, which featured Boris Karloff and apart from that was genuinely terrible (girlfriend's take on the other end of that link) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? which was far, far better than either of these, so that's the one I'm going to write about - mainly because I would rather encourage people to watch something good than to avoid something they wouldn't come across anyway.
Jumping straight in. The film opens in 1917, with the vaudeville performance of one Baby Jane Hudson. The act is almost unbearably twee by modern standards ("I've written a letter to Daaaddy, his address is Heaven above...") and I can't really see it being this well loved in 1917, but whatever, I'll buy it. The kid comes off stage and unsurprisingly is an utter brat to all her family, including her older sister, Blanche.
Skip forward to 1935, with two producers talking about Blanche and Jane, the former an extremely bankable movie star with a bright future ahead, and the latter a terrible actress with a drinking problem, only getting jobs as part of her sister's contract (hilariously, they use one of Bette Davis' actual movies from the 30s to 'illustrate' this). But this arrangement comes to an end, with a car 'accident' leaving Blanche confined to a wheelchair.
Skip forward again to what the title card refers to as 'Yesterday'. The sisters, their respective stars long since faded (although it's shown that Blanche Hudson's films are remembered fondly, and nobody really remembers Jane) now live in a house together with Jane looking after Blanche (Joan Crawford). Blanche is virtually confined to her room - there's a certain cruelty implied in it being upstairs - and a lifetime of suppressed jealousy, narcissism and booze has reduced Jane (Bette Davis) to a barely functioning level. She's circling the drain, so to speak. One more swirl and her mind will go completely down the plug hole.
Probably not the best time to discover your passive-aggressive well-meaning sister plans to sell the house and have you committed then. With Jane nuts, and Blanche terrifyingly vulnerable thanks to her chair, the rest of the movie pretty much plays itself out exactly as you would expect.
The surprising thing is, however, that there is very little schadenfreude in Blanche's predicament. Part of this is due to Joan Crawford's sympathetic portrayal, and part of it is due to what is done to her. It's unpleasant, but it's also unpredictable. This is not torture porn, nor is it a campaign of psychological torture, it is simply Jane doing things in the moment, in response to 'slights' shot through the prism of her madness and jealousy which is somehow more disturbing. When the abuse moves from the passive and largely psychological to the physical, it is in response to events as opposed to a natural progression.
For this reason, Jane comes across as one of the best villains I have seen on film for a long time. She's batshit insane, malicious, petty, frequently drunk, duplicitous, delusional and looks like she could use a good shower. It's implied that she simply re-applies her make-up every morning and almost certainly smells foul. She tramps around the house with little of her former grace and speaks with a voice that sounds like a key scraping up and down a harp. She is, in short, a monster, albeit not an entirely unsympathetic one. She never got past the age of 10.
A lot was made at the time about this being a collaboration between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (who reportedly hated each other - this was the only time they worked together) but this is Bette's film, through and through. There are other subplots, including one involving a pianist who's suspiciously close to his mother and who I assumed was some sort of con-man, and another involving a neighbour trying to be friendly and her daughter who appears once for exposition and then vanishes. Meh, you can ignore them. The core conflict is what drives this film. It's awesome.
Any problems? There is probably one too many 'Blanche tries to do something in a race against time before Jane gets back' scene, the subplots don't exactly integrate and occasionally the soundtrack grates rather than compliments. Characters do do some stupid things as well (why the hell did the housekeeper put down that hammer?) but most of those can be hand-waved by them underestimating the level of Jane's insanity.
A certified horror classic, and one that I am proud to now have in my collection. I dare you not to feel a shiver up your spine as Jane reprises her act as an old woman. I've written a letter to Daaaddy...
(Blogger's note: This film spawned a new subset of horror known as the 'psycho-biddy' film, many of which also starred Bette Davis. The best two were undoubtedly Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte which was also really good and I will review at some point and The Nanny, which I reviewed as part of my Hammer Horror series. If you wanted to do a triple bill of linked horror films, you could do a lot worse than these three.)