A woman in peril, a woman putting another woman in peril, demented leading ladies with murderous intent: all common themes of what has become known as the Psycho Biddy milieu. Also known as “Grande Dame Guignol,” the genre has roots going back as far as Dickens’ molting wedding dressed, deranged Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, but was probably officially born in Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece Sunset Blvd. in 1950. In the film, silent film megastar Gloria Swason plays Norma Desmond, a silent film megastar (part of the life/art parallels the genre becomes famous for playing with), who lives as a recluse in her artfully decayed mansion in whose pool a floating corpse is discovered in the first moments of the story. Norma Desmond set many of the hallmarks of the films to come: a woman living in a more glorious past, dangerous detachment from reality, that whiff of faded glamour (show business is a reoccurring psycho biddy theme) and of course, that element of horror.
When the defining film of the genre, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was released in 1962, a spate of femme-centric horror films were released in the following years, usually featuring movie stars of advancing years sinking their teeth into some of the most over-the-top material of their careers. From the start, gay men (drag queens in particular) saw the intrinsic camp value in the performances and turned the scares into howling, appreciative laughter. When Bette Davis and Joan Crawford go at each other on screen (years before the other great monster cinema duel, Godzilla vs. Mothra), laughter is a legitimate response (especially in light of what we know of their personal lives), but that doesn’t take away from the film’s very real scares. If you’re avoiding the clubs, the parade and the generally disco happy Pride festivities this year, Netflix some of the following for your own decidedly darker celebration.
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond, you used to be in pictures, you used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am BIG! It’s the pictures that got small!
So begins one of the best character introductions in cinema history. Sunset Blvd. is arguably one of the first psycho biddy films, but it also has the distinctions of being one of the most acclaimed films ever. Everything about Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, a “faded star of yesteryear,” and her quest to return to the screen as a middle aged Salome is perfectly realized, down to the Salome metaphor, which leads to one of the best final scenes ever to be committed to celluloid. Although we don’t literally get to see her kissing the severed head of John the Baptist, the central mystery of the film (who is that corpse in the pool?) and stunning noir cinematography are their own dark reward.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Blanche: You wouldn’t be able to do these awful things to me if I wasn’t in this chair.
Jane: (pause) Butcha are, Blanche! Ya are in that chair!
If the above line is unfamiliar to you, you are likely not gay. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane brought together two of the most famous icons in Hollywood history, Bette Davis as former child star “Baby” Jane Hudson and Joan Crawford as her former screen siren sister Blanche, and let them reign havoc on one another. The two actresses famously did not care for one another and rumors of aggression and post-production feuds continue to surround the film. Of course, that’s part of it all. Watching Davis physically terrorize a wheelchair bound Crawford acquired an added dimension of horror/humor with the revelations in Christina Crawford’s tell-all Mommie Dearest that her mother Joan was a child abuser who famously beat her with wire hangers.
Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Miriam: Why wouldn’t I tell him that his pure, darling little girl was having a dirty little affair with a married man?
Charlotte: You’re a vile, sorry little bitch!
Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was supposed to be the re-pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford after the huge success of Baby Jane, but, in this case, the story behind the scenes is just as scary as the one on it. Allegedly, Davis made it her mission to terrorize Crawford until Mommie Dearest was forced to quit the film and was replaced by Davis’s friend Olivia de Havilland. Charlotte tells the southern Gothic story of the once aristocratic Hollis family and how the ghosts of a murder in Charlotte’s (Bette Davis, in the role of heroine, not villain unlike Baby Jane) past haunt the family plantation on the eve of its demolition. Even scarier than Baby Jane, the film still has plenty of quotable camp moments and you cannot miss Agnes Moorehead (Endora from television’s Bewitched) as the hillbilly butch housekeeper who may or may not have a little crush on Charlotte.
Annie: [Right after smashing Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer] God I love you.
Kathy Bates rightly won an Oscar for her deeply scary performance as Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery. When Paul (James Caan), a writer who has just killed off the lead in his popular series, crashes his car in a rural blizzard and is rescued by his “biggest fan” Annie, you can guess she has a few thoughts of her own on the death of a character she deeply loves. Annie’s solution? Get Paul to write the character back to life by keeping him prisoner in her guestroom! As a writer, it kind of makes you afraid of your readers… just kidding (maybe!). The legendary “hobbling” scene still deserves screams, even after repeat viewings.
Martha: I want this lying bitch out of my house!
Helen: There’s only room for one of those.
Back when series one of American Horror Story aired and everyone was in shocked awe of Jessica Lange’s performance as a murderous, Southern mother from belle hell, I wasn’t the least surprised. Lange’s role as Kentucky matriarch Martha Baring in Hush (opposite Gwyneth Paltrow as her besieged Yankee daughter-in-law) was a fine foreshadowing of her award winning work on Ryan Murphy’s anthology series. Okay, part of the fun is watching Miss Goop get the living hell scared out of her by Lange, but the other part of the fun is watching Lange swallow the scenery whole; there’s absolutely no chewing involved here. A box office failure at the time, Hush is due for a revival.
Aileen: I’m not a bad person. I’m a real good person.
Boy, if I had a nickle for every serial killer that says that… Monster is based on the real life story of executed serial murderess Aileen Wuornos and her killing spree while working as a Florida prostitute in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Charlize Theron is unrecognizable in her Academy Award winning performance and also manages to channel Freddy, Jason, Leatherface and countless other icons of horror in her murder scenes. The way Theron’s Wuornos interrogates johns before she kills them is haunting (and sometimes comical). And Christina Ricci is brilliant in her role as Wuornos’s lover Selby, whom Aileen repeatedly tells “I did it all for you.” Thanks, but usually flowers will suffice.