This Halloween, we consider the sub-genre of horror films referred to as “Grande Dame Guignol,” also known as “Hagsploitation,” “Psycho-biddy,” or “Hag Horror,” and three films in that sub-genre that are represented in three of our collections.
Films of this type feature “a formerly-glamorous older woman who has become mentally unbalanced and terrorizes those around her.” Author Caroline Young in her book Crazy Ladies: The Story of Hag Horror notes that the films cast “an aging movie star as the monster, or victim, who lives in a creepy home with a creaking staircase that offers an easy metaphor for her descent into madness, with her basement or attic the womb-like space that holds her darkest secrets.” Such films include Dead Ringer (1964), Lady in a Cage (1964), Die! Die! My Darling! (1965), The Nanny (1965), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971).
Two stars who appeared in several of these films were Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and they both starred in what is considered to be the first film in the sub-genre, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Directed by Robert Aldrich and based on a novel by Henry Farrell, the film deals with a former child star, Baby Jane Hudson (Davis), who torments her paraplegic sister, Blanche Hudson (Crawford).
A follow-up movie, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), was also directed by Aldrich and based on a short story by Farrell. As depicted in the recent TV series Feud about the decades-long rivalry between Davis and Crawford, both actors were to star in “Charlotte,” but Crawford left the production and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland.
The American Heritage Center has the papers of Frank DeVol, a prolific composer of film and television, who scored seventeen films for director Aldrich, including both “Baby Jane” and “Charlotte.” His scores for those films are included his papers.
Another prominent “Hagsploitation” film is Strait-Jacket (1964), which starred Crawford as a woman who, having killed her husband and his lover years earlier, is released from a psychiatric hospital as the film begins. Directed by William Castle and co-starring Diane Baker (who, almost thirty years later played Senator Ruth Martin in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs) as Crawford’s daughter, the film was written by Robert Bloch, best known as the author of the 1959 novel Psycho, the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film of the same name.
The AHC has Bloch’s papers, which include several posters for Strait-Jacket, one of which is from the release of the film in Belgium.
Also included in the collection are copies of two drafts of Bloch’s script for the film, as well as Call Sheets for the film and for a trailer for the film that included Crawford, Bloch, and Castle. Many of the documents in Bloch’s papers include Bloch’s handwritten annotations.
Post contributed by AHC Archivist Roger Simon (our resident film expert).