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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Horror Hags Part Three—The Exciting Conclusion

By the end of the '60s, horror hag films weren't bringing in customers who were more interested in adult fare like Midnight Cowboy, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge, so the genre moved to television. Shelley Winters jumped right in, making Revenge (1971), about a deranged woman who imprisons in her basement a man she thinks seduced her daughter, and in The Devil's Daughter (1973), she plays a deranged satan worshipper who imprisons a young woman whose mother had sold her soul to the devil. Then, in 1978, she played an evil housemother in The Initiation of Sarah, featuring Morgan Fairchild and Morgan Brittany. I don't think she imprisons anyone.

Bette Davis also took the plunge with Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973), a Psycho clone about a girl who takes a job as a caregiver for an elderly woman and her insane daughter, only to discover that all's not right at the house. Come on—wouldn't you get that idea immediately if Bette Davis answered the door? Much better was The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978), in which she played the sinister matriarch of a small northeastern village that puts a young couple under its sinister spell.

Happily, Harvest Home initiated an upturn in Davis' fortunes (her character name was Widow Fortune—ha!) and she was able to make some notable television and theatrical films until illness (and the execrable Wicked Stepmother) ended it all in 1989. Old nemesis Crawford only made three more appearances, all on television, after Trog. She died in 1977.

Even television couldn't support the horror hag genre forever, and by the end of the 1970s, it was all but over. But in 1976, it roared back into theaters when Piper Laurie appeared as the ultimate mother from hell, Margaret White, in Brian DePalma's classic Carrie. Earning an Academy Award nomination and the lasting affection of horror fans everywhere, her performance, even after all these years, hasn't become "camp" in the least.

Laurie followed up her triumph with Ruby (1978), a real throwback to the old style that gave birth to the genre. As the title character, she plays a washed-up nightclub singer and gangster's moll who runs a drive-in theater with the old gang serving as her employees. But years ago, her lover, Nicky, had been betrayed and murdered by the gang, and how they're beginning to meet mysterious grisly fates. Curtis Harrington was on board to direct, so Ruby very much has that What's the Matter with Helen? feel, but the story is a mixed bag, tossing in elements of a ghost story, a murder mystery—even a supernatural thriller, complete with Exorcist-style scenes.

Then, in 1981, the strangest mutation in the genre occurred when Faye Dunaway portrayed Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Wildly over-the-top in every scene, Dunaway's performance is jaw-dropping to say the least but eminently enjoyable. So great in Bonnie and Clyde, Network and Barfly, Dunaway here is strictly B-movie level, but I think it's because she and the director, Frank Perry, had decided that Crawford was an awful actress whose entire life was one nonstop performance.

While it's not technically a horror film, the child abuse depicted and the way she endlessly tortured Christina psychologically—not to mention the bizarre make-up topped off by greasy-looking eyebrows—firmly places it in that category. And, like Valley of the Dolls, it's a rich camp classic made entirely by accident, which is the only way it can happen.

Kathy Bates brought dignity back to the genre with her Oscar-winning turn as Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner's Misery (1990). Hmm...that's two Stephen King novels that fit into the category. What is essentially a two-hander between Bates and co-star James Caan is transformed into a true nail-biter as crazed fan Annie keeps romance novelist Paul Sheldon imprisoned in her home after rescuing him from a car crash. Bates' performance is brilliant. She transforms Annie from a slightly creepy fan to full-on nutzoid while keeping her recognizable as an actual human being.

Even Jessica Lange briefly entered the market with Hush (1998), starring as the psychotic mother-in-law of Gwyneth Paltrow. While I haven't personally seen the film, I've read that it's pretty dull, but her performance can be compared to Joan Crawford.

Alas, the genre is all but dead, with horror hags popping up these days only in supporting (or animated) roles. The last time I saw Baby Jane was in an actual theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art just a couple of years ago. Of course, the audience knew every line of the film and shrieked every time Davis did something awful to Crawford. I was laughing, too, but I couldn't stop thinking about how well it was crafted, how well it still held together, and how beautiful it looked in black and white on that giant screen.

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

In her autobiography, Faye Dunaway stated that the screenplay filmed was not the one she signed to do. It went through many changes in tone and content. (Christina Crawford even did a draft.) Frank Perry was supposedly signed to create a dark, realistic portrait of Joan Crawford and her very troubled relationship with her adopted daughter, in the style of Perry's earlier films, "Diary of a Mad Housewife"and "Last Summer." The finished film looks instead like a paean to the old Hollywood system, with its glamourous wardrobe, lavish sets and lush Henry Mancini score. Dunaway admits in her book to being a "racehorse" actor, who always gives 100%, expecting her directors to reign her in. Obviously, a lack of communication between Dunaway and Perry is to blame for her over-the-top, camp performance.Pity.It didn't have to be that way.

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