Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Horror Hags Part Three—The Exciting Conclusion
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.
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.
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.