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Psycho-biddy

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Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Psycho-biddy is a film subgenre which combines elements of the horror, thriller and woman's film genres. It has also been referred to by several different terms, which also include Grande Dame Guignol, hagsploitation and hag horror.[1][2]

Per Peter Shelley, the subgenre combines the concepts of the grande dame and "Grande Guignol". Films in this genre conventionally feature a formerly-glamorous older woman who has become mentally unbalanced and terrorizes those around her.[3][4][5]

The first wave of the subgenre is considered to have launched in the 1960s with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and lasted through the mid-1970s. Renata Adler, in her New York Times review for the 1968 film The Anniversary, referred to the genre as "the Terrifying Older Actress Filicidal Mummy genre."[6]

Definition, themes and influences[edit]

Influences on the psycho-biddy genre include genres such as gothic fiction, Grand Guignol, black comedy, psychodrama, and melodrama. Per Shelley, common hallmarks of actresses in the subgenre included those who were "no longer considered leading lady material" or had "previously specialized in supporting rolles", and "had not worked for some time".[1]:2

Shelley has noted that for a film to qualify as falling within the subgenre, it must have the following criteria:

  • The film uses grande guignol effects.
  • The lead character is an actress who plays "a character with the airs and graces of a grande dame".[1]

History[edit]

Per scholars such as Peter Shelley, the psycho-biddy subgenre was launched in the 1960s with the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as Baby Jane Hudson and Blanche Hudson, respectively. The film bolstered the flagging careers of its stars, as both Davis and Crawford had experienced difficulty finding roles.[1]

The subgenre has been referred to by multiple terms such as "hag horror", "hagsploitation", "psycho-biddy", and "Grande Dame Guignol". Film historian Charles Busch, whose 1999 play Die, Mommie, Die! and its 2003 film adaptation were written in tribute to the subgenre, has espoused his preference for the term "Grande Dame Guignol.[1]:1

Mad magazine poked fun at the genre in 1966 with a film musical satire entitled "Hack, Hack Sweet Has-Been - or Whatever Happened to Good Taste?"[7]

Critique and reception[edit]

The term and genre have received criticism, particularly in regards to claims that psycho-biddy films exploit actresses who have experienced or are vulnerable to ageism.[8][1] Timothy Shary and Nancy McVittie noted the genre in their book Fade to Gray: Aging in American Cinema, stating that the "cycle of films renders the aging women at their core as monstrously "othered" objects."[9] Bustle writer Caitlin Gallagher criticized the term "hagsploitation", as she felt that it "shows a certain lack of respect for the actresses who starred in these types of movies", further noting that together with the term "psycho-biddy" the terms "use disparaging terms for older women — "hag" and "biddy" — to not only indicate how unattractive the female characters are in these types of films, but to also show that these characters are psychotic."[10]

BFI's Justin Johnson commented on the genre, saying that "“If Crawford and Davis didn’t carve out this niche with Baby Jane and all the films that followed, then a lot of legendary actresses would not have had third career acts".[11] Peter Shelley has argued that criticism of the psycho-biddy subgenre is inaccurate, as it implies that the actress is lowering her standards by acting in a horror film by also implying that her earlier work is superior. The criticism also implies that the actress is only portraying a character out of her normal range out of desperation.[1]

Examples[edit]

While the subgenre has existed over a broad time period, it is closely tied to the 1960s and the end of the Classical Hollywood Era.[1] Thus, while there are many entries into the subgenre which exist outside of this decade (it is preceded by such films as Sunset Boulevard and The Star, and followed by Misery and Mommie Dearest), it should be primarily considered within the context of the dying studio system.

  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)[12]
  • Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964)
  • Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Robert Aldrich, 1964)[13]
  • Fanatic (a.k.a. Die! Die! My Darling!) (Silvio Narizzano, 1965)
  • What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (Lee H. Katzin, 1969)[14]
  • What's the Matter with Helen? (Curtis Harrington, 1971)
  • Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (Curtis Harrington, 1971)[1]

Further reading[edit]

References[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Shelley, Peter (September 15, 2009). Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from "Baby Jane" to "Mother". Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland and Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0786445691. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  2. "MENOPAUSAL MANIACS: A HAG HORROR WATCHLIST". Rue Morgue. 2018-02-01. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  3. Pahle, Rebecca (2019-11-13). "A primer for the unexpectedly awesome hagsploitation horror subgenre". SYFY WIRE. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  4. Keegan, Rebecca. "The birth of 'hagsploitation'". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2021-05-24. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  5. YesWeekly. "The crying shame". YES! Weekly. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  6. New York Times review
  7. "Hack, Hack Sweet Has-Been - or Whatever Happened to Good Taste?" Written by Mort Drucker, Illustrated by Larry Siegel. MAD Magazine, Issue No. 100, January 1966.
  8. Douglas, Susan J. (2020-03-10). In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-65256-7. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  9. Shary, Timothy; McVittie, Nancy (2016-09-06). Fade to Gray: Aging in American Cinema. University of Texas Press. pp. 80–86. ISBN 978-1-4773-1063-2. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  10. "'Feud' Depicts "Hagsploitation" In All Its Offensive Glory". Bustle. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  11. Hobbs, Thomas. "Trog: The strangest horror film of its era". BBC. Retrieved 2021-05-24. Unknown parameter |url-status= ignored (help)
  12. "'Hagsploitation': horror's obsession with older women returns". the Guardian. 2018-01-18. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  13. "10 Grand Hagsploitation Horror Movies". Film School Rejects. 2019-10-21. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  14. Nastasi, Alison. "The Scariest Psycho Biddies in Cinema". Flavorwire. Retrieved 2021-05-24.


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