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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Psycho-biddy is a colloquial term for a sub-genre of the horror/thriller movie also known by the name Older women in peril, which was most prevalent from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s. The genre has also been variously nicknamed by the press as "hagsploitation," "hag horror" and "Grande Dame Guignol."


Definition, themes and influences

Psycho-biddy thrillers are a bricolage of many genre elements and themes: gothic, Grand Guignol, black comedy, psycho-drama, melodrama, revenge, camp and even the musical. But none of these, nor their combination, mark a particular movie as belonging to this peculiar sub-genre.

A psycho-biddy movie, by its very nomenclature, must possess a psycho-biddy: a dangerous, insane or mentally unstable woman of advanced years. Often (but not always), there are two older women pitted against one another in a life-or-death struggle, usually the result of bitter hatreds, jealousies, or rivalries that have percolated over the course of not years, but decades. These combatants are often blood-relatives and live a life of relative wealth.

The psychotic character is often brought to life in an over-the-top, grotesque fashion, emphasizing the unglamorous process of aging and eventual death. Characters are often seen pining for lost youth and glory, trapped by their idealized memories of their childhood, or youth, and the traumas that haunt their past.


The genre began in 1962 with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? directed by Robert Aldrich; however, the 1950 Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard, which shares many thematical and plot similarities with the former, can also be seen as a precursor to the genre. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? bolstered the flagging careers of its stars, Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson and Joan Crawford as Blanche Hudson.

Baby Jane set many trends and more-or-less defined the genre: the theatrical performance, the trappings of wealth and Hollywood, and psychologically complex melodrama. Jane goes quite insane over the course of the movie, torturing her crippled sister and venting long-pent up hostilities and guilt. As it turns out, however, Blanche makes a confession at the end of the film that makes her the real villain of the piece.

The movie was quite successful, garnering many Academy Award nominations, including one for Davis.

Crawford then starred in director and producer William Castle's Strait-Jacket (1964) as Lucy Harbin, the axe-murderer of her husband and his mistress, who is released from the asylum for the criminally insane after 20 years to be reunited with her beloved daughter and other friends. When a new string of axe-murders begin again, it is naturally assumed that it is Lucy committing them. But is it her?

The two actresses were reunited again with director Robert Aldrich for a Baby Jane "follow-up," Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), despite the wildly reported and bitter feud that existed in real-life between the actresses. Because of this feud, Crawford bowed out; she was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. However, Crawford can be seen in the film. There is a long shot in the beginning of the movie, when Miriam gets out of the taxi upon her arrival at the Hollis plantation, that actually shows the back of Joan Crawford's head and not de Havilland's. "When the taxi pulls up with cousin Miriam inside and stops at the foot of the steps, if you look closely before Miriam gets out you can just for a split moment see it is fact Joan Crawford in the back and not Olivia de Havilland. You can't see Crawford's face but you can tell it's her by the black dress and dark sunglasses that she is wearing. When de Havilland as Miriam is seen in the taxi before she arrives she is wearing a white hat and her clothing is light colored."

In Charlotte, Davis was not only the one going nuts, but the "officially" sympathetic character, who suffers exhausting mental anguish at the hands of her cousin and her doctor, also her cousin's lover, played by Joseph Cotten. In this movie, Davis's character is again haunted by guilt, though this time the ante is upped: instead of being responsible for a crippling, she is responsible for the murder of her lover.

Charlotte is one of the most successful examples of the genre, using Southern Gothic atmosphere to great effect.

Notable films

Wealth is a more prevalent theme than revenge in Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969). Alice (Geraldine Page), a socialite, finds herself (apparently) penniless when her husband dies. She then begins hiring financially independent older cleaning women, murdering them, taking their savings and planting them in her garden. The corpses apparently make the ground quite fertile, and it's not until maid number four (Ruth Gordon), that someone begins to suspect something is amiss. For all the convolution in its plot, the movie has a certain status as a cult classic, and is fairly well-regarded.

Henry Farrell, who wrote Baby Jane and Charlotte, also wrote What's the Matter with Helen? (1971), and while not the most inspired entry in the genre, it does stand up as an archetypal, if not exemplary, entry.

Helen features two older women, Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, who move out to Hollywood during the heyday of Shirley Temple. Their sons have gone to prison for a Leopold and Loebesque murder and the two mothers are on the run from a man who threatens to kill them in revenge. But the real danger is not an external, but a psychological one: the eponymous Helen (Winters), a religious fanatic who may have murdered her husband years before (and possibly led to her son's criminal behavior), has a lesbian crush on her promiscuous roommate, Adelle (Reynolds). This leads to a less-atmospheric and more graphically violent climax that was to mark many of the future excursions into the genre.

The glamour (and decadence) of Hollywood is both a common Farrell theme and wealth in general a recurring one in the genre. Also, like Baby Jane and Charlotte, music plays an important role in Helen (and, Helen shares co-star Agnes Moorehead with Charlotte).

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) is notable in that only one older woman (Auntie Roo, played by Shelley Winters) is featured prominently in the cast, and that her victims are children. The children are surrogates for her own child, lost years ago; once again, the themes of deep-seated past guilt and youth are explored. The movie itself is less-successful than others in the genre: the narration tries to tie the story in with that of Hansel and Gretel, and since it is told from the children's point of view, Roo's insanity is decidedly less poignant.

Most movies in the genre conform to the Question word Verb Character name titling convention. There are, however, a few exceptions, such as 1965's Die! Die! My Darling.

The Genre's influence

Though the genre is more-or-less dead, the influence of the psycho-biddy flick can be felt in many movies. One example would be Requiem for a Dream, the Darren Aronofsky movie. A highly technical anti-drug movie, the most memorable and affecting performance is perhaps that of Ellen Burstyn, which owes quite a bit to psycho-biddy tradition. Aging unglamorously, pining for youth and the ability to fit in "the red dress," reality warping around her: the only thing that's really missing is the cruelty, back-stabbing, hidden secrets and the trappings of wealth. Online movie critic Harry Knowles in fact, trumpeted Burstyn's performance as being like Davis's in Baby Jane: one by which all other performances will be judged. The characters of psychotic nurse Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's Misery (1990) and the unstable Christian Fundamentalist Margaret White in Stephen King's Carrie (1976) are also clearly inspired by "hag horror". The scenery-chewing performance of Susan Tyrrell as a crazed incestuous aunt in the cult video nasty Night Warning (1983) AKA Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker AKA Momma's Boy AKA The Evil Protege AKA Thrilled to Death is also influenced by the genre.


Although some of the following films can not completely be defined as being in the psycho-biddy genre, they share similar characteristics (namely an "older woman in peril" who is portrayed by a former silver screen starlet)[1].

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Psycho-biddy" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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