The madwoman on the plantation.
DIRECTED BY ROBERT ALDRICH
As exploitation movie subgenres go, you can’t get much more bizarre than psycho-biddy, a class of 1960s melodrama about mentally unstable older women, rife with demure titles like What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? In terms of mainstream success, patient zero was 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which featured Bette Davis as a washed-up movie star potentially responsible for maiming her show-biz sister. But there’s also a case to be made for Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which reunited Davis with director Robert Aldrich and netted seven Oscar nominations, making it one of the best received thrillers in Academy history and likely the only multiple nominee centred on a grisly decapitation at a society ball.
This time out, Davis plays Charlotte, a rifle-toting madwoman in a ruined Southern plantation home, her life put on hold since the mysterious dismemberment, 40 years earlier, of her paramour John (Bruce Dern) on the very night she was to elope with him. Long thought to have murdered him herself, Charlotte has become a rich pariah, the subject of eerie schoolboy chants about cleaved hands, garish headlines (“GRUESOME MUTILATION MURDERS”), and eviction attempts from the Louisiana Highway Commission. She invites her poor cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) over for a visit, which seems like a good idea at the time.
Southern Gothic at its most delirious, the film is grounded by Davis’ wild-eyed intensity and Aldrich’s equal penchant for horror and lyricism. The pre-credit sequence alone is a treasure trove of wicked imagery: a teen in a tasteful white dress that’s drenched in blood, a parakeet watching a beheading from its safe perch, a bloated patriarch admiring a family portrait in which his daughter sits at his side like a young bride. Subtle it isn’t, but who needs subtle when you’ve got Davis and Havilland as dueling matriarchs gone murderous on the ruins of their childhood home?