In 1962, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford — during the twilight of their careers — ushered in a new subgenre in film: psycho biddy cinema. Robert Aldrich’s Academy-Award-winning What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? found the grande dames isolated in a decaying Hollywood mansion, where their minds had deteriorated in kind. The gothic melodrama arrived on Blu-ray today, and we wanted to celebrate the occasion by taking a look back at other over-the-top films that featured unhinged, older women haunted by their past. Since the ‘60s, the subgenre has evolved and inspired some creepy aging idols in horror cinema, too. Since we don’t discriminate when it comes to demented elderly characters, we had to include them as well. See more psychotic, gray-haired grotesquerie after the jump.
The incomparable Bette Davis kicked off psycho biddy cinema with her memorable role in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as aging child star, Jane Hudson. The young, spoiled Jane was adored by her fans and father — her popularity even inspiring the creation of a look-alike doll. As she grew older, Jane’s star had fallen and her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) became the successful sibling. The obsessive and competitive relationship the two women shared eventually eroded their fame, and the sisters wound up as retired, reclusive actresses isolated from the rest of the world. Abuse and terror reigned in their crumbling mansion, and the sinister, doll-like Jane stops at nothing to find the spotlight once more after a terrible family secret is revealed. Behind the scenes, both queens of the big screen fought for supremacy when it came to top billing. Fights were reported to frequently erupt on set and Davis’ Oscar nomination didn’t sit well with Crawford.
A different spin on the psycho biddy was inspired by V.C. Andrews’ popular novel, Flowers in the Attic. The 1987 film adaptation starred Louise Fletcher — better known as Nurse Ratched from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest — as the frightening Olivia Foxworth. She played a bible-thumping religious zealot who abuses her daughter and grandchildren by locking them up in the mansion attic like forgotten playthings. Olivia is more interested in hiding the family’s darkest secrets than the well-being of her relatives, but we almost feel bad for her once a twisted truth comes to light. Movie Olivia at least has the courtesy to cut off her granddaughter Cathy’s hair instead of pouring hot tar on her head like book Olivia does. Yikes.
You know her as the terrifying, old woman in Room 237 and the reason you’re sometimes scared to take a bath in the dark. When Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes over as caretaker for the ominous Overlook Hotel, he encounters a beautiful woman in a bathtub who turns into a rotting hag. Kubrick’s penchant for symbolism and the use of doubles in the film suggests that the terrifying woman’s transformation embodies the hotel’s evil presence in its entirety.
Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) is the youngest of our psycho biddies, but the knife-wielding woman still fits the bill. Her descent into madness happens after her son Jason — a deformed boy doted on by his overprotective mother — drowns in a lake at summer camp. Mrs. Voorhees snaps, blaming the death on the boozing and partying camp counselors who weren’t watching him in the water. She takes her revenge out on a group of campers over twenty years later, slashing them to smithereens. Mrs. Voorhees sometimes alternates using her own voice with that of her dead son, which further proves her mental instability. Don’t let the cozy grandma sweaters fool you.
Even if you have no idea what the hell happened in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, we’re giving you permission to ignore the time travel theories and talk about the “manipulated dead.” Bottom line: Patience Cleveland’s character, Roberta Sparrow, is appropriately nicknamed Grandma Death and utters things like, “Every living creature on earth dies alone.” Apart from her hair, it doesn’t get scarier than that.
Born Helena Markos, the wicked woman conspired with two other witches to slowly, but surely, take over the world. In the 1800s, she ensnared an architect to construct a house for her on the edges of Germany’s Black Forest, which was eventually turned into a prestigious ballet academy. Markos — who became known as The Mother of Sighs (Mater Suspiriorum) — remained hidden at the strange school, where she quietly orchestrated acts of evil from the shadows. A new ballerina, Suzy, begins to realize something at the dance institution isn’t quite right. Mater Suspiriorum’s ability to maintain her wealth and power as a decrepit corpse is more terrifying than her appearance.
Minnie Castevet doesn’t want to bake you cookies and tell you stories about her youth. She wants to slowly poison you in hopes that you’ll become impregnated with Satan’s love child, ushering in a new, dark age of devil-worshipping mayhem. Minnie’s exotic and eccentric lifestyle in an enviable apartment in New York City is a nice cover for the cult she pledged her loyalty to. When she belts out that crazed “Hail Satan!” at the dinner party in the film’s end, she solidified her psycho status for eternity. Beware of Minnie’s chocolate mousse, health drinks, and anything bearing tannis root.
Some widows try to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on. Other widows, like famed psycho biddy Aunt Alice (Geraldine Page) move to the desert to start a pine tree garden and fertilize it with human remains. The morose murderess felt spurned after her dead husband left her riddled with debt. She employed housekeepers to play deadly games with and fed them to the trees. Page is a perfect depiction of the cuckoo nutso characters in psycho biddy camp classics that all sported similar titles, questioning the sanity of their leading ladies.
Never underestimate a mother’s love. In the case of Tallulah Bankhead’s Mrs. Trefoile, a demented mommy will stop at nothing to bring her dead son justice. The religious lunatic Mrs. Trefoile suffered through her son’s loss, the pain of which is resurrected by his former fiancé who tries to pay her respects to the grieving woman. Mrs. Trefoile isn’t feeling very forgiving, however, and the power of Christ compels her to do some insane things to the young woman in retaliation. The Misfits thought the film was fun and spooky enough to name a song after it, if you need a further endorsement.
We know what you’re thinking: any third installment in a horror series is usually a bore, but trust us when we say that The Exorcist III is pretty damn terrifying. Not only does it feature a familiar face from the first Exorcist film, it stars an over-the-top George C. Scott as a grizzled police lieutenant. The film was also written and directed by Exorcist novelist William Peter Blatty. One of the most terrifying moments in the movie happens when several elderly patients in a hospital become possessed. We wanted to leave you with this scene where grandma goes wild… on the ceiling. Happy nightmares!