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." In her review in the New York Times for the 1968 film, The Anniversary, Renata Adler referred to the genre as "the Terrifying Older Actress Filicidal Mummy genre," adding that "the genre isn't that distinguished after all."
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. Science fiction and Western films have also been part of the genre. However, 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. In some cases, the woman may be in jeopardy of some sort, with another party attempting to drive her to mental instability. 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.
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The genre began in 1962 with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? directed by Robert Aldrich. 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. The 1950 Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard shares many thematical[which?] and plot similarities[which?] with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and can be seen as a precursor to the genre.
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. At the end of the film, Blanche makes a confession which details and admits of her own complicity in the whole affair. The film was quite successful, garnering Academy Award nominations, including one for Davis.
Crawford then starred in director and producer William Castle's Strait-Jacket (1964) as Lucy Harbin, the accused 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 begins, 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 a hyped, somewhat exaggerated feud. But genuine mutual dislike between the two actresses led to Crawford bowing out. She was replaced by Olivia de Havilland, who knew how to get along with Davis. Veteran actresses Agnes Moorehead and Mary Astor also appeared in the film.
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 (De Havilland) and her doctor, the cousin's lover (Joseph Cotten). In this movie, Davis's character is again haunted by guilt, though this time the ante is upped: instead of believing herself responsible for a crippling, she believes 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.
Mad Magazine poked fun at the genre in 1966 with a movie musical satire entitled "Hack, Hack Sweet Has-Been -or Whatever Happened to Good Taste?"
Wealth is a more prominent theme than revenge in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969). Claire Marrable (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 the corpses in her garden. The corpses apparently make the ground quite fertile, and it's not until the third cleaning woman drops out of sight that someone (Ruth Gordon) begins to suspect something is amiss. Gordon applies to be Page's maid to figure out what happened to her friend, the third maid. The movie has a certain status as a cult classic, and is fairly well-regarded.
What's the Matter with 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 Loeb like murder and the two mothers are on the run from a man who threatens to kill them in revenge. The eponymous Helen (Winters), an increasingly unstable and violent religious fanatic and repressed lesbian, may have murdered her husband years before (and possibly led to her son's criminal behavior). Helen's increasing obsession with her roommate, Adelle (Reynolds) leads to a graphically violent climax, which would recur in future excursions into the genre.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) has only one older woman (Mrs. Forrest aka Auntie Roo, played by Shelley Winters) featured prominently in the cast. A young orphan becomes a surrogate in the troubled woman's mind for her own long-dead daughter. Roo visits the mummified remains in her daughter's bedroom. The themes of deep-seated past guilt and youth are explored. The story is a variant of the Hansel and Gretel theme; however, unlike the witch in the story, Roo is seriously unstable, as well as subject to con-artist clairvoyants and blackmailing servants. She tries to keep the young orphan girl with her, as the girl reminds her of her daughter, but the girl and her brother fight back, and are quite cunning, having stolen, by the film's end, the woman's valuable jewelry. Roo dies in a fire the children set while trying to escape.
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 with Tallulah Bankhead.
-  Nastasi, Alison. "The Scariest Psycho Biddies in Cinema." Flavorwire. Oct. 9, 2012.
- New York Times review
- Shelley, Peter (2009) Grande Dame Guignol Cinema McFarland and Company, Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London
- "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.