In the 1960s, film legend Bette Davis found her career fortunes start to wane, so tongue-in-cheek, she put out an ad in the trade paper Variety, looking for work. She started to get work in thrillers and horror films and she jokingly referred to herself as “Boris Karloff in skirts.” Her best work of this period in her career, 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is considered a classic in the Grande Guignol genre. In his excellent scholarly book, Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother, Australian film scholar Peter Shelley uses the phrase “Grande Dame Guignol cinema” (coined by actor/writer Charles Busch) – referring to horror films that feature leading ladies, usually stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood who, by the 1960s, are no longer inundated with work. Along with Davis, other once-in demand actresses like Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, Shelly Winters, and Lauren Bacall found work and leading parts by screaming, emoting, mugging, and being tortured in violent thrillers. Despite the high-caliber of Baby Jane, the genre as a whole is much-maligned and most of the films are considered cheap, exploitative, and misogynistic. While Shelley isn’t blind to the genre’s inherent issues, his book takes another look, with an appreciation for the films covered.
The book starts off with two excellent essays, the preface and the introduction. His grasp on cinema and its conventions and history is commendable, and he gives context to the films he later profiles by giving readers a surprisingly deep look at the horror movie genre. He also digs for the origin of the psycho biddy or horror hag archetype looking at female characters in classic horror films from the silent era. He looks at the creation of the vamp and its roots in sexism and xenophobia. He moves through film history, creating a base from which the Grande Dame Guignol genre sprouted.
It makes complete sense that Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is the first entry in the book. The film was a macabre, Southern Gothic duel between Davis and Crawford – both screen legends, far past their respective salad days. Shelley writes a pointed and thoughtful analysis of the movie, including some important notes of history. Despite the potential for gossip and juicy dish, Shelley remains clear-headed and avoids any kind of gleeful tale-telling; instead, he treats his subject with respect and an intellectual curiosity. Along with his insightful notes, he also includes contemporary reviews
He gives equal time and thought to the other entries – some like Aldrich’s follow-up to Baby Jane, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) that reunited the director with Bette Davis, deserve the weighty dissection, others like the Shelly Winters/Debbie Reynolds shocker What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) are little more than just cheapo slasher pics. Shelley writes “Some have criticized the Grande Dame Guignol films for being exploitative of their lead actresses…who in these movies were purposely and perversely presented in an unflattering light.” The author doesn’t necessarily agree with this popular assessment, and presents a book thick with evidence he presents to support his argument. His support of the genre lays in the idea that these actresses weren’t necessarily debasing themselves, but in fact, were showing hidden talents; it’s a tough argument to make when looking at junk like Edward Bianchi’s execrable 1981 schlocky Lauren Bacall vehicle, The Fan.
It’s obvious from the careful research and spirited prose, that Shelley loves film. He comes up with a great list of films, though once he starts to move toward the 1980s to the 2000s, it’s clear that the genre eventually became obsolete. His inclusion of Rob Reiner’s 1990 take on Stephen King’s Misery is a bit of a head-scratcher: even though in its bare bones, the film follows some of the conventions of the other films profiled, Kathy Bates’ casting throws a wrench into the discussion because she isn’t a once-great star (in fact, Bates won an Oscar and became a big Hollywood A-lister as a result of the film). It’s also surprising that for his diligence in including more recent work, he chooses to ignore Jonathan Darby’s 1998 tawdry thriller Hush (with star Jessica Lange doing her best Bette Davis impression); and while not a horror film, Frank Perry’s gross 1981 Joan Crawford biopic, Mommie Dearest would fit right in, due to Faye Dunaway’s operatic and grotesque performance.
Film scholarship can fall into a trap of overdosing on jargon, alienating lay people. Shelley’s work is intellectual, but accessible. What’s great about Grande Dame Guignol Cinema is that not only does he cover some classics, but he writes about more obscure flicks, as well. And despite his affection for film and the movies he’s covering, he doesn’t obscure that some of these movies can be crap (there’s no way to defend Joan Crawford’s last movie, Trog). Film fans are encouraged to pick up this excellent book.
Click here to buy Peter Shelley’s Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother on amazon.com.