Suddenly, Last Summer: Southern Gothic Guignol?

This post is part of the Spencer Tracy And Katharine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by
 In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

Several movie nerd friends of mine insist Suddenly, Last Summer is not a horror movie.

It pains me when my friends are spectacularly wrong.

How is Suddenly, Last Summer not a horror movie? Way back in August 2016, I talked about Barbara Crampton and Sun Choke as a great current example of the genre. At the other end, can’t  Suddenly Last Summer be seen as a forerunner to such Grande Dame Guignol classics as Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

In fact, just for the hell of it, let’s take a look at the same list of requirements from Sun Choke, shall we?

1)  Older (not necessarily elderly) and/or more physically and/or mentally able woman left to care for younger and/or less physically and/or mentally able woman

Check. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is a widow who has recently lost her son, Sebastian. Now, this is a Tennessee Williams play, so you already know to expect a weird sexual undercurrent. Suddenly, Last Summer is no exception. In this case, that twisted little triangle involves Violet, Sebastian, and Violet’s niece, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor).

What we find out in bits and pieces is that Violet and Sebastian were nigh inseparable until the summer Sebastian died. That was the summer he traveled Europe with Catherine instead of darling mother. Why?

Well, it seems that Violet acted as “bait” for Sebastian. Essentially he was borderline pimping her out to lure attractive young men to himself. When Violet’s success in these endeavors began to flag, he swapped her out for Catherine. Damn I love Tennessee Williams.

2) More capable woman tries to make/keep the less capable woman insane/incapacitated

Check. Sebastian and Catherine’s trip ends in Catherine witnessing Sebastian’s murder which causes her to have a breakdown and lose the memory of his death which has since been attributed to a heart attack. When the movie begins, Catherine is still institutionalized and routinely infantilized.

Violet, meanwhile, has been following the practice of Dr. Cukrowicz, and expert in the performance of lobotomies. Violet wants him to operate on Catherine before Catherine is able to recall what actually happened to Sebastian.

3) Mysterious backstory

Check. We don’t know exactly what brought events to this state. For a while anyway. In this case, it all revolves around the shadowy manner in which Sebastian actually died.

4) Power struggle in which the victim makes several attempts to assert her independence

Check. Catherine becomes increasingly uncooperative and confrontational. She is the one who first reveals how she and Violet “procured” for Sebastian.

5) At least one murder

Check. In this case, only one, but it’s a hell of a reveal. Like Sun Choke does later, Suddenly, Last Summer takes a hard left. Warning: if you want to find out for yourself, stop reading here.

When Sebastian’s charade goes horribly wrong, he ends up being pursued by a gang of poverty and hunger-stricken locals, among whom were some of the very lads he attempted to seduce.

The chase ends in a ruined temple where Sebastian is torn apart and, uh, devoured. By a pack of young men. At a place called Cabeza de Lobo, or Head Of The Wolf.

How’s that for a guignol moment?

Again, damn I love Tennessee Williams.

Like Irma in Sun Choke, like Baby Jane Hudson, and like Nurse Ratched, Violet Venable is pure, cold, heartless evil. She refuses to let go of the past (another Grande Dame Guignol feature) or give up her illusions/delusions about Sebastian and is perfectly willing to have Catherine’s brain cut into in order to maintain them.

A good friend of mine and fellow movie geek said, “That movie is such a mess. I love it!” I’m not sure I completely agree, but I can see her point. Ultimately, however, Hepburn and Taylor are imminently watchable. Taylor devours her share of the scenery, sure.

But it’s Hepburn who ends up with some of the finest lines: “I stand accused of generosity,” or, when asked, by her sleazy nephew, George, “Aunt Vi, what do you think I am?” her reply is, “On that subject, George, my lips are sealed.”

I’ve said it before, I know, but damn I love Tennessee Williams.

8 thoughts on “Suddenly, Last Summer: Southern Gothic Guignol?

  1. I haven’t thought of the film by in this way, but it certainly gives me chills! And, wow, you really make a point here with your article. Who would have thought that Suddenly, Last Summer and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane were connected like this?
    Cheers!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. What made me think of it was Peter Shelley’s book Grande Dame Guignol Cinema. He doesn’t deal specifically with this movie, but I think it belongs in that category.

      Like

  2. Yup, you sold me. “Suddenly, Last Summer” is creepy at best and horrifying at worst. I agree it’s Grande Dame Guignol with a southern accent and crisp, white gloves.

    I’m not sure I could ever watch this movie again. Aside from that one terrifying event in the film, it’s so SO sad.

    Liked by 1 person

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