I just happened to pick this title out of the box today (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out Horror 365, Movie 1). I went back and dug up something I wrote for Silver Screenings’s Great Villain Blogathon a few years ago and thought I’d retread it.
Back then, I’d mentioned how I loved all the articles I’d been seeing about “fact checking Feud.” The cruel irony is that I still haven’t seen it (and still don’t care about its accuracy/inaccuracy either). I just want to watch Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon playing Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.
If you’re a fan of Baby Jane, then Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History Of Hag Horror From Baby Jane To Mother is well worth your consideration. Grande Dame Guignol derives from what author Peter Shelley calls the “macabre shockers” of Paris’s old Grande Guignol theater company which explored “themes of suffering, insanity, vengeance, and fear of the unknown.”
Apt, isn’t it? Also provides a fine lens through which to look at What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?
Difficult to find a character in all of Grande Dame Guignol cinema who suffers like Blanche Hudson, possibly more so to find a character who measures up to Baby Jane’s towering loathsomeness. She’s a monster. Cold, treacherous, reprehensible, sadistic, conniving, vindictive, venomous.
I love her so.
She’s also delusional and paranoid which always ends well. If you read the book by Henry Farrell, you can pretty easily manage to feel genuinely bad for Jane. That doesn’t happen (at least not for me) in the movie, and that (also at least for me) is one of its many twisted little joys.
Speaking of Farrell, he also wrote the novel How Awful About Alan, the screenplay for What’s The Matter With Helen, and the story “What Ever Happened To Cousin Charlotte” (this became Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte which he co-wrote the screenplay of).
The question of insanity obviously focuses on Jane and her alcohol-fueled delusions and provides some of the hands-down creepiest moments in the film, as when she sings “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy.” No no, not the part with the sleazy-as-hell Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono). The part where she sings it to the doll, catches sight of herself in the mirror, and shrieks.
The idea of vengeance is deliciously convoluted in terms of role reversal. Who is truly responsible for what? Blanche’s career basically had to carry Jane’s. This reaches a breaking point, and Blanche attempts to eliminate her burden by killing her sister. Not only does the attempt fail, it backfires, paralyzing Blanche and putting her in the care (and at the mercy) of Jane.
Conversely Jane’s vengeance builds as she finds new ways to torment Blanche mentally and emotionally, her resentment fueled by a revival of interest in Blanche’s old movies. Hearken unto the eternal question, “Y’know we got rats in the cellar?”
The abuse soon becomes physical which is, of course, the final, brutal irony. Turns out there’s a perspective from which poor, defenseless Blanche was the heartless, vindictive one who had it all coming to her.
Fear Of The Unknown (more spoilers)
This is the foundation on which everything rests. In the book, Jane is an emotional, booze-addled wreck. She can barely hold herself together, let alone recall and maintain all the fictions she has erected. In the movie, she has a bit more control (sometimes only marginally more, but still, more).
Either way, she will maintain her personal fictions at any cost.
It’s interesting that in both book and movie, Jane’s actions often stem from panic rooted in fear of the unknown. She knows Blanche is considering selling the house but doesn’t know what that means for her which in turn feeds her raging paranoia. Elvira, the housekeeper, discovers Blanche bound and gagged. Jane doesn’t know what that will result in, so she kills her.
Sadly, an even more guignol-esque assault only takes place in the book when Jane attempts to run Edwin down with her car and leaves him for dead (again because he knows too much, and she doesn’t know what he will do with that knowledge or what the consequences will be).
Kid Stuff Is Creepy
Specifically, kid stuff out of context is a little uncanny valley. Empty cribs, cradles, or carriages in abandoned houses. Toys in odd places. Damien or the kids in Village Of The Damned in their little suits (in general children looking and/or acting like adults or vice versa). This is why Jane’s “Now when I’m very good” poem remains one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen.
In terms of child-related delusion, Jane totters back and forth constantly between performance and regression and is capable of horrible lashing out when her grown-up body is driven by a tantrum-throwing child’s psyche.
Finally, I gotta wonder if this isn’t the adult adult Rhoda Penmark might have grown up to be.