When “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” premiered in 1962, it was by every expectation supposed to be a flop, a career killer for its three main players Robert Aldrich, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford. Instead, the film went on to become a raving success generally adored by critics and fans, earning Bette Davis her third Oscar nomination for Best Actress and, most importantly, making a lot of money. On a budget of $1 million, it grossed $9.5 million worldwide ($74 million in today’s dollars).
There’s a truism in Hollywood about sticking to a winning formula: If you happen to make a hit movie, figure out what worked and make more like it — and with this new blueprint for horror, that’s exactly what happened with “Baby Jane.” With its success came the inadvertent genre that became known as the psycho-biddy genre, or Hagsploitation.
Take one or two aging actresses like Crawford, Davis, Olivia de Havilland, or Shelley Winters, put them in a story about a delusional woman who goes on a killing spree of some sort, throw in a remote location and suspenseful score — and you’ve got yourself a winning movie.
The genre would last into the ‘70s, earning the studios millions and extending the careers of some of the period’s most venerable, if not fading, leading ladies. And as a lucky added perk, a number of these films were also actually good, earning critical praise and even some awards’ notice. A few of the key titles of the genre include…
‘Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte’ (1964)
The follow up to “Baby Jane,” the film was directed by Robert Aldrich and was set to star both Joan Crawford and Bette Davis again. Crawford eventually dropped out shortly after production began, and was replaced by Olivia de Havilland. The story follows an aging, reclusive Southern belle who, plagued by a horrifying family secret, descends into madness after the arrival of a lost relative.
It was another critical hit for Aldrich — and for Warner Bros., grossing $4 million at the box office and earning 7 Oscar nominations, the most for any movie of the horror genre at the time.
‘Lady in a Cage’ (1964)
Again starring Olivia de Havilland, and James Caan in his first substantial movie role, “Lady In A Cage” is the story of a woman who gets trapped in a home elevator and terrorized by a group of vicious thugs. A smaller hit for Paramount Pictures, it earned $1.6 million at the box office.
‘Straight Jacket’ (1964)
Joan Crawford’s follow up to “Baby Jane,” “Straight-Jacket” tells the tale of a mother who returns to her estranged daughter after a twenty-year stay at an asylum for a double murder. Suspicions about her behavior soon begin to strain their relationship and havoc ensues. “Straight-Jacket” earned $2.1 million at the box office for Columbia Pictures, as well as mild critic praise.
‘The Nanny’ (1965)
In Bette Davis’ third psycho-biddy film, she plays the Nanny to a British family whose son has just returned from a special boarding school for disturbed children. The young boy continues to have problems at home — but it turns out he might be justified, as Nanny has been secretly terrorizing the whole family for years. The British film was again critically well received, and earned $2 million at the US box office.
‘Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?’ (1969)
Rounding out his psycho-biddy trilogy, this Aldrich-produced film starred Geraldine Page as a down-on-her-luck widow who takes to swindling innocent housekeepers out of their money before murdering them and burying the bodies under pine trees in her yard. It would go on to earn $2 million at the box office, but actually recorded a loss once all expenses were factored in.