As American cinema entered the 1960s, a curious trend arose of big stars from the past getting cast in camp horror movies, as though Old Hollywood itself were by then something of a haunted house. And thus, with 1964’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, came the delicious idea to take Bette Davis (from Jezebel (1938)) and Olivia de Havilland (from Gone with the Wind (1939)) and cast them as two ex-debutante hellcats duking it out in a crumbling Southern mansion full of terrors. The director was the great Robert Aldrich, and he had been in this territory before, with the similarly morbid battle of wits—who can be trusted? who is insane?—in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Sweet Charlotte is something of Baby Jane‘s homicidally jealous younger sister, a B-side mystery with meat cleavers, severed hands, and poor Bruce Dern meeting a sorry fate.
To that, you can throw in Joseph Cotten, doing an uncharacteristically hammy performance the way a pro pitcher might let his son win at tee-ball, and you have the new kind of self-conscious cult cinema that was capturing the imagination. At 133 minutes, it’s a bit long and convoluted for this sort of thing. But Aldrich exercises wonderful control over the stormy set-pieces and the ghoulish sense of humor, and the film’s head isn’t empty. It’s a game of movie star personas about the perils of being (in)famous, elevated because such talents would stoop to the material. And its narrative trap snaps shut with the glorious payoff of Bette Davis doing a demented version of walking the red carpet. I’ll take it over Scarlet O’Hara any day.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.