Psycho-Horror Film Review
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?
By Steve Biodrowski
This sordid domestic melodrama is generally considered a borderline horror film: thanks to its aura of psychological sadism and its portrait of a demented former child star (Bette Davis) who imprisons and torments her wheelchair-bound sister (Joan Crawford), WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE earns a place in the "Horror of Personality" sub-genre that arose in the wake of PSYCHO (1960). (As if to underline the point, a neighbor is named "Mrs. Bates," after Norman's mother in the Hitchcock film). BABY JANE is also an early example of a meta-movie, in which the actual plot is mentally upstaged by our awareness of the behind-the-scenes bickering of the two aging stars. In some sense, the horror of the film resides in seeing two former queens of Hollywood reduced to playing wrinkled, angry crones - roles deliberately devoid of the glamour and appeal of their Golden Era efforts.
An opening prologue, set in the distant past, establishes the childhood rivalry between the two siblings. Later, as young adults, when an automobile "accident" puts Blanche (Crawford) in a wheelchair, the blame falls on the jealous Baby Jane (Davis). Decades later, the two live like hermits in their home, but Jane - rather unrealistically - dreams of making a comeback. She even hires a pianist (Victor Buono) to help her develop a new act. Blanche who controls the purse strings, tries to talk Jane out of her delusions, but the vengeful Jane takes away her sister's wheelchair, locks her in her room with nothing to eat but the occasional dead rat, and eventually ties her to the bed. Having learned to forge Blanche's signature, Jane is able to finance her planned comeback, but runs into trouble when their maid (Elvira Stitt) guesses that Blanche is being held prisoner. Jane kills the maid. Eventually, on the run from suspicion, Jane drives her invalid sister to the beach, where Blanch admits that she was behind the wheel of the car on the night of the fateful accident that destroyed her legs. Jane, whose memory of that night is unclear, is relieved of her lifelong guilt; as Blanche expires, Jane walks to a nearby stand and buys an ice cream, her aging face softened with a child-like wistfulness.
At 134 minutes, the pacing is rather slow, with plot points methodically laid out, but producer-director Robert Aldrich keeps the screws on tight as Jane gradually ups the ante, becoming more and more domineering and eventually homicidal. Crawford and Davis are great in their roles, and it's easy to imagine that the on-screen conflict is a reflection of the off-screen relationship between these two divas. The black-and-white photography perpetuates a wonderful mood that underlines the film's horror, which is based less on suspense than on a sense of decaying mortality and mental corruption: it's sad and disturbing to see the two famous faces, once icons of cinema glamour, now withered not only with age but also with vengeful animosity and madness.
The film's weird suggestion of a happy ending has Baby Jane absolved of guilt, as if the undeserved blame for her sister's crippling accident was the inevitable cause of everything that followed (including the murder of the black maid - which is conveniently forgotten). Fortunately, the relieved look on her face - still old, but no longer so twisted and ugly - suggests a leap into another, gentler form of madness, lending an eerie feeling to what might have seemed a silly attempt at being upbeat. In the end, this is probably not an effort that would find favor with hard-core horror fans - its place in the genre is borderline at most - but it remains a memorable classic and a fine showcase for the talents of its stars in their later years.
Also, the film launched its own series of imitators, including the unofficial follow-up HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN, and HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALAN.