Saturday, 15 October 2011

The Psycho-Biddy OR Grand-Dame Guignol

The "Psycho Biddy" genre originates back to "The Grand Guignol"

The Grand Guignol operated in Paris for over sixty years and ended in 1962. It produced one-act plays of up to 40 minutes in length and was famous for it's violent works of horror.  The theatre was based in the middle of the Parisian red light district, so visitors would have to pass by prostitutes in doorways on their way through the shadowy alleyways which led to the theatre space.

(Source: Richard Hands excellent Grand Guignol books)

The alleyway leading to the Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris.

The Psycho-Biddy Genre or Grand Dame Guignol

This outstanding sub-genre is also delightfully known as 'hagsploitation' and is widely believed to be dervied from the Grand Guignol genre. 

Basically, psycho biddy offerings usually exist in film, and are often chamber pieces - neat theatrical stories concerning a woman trapped in some way, or those of a woman who has trapped somebody in some way. 

Forms a psycho-biddy can take:
  • The crone
  • The matriarch
  • The malevolent grandmother
  • The nanny
  • The woman 'past her best'
  • The terrifying and dominant psychopath

You know the sort of thing!

Psycho Biddy or Grande Dame Guignol is a fusion of two key concepts - the older woman and Grand Guignol.   The older woman is often powerful, flamboyant or eccentric.  In other words strong, present and nuts! 

When looking at the history of Psycho Biddy, we can't begin to imagine the impact that films such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) would have had when they were released. 

Psycho Biddy uses suspense, realistic violence and psychological intensity and follows in the gothic horror tradition and arguably, that of Grand Guignol - to my mind the Psycho Biddy genre keeps gothic horror and Grand Guignol alive.

Many older female performers have been redescovered in the genre and many strong female performers have made a name for themselves within it too.

These include:

  • Bette Davis
  • Joan Crawford
  • Ellen Burstyn
  • Kathy Bates
  • Barbara Stanwyck
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Shelley Winters
  • Lousie Fletcher
Psycho Biddy or Grand Dame Guignol attracts the very best performers. 

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Shortly before the release of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, an advert appeared in the Hollywood Reporter. 

It read:

“Situation Wanted, Women/Artists.  Mother of three, divorcée. American.  Thirty years experience as an actress in motion pictures.  Mobile still and more affable than rumor would have it.   Wants steady employment in Hollywood"

The advertiser was Bette Davis - the Oscar-winning star had been suffering a shortage of opportunities for nearly a decade. 

By the time her ad was published though, Baby Jane was about to be released.

Bette Davis & Joan Crawford
in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Scripted by Lukas Heller, who also wrote the screenplay for 'Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte', 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane' is set in a decaying Hollywood mansion, where Jane Hudson (Bette Davis), a former child star 'cares for' her sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), a film star forced to retire after a terrible accident, they live together in isolation.  You could chew on the tension in their relationship which in my opinion defines how sibling rivalry should be played.

As time goes by, Jane exercises greater and greater control over her sister, intercepting her letters and ensuring that nobody from the outside has any contact with her.  As Jane slowly loses her mind, she torments her sister - it is one of the greatest films of all time. 

Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte

Bette Davis
in 'Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte'

Charlotte Hollis is an aging recluse in a state of dementia brought on by horrible memories, she lives in a secluded house where, thirty-seven years before her married lover was beheaded and mutilated by an unknown assailant. 

The Night Walker

Barbara Stanwick
in 'The Night Walker'

Written by Robert Bloch, who wrote the original 'Psycho' and went on to write several Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Tales from the Darkside episodes, The Night Walker starred the sublime Barbara Stanwyk and told the story of a wealthy woman having nightmares about her jealous, blind husband who supposedly burned to death in a recent fire.

During the course of the film she tries to convince her lawyer that her nightmares are real.

The Nanny

Bette Davis & Wendy Craig
in 'The Nanny'

Scripted by Hammer Horror's Jimmy Sangster and starring the spectacular Bette Davis - who gives one of her most remarkable performances as the nanny of a British family who's spent her life caring for the children of the wealthy whilst neglecting herself.  She is trapped by a deep dark secret from her past.

Flowers in the Attic

Louise Fletcher
in 'Flowers in the Attic'

Based on the fabulous novel by Virginia Andrews, the screenplay was by Jeffrey Bloom a TV writer who'd worked on series such as Columbo.

Flowers In The Attic starred the incredible Louise Fletcher - best known for her performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (a character who could be described as a psycho biddy in her own right!) 

Flowers In The Attic tells the story of a mother, who after her husband dies takes her kids off to live with her parents in a huge old house.

However, the kids are kept hidden in a room just below the attic, visited only by their mother who becomes less and less concerned about them and their failing health, and more concerned about herself and the inheritence she plans to win back from her dying father, to the point of murder.


Kathy Bates & James Caan
in 'Misery'

With an original story by Stephen King and a screenplay by William Goldman you really can't go far wrong.  Add in Rob Reiner as the director and bring the unbelievably talented Kathy Bates to the mix and we have lift off - before we even need to mention James Caan! 

The story starts when novelist Paul Sheldon is on his way home from Colorado after completing his latest book.  He crashes his car during a blizzard and is badly injured.  He's rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes who claims to be Paul's "number one fan". 

Annie takes Paul back to her remote house in the mountains.  Unfortunately for Paul, Annie is also an absolute lunatic and when she discovers that Paul has killed off her favourite heroine in his novel, the resulting scene shatters all expectations!

Richard Hand's books:



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