Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Magic, The Wicker Man, and American Gothic.
In honor of autumn fast approaching, these moody movies steeped in madness, torture, and murder. Dark, offbeat films that play for keeps, each features an absence of the supernatural, minimal special effects, and an absence of the villain as hero. Common to all four stories is the need for meaning, and human connection, the fear of time, and of being alone.
Also, dolls. Grand Guignol—that French Gothic theater and arch, ominous style--means “big puppets,” and each of these films deals with puppets in weird ways worth checking.
In Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Bette Davis and Joan Crawford play sisters living in a rotting LA mansion. The Davis character, a former child star called Baby Jane Hudson, was herself a sort of puppet. And used a doll in her routine. But that was many years ago, and now her routine consists of taking care of the wheelchair-bound sister she resents.
As Corkey in Magic (1978), Anthony Hopkins plays a bottled-up character destined to pop. Like Baby Jane with her doll, Corkey’s ventriloquist dummy Fats resembles him, and serves effectively as his manikin. The doll-self, ageless and frozen in a fixed role, accentuates the predicament of the puppeteer.
From Heart of Darkness to Deliverance, the further away from civilization the greater the predicament, as well. The same holds true for The Wicker Man (1973) and American Gothic (1988). In the dark roots found at the extremities, traditions of violent sacrifice await, and a curious mix of “You shouldn’t be here” combines with “Stay with us forever.”
In all four movies the element of hanging onto something longer than should be held is crucial. The policeman played by Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man—itself a giant sort of doll—finds the people of Summer Isle hanging onto some mighty strange old ways. The yuppies in American Gothic similarly uncover an antiquated family when they find themselves stranded on a Pacific Northwest island.
Absence of villain as hero. What generally drags horror movies down is the mistaken idea that slashing equals horror. It is a rite of passage to laugh and eat treats while watching movie murders, the grislier the better. That’s why most of those movies are boring. What makes these four films work is the uncommon focus on story. That allows for interesting characters, which in turn fuels some legendary performances.
Davis and Hopkins both give some of the best performances ever seen on film. Perhaps only Peter Lorre in M has the breakdown moment to rival scenes in Baby Jane and Magic. For Christopher Lee, the name most associated with film horror of any in these selections, Wicker Man is arguably the best role of his career—and he did the movie entirely for free.
That’s how good.
Rod Steiger playing Pa in American Gothic is a solid choice. He brings a ton of character to Pa when he lets one eyelid droop a little while speaking. Like he just got whacked in the head with a pan. But Yvonne De Carlo as Ma. Sephora from The Ten Commandments meets Mrs. Munster. Now that’s inspired casting.
Stewart Kirby writes for
Stewart Kirby writes for