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(Essay) The Horror Genre: ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?'

“Sister, sister, oh so fair, why is there blood all over your hair?” :

A Look into ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ and the Horror Genre.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? tells the story of two ageing sisters; Jane, a washed up Vaudeville child star and Blanche, a former movie actress, who share an intense hatred of one another. Blanche becomes a paraplegic after a mysterious car accident, leaving Jane to become her full time carer. The story develops as a grotesque psychological horror, as Jane exploits her position to torture Blanche both mentally and physically.

Staring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the film was released in 1962, was directed and produced by Robert Aldrich and adapted from the book of the same title by Henry Farrell. It forms the basis of my research and analysis of the Horror Genre and its development in the 1960’s.

As a director, Robert Aldrich was a master of Hollywood genres. He is most well known however for his Westerns, Dramas and Film-Noir, most notably The Big Knife (1955), Autumn Leaves (1956), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and of course What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), his debut and one of only two horror films he would direct. [1]

The roots of the horror genre can be traced back to the German Expressionist era with films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) [2] and Nosferatu (1922), the first notable horror film. Many conventions of German Expressionism such as chiaroscuro, themes of insanity, paranoia or obsession, evil characters, over the top performance and stylized sets [3] (in the form of complex architectural design), where adopted by the horror genre. In it’s early years horror consisted of mainly creature features, it wasn’t until the horror revival of the 1960’s that the genre developed, with films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) spawning a new wave of horror sub-genres.

So why did the 60’s provide the perfect conditions to cultivate the genre? In 1962, Bobby ‘Boris’ Picket’s Monster Mash topped the Billboard Chart and Horror mania ensued. More importantly though, Horror films are a byproduct of sociological fears and although it may not be the filmmaker’s intention to do so, horror films often reflect the era in which they were made. The 60’s saw radical social changes and political developments such as the Vietnam War, the escalation of the Cold War, the erection of the Berlin Wall and the second wave of the feminist movement. [4] Influence of these events can be found in many horror films of the decade, including What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Looking at the storyline and its themes, it will quickly become apparent that the film either reflects or provides new insight into social issues. The first thing you will probably notice is that the films two central characters are both financially independent women who never married and never bore children. This could be interpreted as a statement on the feminist movement of the 60’s, when the number of women exchanging the role of the housewife for a paid job outside of the home increased, the contraceptive pill was introduced and the number of children born to American women began to decrease. [4]

Sub-textually, it also explored the dark underbelly of Hollywood and the pressures of working within the industry. This theme would have been more obvious to audiences at the time of the films release, with the death of Marilyn Monroe still fresh in people’s minds. [4]

However, Ageism in the film industry is probably the most prevalent theme of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, as the deluded former child star strives to revive her public image. In this context the film can almost be viewed as a satire of aging Hollywood starlets. Like Jane, women in Hollywood during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s struggled to find work after the age of 40, including both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford themselves.

With the film achieving great success, Aldrich followed up Baby Jane with Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte (1964). Again Bette Davis was cast as the title role, where she reprised her delusional, obsessive, child like characteristics in creepy fashion. Aldrich’s duology coupled with Davis’ memorable performances spawned an entire horror sub-genre, the ‘Horror Hag’ (also know as Grande Dame Guignol), giving additional opportunities to older actresses. [4] “When Bette Davis adopted the mask of a sadistic hag to conduct a reign of Grande-Guignol terror against her crippled sister in What Ever Happened to Jane?, she tilted melodrama into the realm of horror film, eliding to genres which at their outer limits, often overlap”. [5] Although the genre seemed to fizzle out after the 60’s, there were some exceptions to the rule including Rob Reiner’s 1990 classic Misery and more recently Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (2009).

There are many other political and social issues that can be found in the subtext of this film. The effects of McCarthyism were still being felt in the early 60’s and could be identified with the inquisitive and somewhat paranoid speculations of Jane and Blanche’s neighbours. The Berlin Wall could be seen in the implied spatial segregation between Blanche upstairs and Jane downstairs or in the emotional wall that separated the two sisters. Finally the Vietnam War was often referred to as the TV war [4], as people were able to see the face of the enemy for the first time. This could indeed be the very event that helped to move the horror genre from a catalogue of creature features to a new wave of human terror.

Aldrich’s experience in Noir is easily identified in this film with his use of oblique and vertical lines, abstract visual composition and daytime scenes that are lit for night. Throughout my research I have found What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is often compared with Sunset Blvd due to somewhat similar storylines, [6] however, I believe a comparison with Hitchcock’s Psycho to be more valid. Both directors employed similar production techniques. The use of extreme lighting contrasts, or chiaroscuro is not only a convention of German Expressionism as mentioned before, but also one of the horror genre and both of these films use it in spades. The high and low camera angles used by Aldrich in Baby Jane also seem to mirror those of Hitchcock in Psycho, particularly the scenes that take place around the staircase. In fact the entire Baby Jane set almost seems to have been lifted from Psycho. Finally both directors used sound design to maximum effect in their films. Who can forget the jagged high pitches of the Psycho shower scene? Aldrich however adopts a subtler and in my opinion more effective approach to sound. The continuous use of the song ‘I've written a letter to Daddy’ not only provides a nostalgic sub-text, but with repeated use becomes a horrific anthem, thanks largely in part to Davis’ eerie performance. Aldrich repeated this technique with much success in Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte, using the song of the same name.

The film chronologically leaps forward through the decades in order to provide a vast back-story for the two sisters. In doing so, the audience is able to completely grasp the complicated relationship and apply meaning to Blanche’s hatred towards Jane. Jane’s hatred of Blanche seems precarious after witnessing conversations in the flashback that allude to Blanche’s compassionate nature prior to the car accident. Having believed that she is responsible for the accident, Jane becomes Blanche’s carer, however her jealousy eventually causes her to become insane and become Blanche’s tormenter. The ironic twist in the end is that Blanche was the cause of her own demise.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? no doubt owes its success in part to Aldrich casting Davis and Crawford, whose real life rivalry was well known. This animosity between the actresses translated to a completely believable and utterly intense on screen hatred. I have encountered several times the tale of the physical violence inflicted on Crawford by Davis, whilst filming the scene where Jane kicks Blanche as she lies helplessly on the ground, but I have yet to find sufficient documentation to prove this.

Although it seems as though Aldrich played by the rules of Horror, he in fact broke many of its traditional conventions. Firstly, the male figures of both Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte are presented as bumbling sidekicks; Edwin Flagg in Baby Jane and DR. Drew in Sweet Charlotte. Secondly, Aldrich choses to deny audiences the complete visual of murder or even attempted murder. In Baby Jane, the car accident is never actually seen, only ever implied and neither Velma’s nor Blanche’s dead body is ever seen, which has consequently left audiences speculating if Blanche is indeed dead or merely close to it. In Sweet Charlotte, John is dismembered but the audience never sees his dead body. Lastly, the introduction of a new setting at the end of Baby Jane may be successful in providing a contrast between the claustrophobic setting of the house and the inviting open space of the beach, but it breaks the horror convention of ending either where the film began or where the antagonist is brought to their demise, which is usually always where the majority of the film took place.

In conclusion, my research has shown that genre progression usually occurs during great social or political movements, that breaking conventions also brings forth change and that Hollywood genres tend to borrow conventions from one another in order to develop and expand. Furthermore, through conducting this research I have learned to delve more deeply into the subtext of films and look more closely at the techniques employed by directors, which I hope will assist me in producing more creative films.



[1] WEB: Robert Aldrich; IMDB, Amazon, 2014

[2] BOOK: Borden, D. Duijsens, F. Gilbert, T. Smith, A (2009, pg. 94-96)

FILM A World History. Hardie Grant Publishing.

[3] WEB: Dupaix, A. Hansen, K. Knight, J. Montaño, N. Palm, W. Risenhoover, M. Rivas, T. Stephens, I. Webster, A.

Film 110: Introduction to Film History and Aesthetics. Westminster College. 2010.

[4] BOOK: Clark, M. Senn, B. (2011, pg. 5, 8, 9, 13, 14, 420)

Sixties Shockers: A Critical Filmography of Horror Cinema, 1960-1969. McFarland.

[5] BOOK: McNally, P. (2008, pg. 80-81)

Bette Davis The Performances That Made Her Great. McFarland.

[6] BOOK: Beare, E. (2007, pg. 180)

501 Must-See Movies. Bounty Books.


Nosferatu (1922)

Psycho (1960)

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962)

Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte (1964)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

The Big Knife (1955)

Autumn Leaves (1956)

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Misery (1990)

Drag Me To Hell (2009)


BOOK: Braudy, L. Cohen, M. (2004, pg. 680-690, 691-702, 742-763, 764-773)

Film Theory and Criticism. Oxford University Press.

BOOK: Eiss, J. (2010, pg287)

500 Essential Cult Movies The Ultimate Guide. Ilex Press.

BOOK: Karney, R. (1995)

Chronicle of the Cinema 100 Years of the Movies. Dorling Kindersley.

BOOK: Emanuel, S. (1995)

Cinema is 100 Years Old. Thames and Hudson.

WEB: Ebert, Roger. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Film Review; Roger Ebert, 2008.

WEB: Ashlin, S. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962); Scott Ashlin, 2014.

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