Every Wednesday, Calhoun Kersten digs deeper into the canon of horror cinema in The Bloody Truth.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is the type of horror movie you have to see to believe. Mainly because, even today, horror has such a reputation that it’s hard to find any room for interpretation. See, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? doesn’t have a masked killer or a menacing presence lurking in the shadows. The most horrific part about it is its total lack of most of the characteristics of what we’ve come to expect from the genre.
One of the main reasons for this is the lack of a clear villain. Although the movie focuses predominantly on Jane’s (Bette Davis) torture of her invalid sister Blanche (Joan Crawford), it becomes clear as the movie progresses that neither of these women are entirely innocent. Still, it is Jane’s abusive and wildly erratic behavior that, as sick as it may sound, makes the film such a delight to watch. A great deal of that could be attributed to the actresses and their real-life hatred of one another, but there’s something about the way that the film plays out that owes more to the chemistry, or lack thereof, on the two leading ladies’ parts. No, it’s clearly more than that. Jane’s hysterics are so perfectly played in the most melodramatic manner that it’s hard not to smile when she gets that scowl on her face. As for Blanche, she’s admittedly the one that audiences are supposed to identify with and relate to, but she’s so meek that it’s hard to get any strong emotional reaction from the character. It works for the role, but she ends up being far more pitiable than relatable.
Then again, the irony of the movie is made far more enjoyable with a little bit of Hollywood history. Hollywood is littered with so many stories about Davis and Crawford’s bitter rivalry that it’s almost impossible to tell fact from fiction. Still, their mutual contempt is clear enough in various accounts that it’s hard to imagine that someone could possibly make up that much about the two women. Furthermore, for those who haven’t seen Mommie Dearest, let me fill you in on a little something. Joan Crawford was notoriously abusive, so the fact that she plays the victim of an abusive family member after what she did to her own children is particularly laughable.
That being said, that’s what most of what What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? boils down to: laughability. I wish I could claim that the movie didn’t take itself seriously, but it takes itself so deadly seriously that it comes across as pure, unadulterated camp. Still, this doesn’t mean that the movie is without its horrific moments. There are a number of them, but in the end time has not been kind to this film. With the strong tones of melodrama and an undercurrent of horror, on top of a well-documented feud between the stars, What Ever Happened to baby Jane?, much like its titular character, has seen better days.