Cinema: Dragon Ladies

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Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a gruesome slice of shock therapy that, pointedly, is not a sequel to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The two films are blood relatives, as Producer-Director Robert Aldrich well knows, but Charlotte has a worse plot, more gore, and enough bitchery to fill several outrageous freak shows.

Choicest holdover from Jane is Bette Davis, unabashedly securing her claw-hold as Hollywood's grande-dame ghoul. As Miss Charlotte, Bette rummages through the psyche of a Southern belle who first appears, already acting a teeny bit strange, one memorable evening in 1927. During a ball, someone slips out to the summer house and takes a cleaver to Charlotte's married lover, who has just jilted her. First John's right hand is lopped off, then his head, never to be seen again. Anyway, not for 37 years.

Now, the creaky ante bellum mansion where Charlotte has lived in unkempt seclusion for decades has to be torn down to make way for a bridge. "Dollin' Cousin" Miriam (Olivia de Havilland) arrives to help Dr. Drew (Joseph Gotten) handle the crisis and learns firsthand that the good old days are far from over. That night, in Miriam's closet, a dress is slashed to ribbons. Soon a head rolls out of a box, a hand starts picking out tunes in the music room, and heaven only knows where a body will turn up.

Director Aldrich piles on a series of scream-in-the-night shocks, the better to batten a script strikingly short of sneakier surprises. In Charlotte's formula for terror, the nuttiest characters naturally turn out to be saner than anyone else. But there is rich menace in the dark, lushly mossy photography of Joseph Biroc, whose camera seems to have a malevolent presence of its own—a thing of shadows, catching the glint of an evil eye through the gossamer of steamed windows or sweeping up a curved balustrade that coils into the blackness below like an enormous question mark.

To make clear that the fright is all in fun, this monster rally offers not two but four seasoned movie queens—three of them ready to let down their hair, hips, waistlines, bustlines, or anything else that might suit an unseemly occasion. The tidy one is Actress de Havilland, who flings away her composure but retains her chic. As the murdered lover's widow, Mary Astor offers an ashen portrait of a woman who is not quite dead but already appears embalmed. Oscar Nominee Agnes Moorehead, as Charlotte's loyal drudge is a snarling, scratching sound-and-sight gag who seems determined to out-overact the best of them. But Bette meets the challenge in a climactic staircase scene, a horrendous ham classic. Sobbing, she crawls to the top of the steps, sees something, freezes like a psychotic spaniel, then goes howling down backward and sideways, all matted curls, eyeballs and quivering flesh. By the time she rumbles to a stop, audiences may justly wonder which apparition is scarier—Bette at the bottom or that Thing up top with the muddy feet.