Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) is one of my more vivid childhood moviegoing memories — primarily for its opening scenes involving the murder of John Mayhew (Bruce Dern). I mean, I was a seasoned moviegoer of 10 and I’d been going to the movies with my parents for as long as I could remember — longer even, since I am told I did an Elvis impression in the aisle during Loving You (1957) when I was not yet 3 (I have no memory of this). Regardless, I had never seen anyone having his hand hacked off with a meat cleaver in a movie (or any place else) until that moment. I realize now that it was relatively tastefully done, but at the time it was quite a shocker. Of course, that was the point. In fact, it was the point of the whole peculiar thriller sub-genre that had been ungallantly dubbed “horror hag” movies. I suppose the idea of casting aging movie stars in this capacity was nothing new. After all silent film stars Clara Kimball Young and Betty Compson turned up in unglamorous roles in B-horror pictures like The Rogues’ Tavern (1936) and Invisible Ghost (1941), but those movies were not sold on their presence in them. The “horror hag” movies — starting with Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) — were sold on nothing else. At bottom, they were classy (or at least expensively produced) exploitation pictures that starred faded movie stars in tawdry thrillers that were built on the idea of seeing these stars comport themselves in often grotesque character roles.
As these things go, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte comes off as a little more respectful — which is to say that 56-year-old Davis ends up looking pretty stylish, but only after a solid two hours of unkempt, over-the-top horror haggery. On the other hand, 46-year-old Olivia de Havilland was allowed to be stylishly evil all the way through. The actress was only cast after Joan Crawford left the film, and de Havilland hated the role and wasn’t proud of the film, but did it because Davis wanted her. (It’s actually much less embarrassing and tasteless than the “horror hag” film de Havilland had just made, Lady in a Cage.) The entire film was populated with old pros — Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Cecil Kellaway and Mary Astor rounded out the main characters. The plot is Southern Gothic nonsense of the finest kind. Davis is Charlotte, the aging recluse who refuses to leave the crumbling family plantation, and who lives in the belief that her late father (Victor Buono) killed her married boyfriend, John Mayhew, years and years ago. On top of this, there’s a deliciously preposterous plot to drive Charlotte insane (it wouldn’t take much). It’s one of those plots that only works if the victim just happens to behave a certain way, but it’s so much fun — and it’s done so atmospherically — that it’s hard to complain. Is it a great film? No, probably not, but it’s an effective one — and probably the best of its kind.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte Sunday, July 7, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.