‘Greta’, ‘Ma’, and the Return of the ‘Psycho-biddy’

Bette Davis was only 54 when she starred as the titular character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Joan Crawford was 58. Two middle-aged women helped kick off a sub-genre of horror ostensibly about “old” women who are either themselves imperiled, or are the source of the peril, or both. The genre’s most commonly known as “psycho-biddy,” but is alternatively known as “hagsploitation” or “Grand Dame Guignol.” I prefer the latter, being a fan of the word ‘grand,’ the Grand Guignol, and pronouncing the word “dame” as “dahm.”

The genre is decades removed from its heyday in the mid-60’s through the early 70’s, which saw multiple movies aping the Baby Jane formula pretty blatantly. Even the titles of many “GDG” movies are patterned after Baby Jane, either asking a question concerning a central character or, at least, name-dropping a character at the end of a complete statement,

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?

What’s the Matter with Helen?

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?

Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte

Dear Dead Delilah 

(That last one, which I wrote about back in this blog’s brief “Daily Horror History” phase, features the following amazing poster…)

There were, of course, other movies in the genre that didn’t go for the copycat titles. Dead Ringer and Hammer Film’s The Nanny (both starring Bette Davis), Strait-Jacket (starring Crawford, written by Robert Bloch and directed by William Castle), Fanatic (1965) Games (1967) and Night Watch (1973), are all more than worthy of a watch for any interested viewers, and in some cases represent the last hurrah of relevance for a sub-genre that couldn’t survive the post-Exorcist horror landscape.

Other movies within the genre I’ve neglected to mention tend to have an “old woman” protagonist who is solely a victim. Admittedly, I might be doing a disservice to such films as Lady in a Cage or Berserk! by being so dismissive of them, but I’m a fan of the flicks where at least one of the graying women ends up being just a bit homicidal.

While such films have shown up from time throughout the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, most were TV-movies or straight-to-video flicks that weren’t as well-made and/or didn’t have the same level of star power or behind them that the earlier movies in the genre did. I suppose Misery could count as an exception, perhaps, but Kathy Bates was only 42 when that movie came out, younger James Caan. She’s not really the “older woman” by any standard in that film.

Anyway, at long last, let’s get to the two movies inspiring this blog post. Two wide-release movies gracing our screens in 2019 starring Award-Winning actresses as dangerously psychotic older women in the title roles: Greta and Ma.

While I wish each movie was titled There’s Something You Need to Know About Greta and There’s Something Off About Ma (direct quotes from each movie’s trailer!) to really capture that throwback vibe, the trailers for both movies make it clear that these movies aren’t playing it subtle with the crazy, murderous Grande Dames. That’s just the way I like it. I’m not saying subtlety is bad, but I do believe it’s overrated. People speak of it as though it’s always the preferable option, and I don’t agree with that. If you’re going to make a movie in this sub-genre–and these movies are both firmly within the ‘psycho-biddy’ arena–a reserved, understated approach is probably not the way to go.

Related:  Perfect Rivals: Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo – TOMBSTONE

Isabelle Huppert–fresh off a slew of accolades for 2016’s Ellestars as the maniacally obsessive, manipulative and domineering Greta, which his hitting theaters a few days from the time of this writing. Octavia Spencer, also fresh off of multiple award nominations for her most recent roles in Hidden FiguresThe Shape of Water and Gifted, will play the role of the hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’, hard-murderin’ Ma. 

I’m going to be seeing both of these movies in theaters and couldn’t be pulling harder for both to succeed. The potential of resurrecting a fertile sub-genre that died off for no real reason makes me borderline giddy. The movies I listed above had certain obvious similarities, but also some very clear distinctions. Some are slasher film prototypes, some are psychological horror stories, some have more of a supernatural bent (at least at first appearance), and some are horror dramas. Some are more irreverent, some are somewhat surreal, some are brutal, and some find the horror descending into heartbreak (“You mean all this time we could’ve been friends?”). They are all different, wonderful flavors of macabre, and they give great, veteran actresses a chance to really cut loose.