Psycho-biddy is back. A resurgence in the sub-genre that originated almost 60 years ago is offering horror fans enjoyable movies driven by performances of high-profile female leads.
It is no secret that Hollywood is not kind to actresses of a certain age. Often relegated to secondary roles as mothers and grandmothers, older actresses struggle to find challenging roles that allow them to showcase their acting skills, and that’s if they are lucky to land roles at all.
In the past few months, we had two Oscar-nominated actresses starring in two very different psycho-biddy/hagsploitation films. But the sub-genre that originated with “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” in 1962 and its core thematic elements have shifted drastically in the new psycho-biddy resurgence. The first bunch of psycho-biddy films released in the ‘60s revolved around family conflict, abuse and gaslighting. The success of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” popularised a formula that studios were quick to exploit until the public grew tired of cheap unoriginal knock offs. “Greta” (2018), starring Isabelle Huppert, and “Ma” (2019), starring Octavia Spencer, move away from the formula and centre the story around intergenerational conflict and Hollywood’s new favourite mental health disorder: Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy — also seen in recent tv shows like “Sharp Objects” and “The Act“. The main characteristic of the sub-genre is no longer two blood-related characters that despise each other but murderous older women determined to ruin the lives of other younger women.
Another interesting difference in the new psycho-biddy formula is the shift of the target audience. The popularity of films like “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962), “Strait-Jacket” (1964) or “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964) was in part due to the fact that cinema goers at the time had a history with the leading actresses of these films, who once were big names in the industry but at the time didn’t enjoy the same level of success. Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were well-known respected actresses. The public was familiar with their Hollywood personas and glamorous lifestyles. But now audiences were able to watch them perform on their tv screens in the comfort of their own homes. Horror fans have a problematic relationship with female characters. We find pleasure in watching the characters persevere through terrible hardships. It was — and still is — exciting to watch well-established actresses be put through the wringer while delivering high calibre performances — and also portraying a character that is not consistent with their brand. It isn’t surprising that mature audiences who grew up watching Crawford and Davis’ films rushed to the theatre to watch these actresses play two characters so far removed from everything they have played before.
In the new psycho-biddy resurgence, however, the target audience is much younger. Greta and Ma have two main protagonists in their late teens and early twenties — played by Chloë Grace Moretz and newcomer Diana Silvers respectively — who are purposely framed as the heroines of the story. The unbalanced power dynamic between the two main characters so distinctive of this sub-genre is no longer determined by familial bonds, but by age. Our naïve heroines make the mistake of trusting a stranger. This trust is established based on the nurturing image that our villainess projects to the outside world, with the sole intention of preying on vulnerable people. There is a predatory element at play. As we know, audiences don’t seek these types of films for the protagonist but for the antagonist. The main attractions here are Huppert and Spencer’s performances, and that is what is shown on the trailers. The sub-genre has been revamped and the marketing strategy relies almost exclusively on who is cast as the villainess (which is why I think Greta flopped, Huppert is not as big as Spencer in North America). Whereas the psycho-biddy films from the ‘60s relied on having a well-known actress suffering terrible abuse by another well-known actress — both characters being selfish and flawed.
“Ma” is the latest entry in the sub-genre, and it tries hard to push the envelope, taking psycho-biddy to what could be argued as almost rape-revenge film territory. The $5M budget film is a huge financial success for Blumhouse, so who knows what the future holds for the psycho-biddy genre?
As society evolves so does cinema, and in consequence, the stories and characters portrayed on screen. We can only hope that more actresses join the psycho-biddy hall of fame and that we get to see more representation of people of colour in horror films.